By Steven Widerman
The Citations of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry (nicknamed the “UNI”) are precisely what their name states, a work that has been cited as excellent. Perhaps more importantly, it is not a competitive award, there are no categories other than live and recorded media, and there is no requirement that there be a recipient in any award-year. There is also no cap on the number of recipients in any award-year. This structure has proven both equitable and durable, and we have to thank Jim Henson for proposing his idea for the awards in 1973. In a letter written to Allelu Kurten, who was General Secretary of UNIMA-USA at the time, Henson wrote:
Awards are often controversial, especially regarding something as subjective as Art, and Henson’s proposal was not universally received without some protest at the time; but the Citations have endured. It is worth noting that special Citations are sometimes awarded to individuals in recognition of exceptional service to UNIMA-USA. The actual award is an impressive certificate created by the late designer and puppeteer, Brad Williams, which is imprinted with the name of the producer and title of the production being cited. Specifics about the process and criteria can be found on the Citations section of the UNIMA-USA website, but essentially the Chair of the Citations Committee retains an anonymous panel of experts who may cite a show for an award. Review panelists are recommended to the Chair by members of the Board of the organization, but the actual panelists are known only to the Chair, who tracks the votes and has no vote of their own. A production that receives three votes during a span of three years, commencing from the initial vote, is awarded a Citation.
Review panelists are encouraged to cite shows “ . . . that touch their audiences deeply; that totally engage, enchant and enthrall. In meeting the criteria for excellent Puppetry, Citation-worthy shows must also stand as prime examples of excellent theatre.” Panelists are also asked to observe the audience reaction to a live performance and support their choices with short quotes regarding a production. These are traditionally read upon presentation of the award and they often offer interesting insight into what moves a panelist to cite a production.
Since the inception of the Citations in 1975, the world has changed quite a bit. In the age of the internet and social media, it is important that the awards adjust in order to remain relevant and respond to changes that influence our perceptions. At the same time, UNIMA-USA strives to retain the integrity of the awards, respecting the achievement of all the past recipients by preserving the core criteria. The selection process is validated by the exemplary collection of excellent Puppetry represented by the recipients.