Guidance for Offies Assessors – Special

SPECIAL: IDEA / Opera / TYA

IDEA: Performance / Design / Production

(Immersive / Devised / Experimental / Atypical)

The IDEA award is often described as a theatrical experience that cannot be categorised. It may be more helpful to define the IDEA award by looking at what it is not:

  • It is not a play (although it may have elements which make a play i.e. striking characters, a narrative, etc.).
  • It is not a musical or opera (although there may be musical elements to it). 
  • It is not a dance show (although it may use physical theatre).
  • It is not a cabaret, circus or revue (although it may use this medium as an umbrella for the show).
  • It is also NOT a work in development (unless this is the concept of the piece).

It could

  • be a unique experience for each audience member.
  • be different every night.
  • be multi sensory.
  • be set somewhere unexpected/unusual.
  • be immersive, asking the audience to choose their own path through it.
  • have audience participation.
  • be gender bending.
  • be a digital or physical experience where no actors are involved at all.
  • use mime or puppetry.
  • defy every genre of storytelling.
  • merge an entirely new genre of story/theatre

With all of these ‘it could be’s, remember… it also could not. Confused yet?

The IDEA category breaks boundaries, in content, in narrative – possibly even in creation, but most importantly in its execution. From women dressed as foxes dubbing over videos of Londoners, to backwards nursery rhymes told by a dinosaur puppet in a park, to a silent game show where you are the prize, IDEA is weird and wonderful in every possible way and quite often gives a unique experience to each audience member. It is ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO DEFINE, and it is often not one thing that defines it. If you feel the production / experience challenges what you consider to be theatre, and successfully moves or interests you through not what is said, but how it is said and how you experience it, you are probably onto an IDEA.

The shows inspire huge debate within the small dedicated team of IDEA Assessors, who are a group kept separate from the other categories. The team is comprised of theatre-makers, critics, journalists and editors where the debates are often academic and analytical. 

Our IDEA shows are very rarely found in West End or in larger venues (there are some exceptions; the Southbank centre in particular, as well as the National and the Barbican have been known to host these shows). Out of all the categories IDEA encapsulates everything great about Off West End; The opportunity to allow creatives to push the boundaries, be daring and try something a bit different that hasn’t been done before.

As one assessor once said:

“It’s our mission to recognise performance that provides a rewarding and challenging “alternative night out”, and by god we shall!” I may paraphrase…

Example winners 

HUG: The audience are blindfolded are hugged by members of the cast – all singing, creating a multi sensory experience through the sounds of the voices, the vibrations of the bodies in song and the closeness of a stranger in a cold city.

YOUARENOWHERE: Described as a ‘rapid-fire existential meditation … blend (ing) physics lecture and pop culture to create a sensory overload…’ Youarenowhere refuses definition even in title. The key here forcing the audience to question their place in time, space and the universe. 

OPERA: Performance / Production

In an ideal world, the best opera productions are those which combine all the ingredients of theatre and music to create something unique and moving and where the reduction of size and cutting of the piece does not affect the overall pleasure and enjoyment of the production. It is most likely that the operas will be the well-known ones which are then adapted for a smaller space. There are some companies producing new work and they are possibly easier to assess because they will come with no operatic baggage. I think the most important points to be considered are:

  • Musical standards: these can vary enormously but as it is opera it is important to take these into account from the start. This doesn’t mean that every singer has to be superb – they will be young and at the beginning of their careers – but if it is hand over ears time then probably not worthy of an award. The same applies for the accompaniment – this can be a small ensemble or a piano, or piano plus another instrument or two. Whatever it is must be done well technically and musically, and be at one with the singers.
  • Production: it is a challenge for any director to put on an opera in a small place and for the whole thing to hang together satisfactorily. Everything that makes up a good theatrical experience of course applies to opera as well: the set, costumes, design and lighting. Productions can be updated with modern dress, or a mixture of old and new but whichever combination is chosen it should ring true and be consistent throughout in a way that tells the story, and allows the music to do its stuff and communicate.
  • The “wow” factor: when asked to do some opera assessing, an assessor was advised that only those with the “wow” factor should be recommended for an Offie Award. The assessor felt that this was a good bit of advice to follow. “Worthy” isn’t good enough!

TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences)

The Offies TYA awards are for shows for (i.e. aimed at) young people – they are not for productions by young people. 

In consultation with a number of the larger children’s theatres in London, we have re-organised the TYA award categories, recognising that TYA is a specialism in a similar way to Opera and Cabaret.  There are now five categories (and no age-based categories or sub-categories):

  • DESIGN – costume / set / sound / lighting / video
  • MUSIC
  • PERFORMANCE
  • WRITING / ADAPTATION
  • PRODUCTION – covering direction and also “added value” such as access, outreach and social impact

We recognise that TYA can be much more than simple entertainment: it is often crafted to articulate stories innovatively; to enable children to engage with complex ideas; to recognise their own experiences, and to empathise with those of others. Recent award winning productions have dealt with the Holocaust (for ages 11-16) and the ethics of murder (for ages 3-6), and included an immersive gig experience of South Asian British history (for ages 13+).

Assessors should be looking for something that is truly outstanding. It’s not enough that “at least the children liked it”.  Great theatre will totally engage its audience, no matter their age, and this is a specialist category that can achieve that in particularly imaginative ways.  Apart from  looking for outstanding productions, we are also seeking examples of writing, design, performance and music that are in some way exciting, original or impactful.  We are also looking for shows where the ideas and themes of the show have an extended impact through associated project work and/or creative activities at school, at home or via YouTube and other online platforms.

Assessors must submit their assessment within 48 hours of seeing the production.  A super-assessor will then go and see the show if there are any nominations. If you don’t want to nominate it, a few lines explaining why will suffice. We expect assessors to be available to see at least 6 shows a year (hopefully more) so that you have enough exposure to put work into context.  The more you see, the easier it will get!  Please cc your emailed assessment to TYA@theatresoff.com .

Assessing the specialism rigorously
We are also rethinking how we write about theatre for young audiences and hope you can help us raise it to a new level.  TYA is indeed a specialist field of work and the theatres are keen to see us judging their productions on their full spectrum of creative skills.

Here are some thoughts in progress about commonplace features of TYA, which we would like our assessors to consider as possible elements of the work they’re seeing:

Features: Does the production use verbatim conversations, bringing history into a contemporary focus? Is it educational? Is it worthy or non-patronising? Does it use objects in an interesting way? Does it create an environment that articulates unseen thoughts or feelings? Is it a space for safe discussion? Does it invite understanding of other cultures? Is this work particularly appropriate for the target audience (e.g. by age, cultural focus, special needs). 

Non-verbal work: Is the performance spoken or does it communicate in another way, perhaps through objects, puppets, dance / movement? If using puppetry, is the characterisation convincing?

Space: Is the performance taking place in an unusual location? Does the production redescribe the space it is being performed in? Perhaps it uses scale to make things easier to understand – a giant puppet or a tiny handheld model? A smaller stage on a larger one? How might seeing the space differently impact on the characters or the audience perception? Is something ordinary made extraordinary?

Themes: How do the themes relate to young people’s experiences? e.g. mental health, the environment, race, gender, grief, family, National Curriculum?  Please don’t fall into the trap of believing children cannot or should not deal with difficult topics. It’s the production’s job to articulate these things in a way that they can manage. How do they go about that?

Triggers: Has the theatre provided a content guide so the audience can be made aware of any triggers in the production?

Access: Has the production made an effort to be relaxed; does it offer or include BSL / captions / sensory enhancement?  Are any of the performers differently-abled?

Package: Does the production do anything that goes beyond the stage – perhaps videos online with further information, or craft activity that the audience can undertake to participate in a wider way? Is there a Q&A, a post-show discussion, or follow up workshops?

Participation: What kind of participation, if any is invited? Are the audience members made to feel a proactive part of making change? Is it just fun to clap along, or are they asked to make particular sounds? Are they asked to bring / make anything to the show, becoming a part of it?

Audience response: Were the audience engaged, restless, excited, bored, giggling? Did they chat about the performance as it took place, or where they in captivated silence? Was the suggested age range on target?

Critical context: is anyone else doing this kind of work? Why this show now?