The Jeff Awards History
The Jeff Awards has been honoring outstanding theatre artists annually since it was established in 1968. With up to 50 members representing a wide variety of backgrounds in theatre, the Jeff Awards is committed to celebrating the vitality of Chicago area theatre by recognizing excellence through its recommendations, awards, and honors. The Jeff Awards fosters the artistic growth of area theatres and theatre artists and promotes educational opportunities, audience appreciation, and civic pride in the achievements of the theatre community. The Jeff Awards evaluates over 250 theatrical productions and holds two awards ceremonies annually. Originally chartered to recognize only Equity productions, the Jeff Awards established the Non-Equity Wing in 1973 to celebrate outstanding achievement in non-union theatre.
The Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee evolved in response to a search by Chicago actors for a way to honor local theatre talent. In 1968, the Midwest Advisory Committee of Actors' Equity appointed member Felix Shuman to find a means of gaining recognition for actors working in the city. Joined by actors Guy Barile, Aviva Crane and June Travis Friedlob, Shuman identified and recruited twenty-four individuals active in education, business and social affairs. These individuals originally met for a luncheon at the Ivanhoe Theatre and went on to become the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee under the first Chairmanship of Henry G. Plitt. Among the original members were three theatre supporters who would be active Jeff members two decades later—Morton Ries, Judith Sagan and Joseph Wolfson. The charter of the Jeff Committee today continues to honor excellence in the Chicago theatre community.
The current Joseph Jefferson Committee consists of up to 50 men and women with varying backgrounds in theatre, but united by an active interest and concern. They come to the committee with an academic background in theatre, significant professional experience, a history of theatre involvement, and/or years of consistent theatre attendance in Chicago and in other major theatre capitals of the world. A volunteer, non-profit organization, The Jeff Committee does not have specific terms for its members. However, members must meet specific judging standards and can vote on the final ballot each season only if they have met their responsibilities for that complete year. While many of the judges have retained long-standing membership histories, a few rotate off each year as new members are invited to join the committee.
The first annual Jeff Awards ceremony was held in the Guildhall of the Ambassador West Hotel on October 6, 1969. It was attended by 175 people. Six awards were bestowed on the productions of seven theatres. In 1973 the Awards night was first telecast by CBS. During that same year, the Jeff Committee extended its coverage and recognition to include the productions of non-Equity theatres through the creation of a Non-Equity Wing of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee. Only five non-Equity theatres had productions judged in that first season, and three awards were presented the following fall. Currently these awards are given at a separate Non-Equity Wing Awards Night each spring.
The Jeff Awards Committee has always endeavored to respond to the needs of the Chicago theatre community and to match its evolution to that of the theatres which it serves. The Committee does not endorse the use of the words best or winner. There are no losers in the Chicago theatre community, and Jeff recipients are cited for outstanding achievement rather than the more competitive notion of best.
Each year at the request of the theaters, the members of Jeff Committee see the Jeff-eligible, locally produced shows. They nominate and eventually select recipients "for outstanding achievement" in the following categories: Production, Director, Actor and Actress in a Principal Role, Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role, in the two categories of Plays and Musicals. Awards are also given for Production, Direction, Actor and Actress in a Revue, and Cameo Performance, as well as Ensemble, Choreography, Scenic Design, Lighting Design, Costume Design, Original Music, Musical Direction, Sound Design, New Work and Adaptation. On occasion, special awards are given for achievements, accomplishments, or services in other areas of the theatre. Award recipients are determined by secret ballot.