By BTL Staff
As the economy faltered and gas prices spiked, Michigan’s professional theaters struggled to survive the recently concluded 2007-2008 season. Yet despite the rough waters, not one theater permanently closed its doors. Instead, Tipping Point Theatre stormed into downtown Northville and stunned a jealous industry with record ticket sales before the first show even hit the stage. Across town in fashionable Ferndale, Who Wants Cake? Theatre offered theatergoers an aggressive first full season at its new storefront home on Woodward Avenue. And StarBrite Theatrical Productions bounced all around Detroit’s north and west suburbs with their lighthearted fare.
Yes, theater survived for another year – albeit with seemingly fewer paying customers in the seats and with budgets that got smaller as the season progressed.
But Michigan’s thespians are a hearty lot. As times got tougher, their creativity soared. And theater executives made some difficult decisions. Some lowered ticket prices, while others offered a plethora of special discounts. A few replaced large cast shows with far more affordable productions. And Detroit’s Plowshares Theatre Company took a one-year sabbatical to reshape its future.
The most surprising move, however, was one that shocked the theater community last November and still hasn’t fully played out: the sudden and never-explained decision by the board of directors of The Ensemble at Meadow Brook Theatre to remove managing director John Manfredi and artistic director David L. Regal from Michigan’s flagship theater.
There was also much to celebrate.
The Detroit Repertory Theatre turned 50, The Abreact moved to The Zeitgeist, Dog Story Theatre made its debut in Grand Rapids, the Detroit Ensemble Theatre quietly returned to the stage, and the Y-Arts program at the downtown Detroit Boll YMCA took steps to became a significant player in the theater industry with the hiring of Gillian Eaton as vice-president.
Despite the non-stop turmoil and ever-changing landscape, however, what never wavered were the commitments by the artistic community to live, work and play here and to produce the very best work possible. The result was an exciting season of theater – both on stage and off – that won’t soon be forgotten.
And that’s what we’re honoring with nominations for the seventh annual Wilde Awards: the best productions, performances and designs of the 2007-08 professional theater season.
Once again, four theater critics visited 27 Michigan theaters and reviewed 100 professional productions during the 2007-08 season. (An additional 12 shows were also reviewed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, but those aren’t considered for Wilde Awards.) While the number of venues decreased slightly from the previous year for a variety of reasons, the number of local shows reviewed increased by four – a healthy surprise, given the state’s sluggish economy.
Aiding and abetting Theater and Arts Editor Donald V. Calamia were associate critics Robert Bethune, D. A. Blackburn and Michael Margolin, all of whom drove from Lansing to downtown Detroit and many places in-between to give readers the most comprehensive theater coverage in the state.
And without a doubt, it was one heck of an interesting season!
In all, slightly more than half of all shows reviewed received at least one nomination (52), as did nearly all of the theater companies (21).
Surprisingly, no single show dominates the nominations. “Doubt” at BoarsHead Theater leads with six, followed by “Doubt” at Performance Network Theatre and “Sea of Fools” at The Purple Rose Theatre Company with five each. Only two shows received four nods: the Michigan Opera Theatre’s “Cyrano” and Performance Network’s “The Baker’s Wife.” And proving that excellence can be found at any theater big or small, 20 productions received one nomination.
Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre is the top-nominated company this year with 16. Lansing’s BoarsHead Theater follows with 10. Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre and Novi’s The Second City each earned eight, while Cheslea’s The Purple Rose Theatre Company has seven.
More varied, however, are this year’s acting nominees. Of the 58 individuals in the Best Performance and Best Duo categories, only two received more than one nomination: Dan Morrison and Michael Joseph Mitchell. Each has two.
And continuing to make Wilde Awards history is Lansing-based actress Carmen Decker, the only performer to receive a nomination in all seven years of the awards.
“Every year it seems to get harder and harder not only coming up with the list of nominations, but also deciding who the winners should be,” explained Calamia. “It seems almost ironic that as most theaters’ budgets have gotten leaner and meaner, the quality of their shows has either remained the same or gotten better. And that makes our jobs that much more difficult.”
Complicating this year’s nominations process were the three different productions of “Doubt,” Calamia continued. “All three shows were the top-rated dramas at those theaters, and excellent performances were given by all six of the lead actors. So to give other performers a chance to be acknowledged for their hard work as well, we made an exception and expanded two of the acting categories this year to six nominees rather than the usual five. Otherwise, this would have become ‘The Doubt Awards.’ And undoubtedly, there would have been many unhappy actors if that had happened.”
Another change that is sure to be popular is the expansion of the Best Design category. Introduced last year to acknowledge the work of set designers, the category now includes all of the technical aspects of a production. “Designers are often the forgotten people,” Calamia said. “So this year we have 12 nominees in this category, honoring the best sets, costumes, props, sound and lights. And to be totally honest, this was by far the most difficult category to name a winner.”
The tremendous loss of Jim Posante, a long time actor, director and father figure within the community, will also be recognized. “Immediately after Jim’s sudden death last year we made a decision. So beginning this year our special Community Pride Award has been renamed The Jim Posante Community Pride Award. It’s our small way of acknowledging Jim’s importance to both the gay and theater communities he loved so much, and to permanently keep his memory alive for many years to come,” Calamia said.
The awards show, Calamia promises, will once again be an unforgettable night. “Between The Lines is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, and The Wilde Awards is the final event of our year-long party. So expect some surprises, as it will truly be One Wilde Night!”
It always is!