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Why the revamped Dora Awards will be as maddening as ever

There are no small parts, only small actors.

It's a cliché that the Dora Mavor Moore Awards have taken to heart this year, after undergoing a three-year-long rethink that leaves Toronto's theatre, dance and opera awards with 13 new categories, clearer jury rules – and as maddening as ever.

Buddies in Bad Times, unquestionably one of the most artistically exciting theatres in town at the moment under the artistic direction of Brendan Healy, was well recognized by the nominations announced on Monday – with Daniel MacIvor's Arigato, Tokyo up for eight Dora Awards; Tawiah M'Carthy's solo show Obaaberima up for seven; and the Lady Gaga cabaret Of a Monstrous Child up for four.

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But it was changes to the categories that will cause most Dora commentary and consternation.

Here's the main one that Toronto theatregoers will notice: Lead actors will be competing against supporting actors, as there are now only two acting awards given out to individuals in each of the Doras' many, many divisions.

What does this mean in practice? Well, in the nom bomb dropped Monday, Lisa Horner, currently playing the supporting part of the Wicked Witch of the West in Mirvish's production of The Wizard of Oz, is up for "outstanding performance (female)" in the musical-theatre division competing against Steffi DiDomenicantonio, who played the title role in Cinderella at Young People's Theatre.

This is more than a little eccentric, bucking the way every theatrical gong show operates from the Jessie Richardson Awards in Vancouver to the Robert Merritt Awards in Nova Scotia to the Tony Awards in New York – all of which have separate lead and supporting categories, because, despite the saying, size does matter.

It does mean, however, that the old absurd Dora category of "outstanding performance in a feature role/ensemble" is dead. No longer will we see actor Eric Peterson compete against the entire cast of a Second City revue, as happened hilariously in 2010.

Alas, instead there is now a category called "outstanding ensemble" in each of the Doras' six divisions: general theatre, independent theatre, musical theatre, theatre for young audiences, opera and dance. (Instead of creating new supporting-actor awards, most of the 13 new awards went to creating additional design awards; to opera and dance, which should really have separate awards; and to TYA, which should be eliminated as its own division.)

While the main acting awards are now muddied by including supporting players, it isn't even clear what "ensemble" really means – since Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical's ensemble, for instance, is nominated minus the lead actors, while The Wizard of Oz's ensemble is nominated as a whole in the musical-theatre division.

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Besides, ensemble awards are redundant when you consider that "best overall group of actors" really already exists in each of the categories – a show is unlikely to be up for "outstanding production" if the cast isn't uniformly top notch. "Outstanding ensemble" (not best, of course; never best) actually seems little more of a brickbat than a bouquet – a too-bad-your-director-wasn't-that-great award.

With these changes, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards have again signaled that they are primarily an all-encompassing industry award night, rather than an audience-oriented publicity machine like the Tonys. Fair enough, given that most of the nominated shows have closed. But while there will be more people up on the stage on June 24 than ever before, fewer outside the room will care now, with the acting categories made muddy.

There is one excellent change this year, I should note: The jury has been properly professionalized. Back in 2010, the controversial year of the Eric-Peterson-versus-the-world nomination, I pointed out that the conflict-of-interest rules for jurors were awfully lax and there was nothing to stop a director on the jury from voting for a performance he had directed, for instance. I didn't intend to accuse individuals of corrupt motives, but to point out that the lack of stringency meant nominations that should have been pleasant surprises often were viewed with suspicion.

Later that year, the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, the organization that puts together the Doras, struck the review committee that led to the changes we're now seeing. At least they got one thing right for those of us on the outside asked to care about the Doras, but not too much.

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