The Jeff Awards History


has been honoring outstanding theatre artists annually since it was established in 1968. With approximately 55 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.


consists of up to 55 people with varying backgrounds in theater, 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 Awards does not have specific terms for its members. However, members must meet specific judging standards and can vote on the final ballot each season as long as they have met their responsibilities for that complete year.

Our members are invigorated by what is happening in the world and the vital need for diverse voices. That requires that we remain committed to infusing equitable perspectives in how we champion theater excellence. We stay engaged through training on dismantling racism and issues of social justice, as well as initiatives focused on equity, diversity and inclusion. To remain a valued resource for the community we support, our Jeff Awards membership must reflect the diversity of the Chicago theater community. We welcome all interested and qualified candidates, regardless of sex, age, ethnicity, disability, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other basis prohibited by law.


The Joseph Jefferson Awards 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 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 Awards today continues to honor excellence in the Chicago theatre community.

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 Awards 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. 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 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 Jeff Awards does not endorse the use of the terms "best" or "winner". Jeff Awards 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 Awards see Jeff-eligible, locally produced shows. They nominate and select recipients "for outstanding achievement" in artistic and technical categories that include but are not limited to Production, Director, Performer in a Principal Role, Performer in a Supporting Role, in the two categories of Plays and Musicals. Awards are also given for Production, Direction, Performer in a Revue, and Cameo Performance, as well as Ensemble, Choreography, Scenic Design, Lighting Design, Costume Design, Sound Design, Original Music, Musical Direction, New Work and Adaptation. Consideration for Short Run productions and World Language (with subtitles) were added in 2021. On occasion, special awards are given for achievements, accomplishments, or services in other areas of the theatre. Award recipients are determined by secret ballot.