Paper Plate Awards Ritual

“This is called the paper plate awards. For every [theater] show two seniors would get paper plates, and with sharpies, for every single member of the cast, they would get their own individual ‘paper plate award.’ So on a paper plate they would write, like, um, for me it would say ‘C, 2022 paper plate awards for The Sound of Music’ and then it would say, like, ‘best mistress’ or whatever. Like- like it would be a very specific award that has to do with, like, an inside joke about the show or something that has happened at rehearsals, or something about your character you’re playing, or a funny line you have, and they would do some type of variation on that turned into the name of an award. And it was important because every single person got their own award, and every single person’s award was very specific to them. Like, no one got a generic award, everyone felt included and like they had a thing that like, that was their show or their little specialty. So it was meant to make everyone feel close and like- even though it was a joke awards, it was all meant to show that like everyone has contributions to, not just like the talent of the show, but like the community that we are like forming.

And so it was always the dinner before opening night, um, that is when the two seniors would do the award show and just present it to everyone. Um, and they would just go down the list and be like ‘we’re presenting this paper plate award for blah blah blah to blah blah blah.’ Um, and by the time I was a senior, since me and this one other girl were the two seniors who had been there the longest, we got to be the ones to make the paper plate awards and hold the ceremony. So it was something I got to see from being like, eleven years old as like a little kid to then growing up and being like the eighteen-year-old who’s doing it and passing it on.”

C is a current student at the University of Southern California and grew up in Palm Desert, California. In addition to stating that it was the seniors who created the paper plate awards for everyone, C stated that the seniors got the role because they were in somewhat of a leadership role; having been there the longest also meant that the leading seniors knew the group the best. When asked what would happen if there were more than two seniors who had been there the longest, C described that they performed three shows a school year, so the seniors would be able to ‘trade off’ and each get a turn. C finished by saying she hopes to establish the paper plate awards tradition at some of her performance groups at USC because she feels it helps foster connection and belonging, even if someone is young or new to the group.

As C pointed out during our interview, the main purpose of this ritual seems to be strengthening communal bonds through the special acknowledgment of the value of each group member. The silly tone of the awards and their references to inside jokes from the rehearsal process harkens back to forms of workplace humor, where teasing and getting ‘in’ on a certain joke designates someone as part of a group. That the paper plate awards take place over a shared meal adds a further sense of connectedness. C’s comment towards the end also indicates that the paper plates awards are a particularly special time for the seniors; after having received paper plate awards for numerous performances, stepping into the role of creating the paper plate awards functions as a kind of rite of passage that acknowledges the seniors’ leadership role and experience. Depending on how advertised the tradition is throughout the rehearsal process, it seems as though a new group member’s first paper plate awards could function as a sort of rite of passage by giving an award that makes them feel seen, and therefore, ‘part of the group.’