OnComms are a new style of award for our times, celebrating theatre performance that has been forced to go online by the closure of theatre spaces. For a scheme that has been operational for only a month, twenty is pretty good going, with more in the pipeline, to be chosen from over sixty nominations received so far.
OnComms are cousins to the Offies and the OffComms and presented by OffWestEnd which, in its own words, exists to support, promote and celebrate work created and presented on the London fringe—a cohort of over 100 independent theatres and spaces that span the capital.
I say cousins but perhaps cousins once removed is more accurate because, whilst Offies and OffComms are there for London's fringe, the OnComms have no such geographical restrictions and shows presented online by independent, alternative and fringe companies from across the UK are eligible for nomination.
OffWestEnd's Geoffrey Brown explained how it all came about: "OffWestEnd was set up about 12 years ago because there wasn’t really an umbrella group or network representing Off West End theatre.
"It was felt that it would be good to have awards for what was happening there and over the years the Offies evolved to cover categories for plays and musicals, for acting, design, directing and so on. They've been very popular and we had the 10th Offies Awards Ceremony earlier this year, literally a week before the pandemic lockdown set in."
The Offies fill a big gap covering shows that are not eligible for the Olivier Awards but are peer assessed and so unlike WOS (WhatsOnStage) Awards which are public facing. Offies winners are first nominated and then evaluated by two assessors, people with either a professional theatre background or very experienced theatregoers.
For the Offies scheme to work, there need to be at least ten performances so shows with shorter runs miss out on deserved recognition. Brown continued, "last year we introduced the OffComms, which is an Offies Commendation for short-run shows; they were very well received and we had a lot of companies and venues submitting their shows.
"When lockdown happened, we had a bit of a think as it became clear that there was an emerging collection of online shows of one form or another.
"We had no idea how long the lockdown was going to last, but we thought perhaps there should be some recognition of the effort that’s going into this work—all the talent and creativity being shown through these online shows whether recordings of a production that ran some years ago or made using technology to present shows online in a variety of ways.
"So, we came up with the idea of Online Commendations, the OnComms, which are very similar to the OffComms in being without categories and awarded for the show as a whole, and we then extended OnComms to audio productions and audio versions of shows.
"The quality of the picture and sound is not the basis on which we are judging the show; it's the overall impact that we are looking for, a wow factor."
Brown is keen to keep it relatively broad-based and fairly flexible. After all, as he said, "who knows how long the lockdown will go on for?
"At the moment, the OnComm is an award in itself, but if the lockdown is extended towards the end of the year then we may look at recognising the best with OnComm winners picked out for particular recognition, but it's all up in the air at this stage."
For OnComms, at least two assessors have to rate the production as being of a four- or five-star standard to receive an OnComm, and Brown hopes they may become considered an informal seal of approval for as long as people consume theatre through electronic media.
Brown is of course concerned about the future. "I think there are going to be real problems getting bums back on seats in traditional theatres, particularly smaller theatres," he said.
On account of this, it isn't important to him for OffWestEnd just to recognise creative endeavour with the OnComms but to act for the venues that have no collective representation. As Brown put it, to "fly the flag for small independent fringe theatres generally across the UK".
On Friday, OffWestEnd published Come back to me…, the first of two reports on the future of the fringe theatre sector. The underlying survey looked at pre-lockdown theatregoing habits and what the deciding factors are for this respondent group to return to live performances.
A very significant number (89%) of the 759 survey respondents went to the theatre at least once a month with 40% going once a week, but even this level of enthusiasm translates to a mere 39% saying they were “very likely” to see a live show if theatres were to reopen in September, rising to a measly 55% with a December reopening.
Whilst transport concerns mean that respondents are more likely to go to local venues, the coming months look bleak for fringe theatres, and in a preview of OffWestEnd's second report it is estimated that an injection of £9 million will be needed for them to survive and succeed after COVID.
These reports, like the awards, are an important part of OffWestEnd's championing of London fringe theatre and fringe more generally with the OnComms, as Brown sees it, "a crucial part of waving the flag for a sector that otherwise never gets a seat at the table."
Readers wishing to nominate a show for an OnComm or wishing to apply to be an OnComm assessor should look on the Offies London web site for details.