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by Jessica Carreras
“It was a season where men played women, women played men (and) lots of people got naked,” Between The Lines theater guru Don Calamia said summing up the past 12 months of Michigan theater.
And out of the 112 productions produced by 30 professional theaters Calamia and his crew reviewed during the 2008-2009 season, the best were awarded on Wednesday night, Aug. 26 at the eighth annual Wilde Awards – crossdressers and nudists alike.
The night began with an unexpected special guest: Detroit City Council nominee and ex-Fox 2 anchor Charles Pugh.
The openly gay Pugh, who came in first in the primary election earlier this month and stands poised to be the next City Council president, came to voice his support for the arts.
“I just wanted to very briefly tell you, first of all, thank you to those of you who supported me in the primary,” he began. “It was a blessing and … we hope (voters) respond the same way in November.”
However, giving thanks was not his message. Instead, it was one that gave hope after a particularly tough theater season in a bleak economy. “If I’m blessed enough to make it, you will certainly have a friend of the arts on that city council,” Pugh promised the cheering crowd. “We’re so blessed to have … so many wonderful places to go and experience the artistic community in Detroit. We’re so lucky to have (them) and we should celebrate and fight to make sure there’s arts education and that there’s money for arts.”
Pugh went on to stress the importance of the arts and theater to make Detroit a “cool” city, and added that he would do his part, too. “This is a wonderful city and we need to continue to celebrate it,” he said. “But my job will be to make sure that after you leave the theater, that there are some cool things to do, places to shop, places to eat and drink and party and certainly live once you leave the theater.
“I thank you for keeping the arts alive,” he concluded. “Hopefully, next year at the awards, I can bring you a proclamation from the city council.”
The night saw many of the same Wilde Awards handed out as in previous years, with 18 in total being given in such categories as Best Drama and Comedy, Best Musical or Musical Revue and Best Production with LGBT Themes or Characters.
Awards were given to theaters and productions across the board, with no one show or one theater taking the bulk. Winners included “Radio Golf” for best drama, Bartley H. Bauer for best set design in “Talley’s Folley” and Kimberly Vanbiesbrouck for best performer in a musical in Meadow Brook Theatre’s “Beyond the Rainbow.”
A new category – What’s the Buzz? – named a play that generated the most discussion in the community.
Planet Ant Theatre’s “Red Light Winter” was chosen for its unique set up: The two main male actors switched roles every night of the production, creating so much buzz that many people had to see the production twice. Plus, added Calamia, “The first act of this show was probably the finest piece of theater I’ve seen all year – in fact, seen in years.”
“It really was such a special show to work on and really, this belongs to the cast,” said director Shannon Ferrante. “I still can’t believe we pulled this off.”
The annual Jim Posante Community Pride Award, named after gay teacher, actor and director Jim Posante, was given to the duo who run Who Wants Cake? Theatre at the Ringwald – Joe Bailey and Joe Plambeck.
“This is totally unexpected and really, really … awesome,” said Joe Bailey, accepting the award. “I’m gonna get all kumbaya on your asses here for a second. I think it’s really, really awesome what we do as a group in this room – that we create art in a city that is not known for art, necessarily and especially at times when it seems that people don’t necessarily care what we’re doing.
“I think it’s great, what we do. I say keep fighting the good fight.”
Some of the Wilde-r Awards for this year – always the ones to generate laughs – were “The Most Colorful Transsexual of the Year” Award for Tony Gross in “Jeffrey” at The Ringwald, “Best Corpse” Award given to Lauren Bickers of “Blood Bath & Beyond” at the Planet Ant Theatre and the “Gayest Santa Ever” Award, given to Marke Sobolewski of Planet Ant’s “O Holy S#it: A Christmas Tale.”
A particularly uproar-causing Wilde-r Award was the “Most Politically Incorrect – but Funniest – Moment of the Year” Award, named for the actors that played local legal personality Sam Bernstein’s family. The group spoofed the real-life family’s commercials in Andiamo Novi Theatre’s “Kwame a River: Chronicles of Detroit’s Hip-Hop Mayor” so well that, according to Calamia, the actor playing the jail-bound mayor actually broke character and begged the audience to stop laughing.
As always, Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz of Pride Source Media Group, publishers of Between The Lines and co-owners of Encore Michigan LLC, gave out the Publisher’s Award for Excellence.
“Our commitment to Encore (Michigan) remains very strong,” said Jan Stevenson. “We’re going to continue to do it and continue to grow it as we can.”
This year’s winner, chosen for her unwavering support and work for the Michigan theater community, was Barbara Coven-Ellis, whose husband accepted the award for her.
One of the other special awards given out every year is the Critic’s Choice Award, which was bestowed upon Evelyn Orbach, who was the artistic director and founder of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company.
“It’s going to a person who has spent the last two decades creating and nurturing a theater company that many here tonight have worked for at least once in their careers,” Calamia said of the award. “The … award goes to someone who deserves our thanks for two decades of love, dedication and hard work, not only toward her own company, but for the theater community as a whole.”
“I’m not happy about what happened, but I had an artistic home for 20 years,” said Orbach, who was removed from her position at JET Theater this year. “How many people can say that?”
Economy, economy, economy
Money was on the minds of many of the event’s attendees – a fact that could be heard in almost every other acceptance speech that made reference to “the worst economy since the great depression.”
The infamous mid-ceremony musical by The Actors’ Company focused on the same topic. The 20-minute show was called “Trouble in Motor City,” and talked about the dire financial situation of many of the area’s theaters and proclaimed “We’re screwed!”
“We wanted to produce 12 Angry Men,” joked one actor, “but could only afford three mildly irritated guys.”
The musical skit also poked fun at the economy-induced firing or resigning of several artistic directors in the area – including JET Theater’s Orbach – by showing a chorus line of them with signs reading “You’re Fired.”
It was a risky move that made light of what has been a tough situation for many in the theater community, resulting in controversy and the loss of several great artists in the industry. And, added Calamia, it was very poorly handled by the people who did the firing in many cases.
“It was to help people work through some of the emotions and to kind of get through what’s been a really rough time for them,” he explained of the skit. “We figured there’d be this pink elephant in the room at the awards, so that’s why we decided it had to be addressed and so … we figured let’s just have some fun with it.”
He said the jokes, though well received by many actors and directors, did not generate so many laughs with some of the theater board members in the audience, several of whom were responsible for the firings. However, Calamia was not concerned. “The response that I got from everybody was very positive,” he said. “They liked it, they found it very funny. But I heard a couple of the board members … were very uncomfortable and not very happy.”
“If you make tough decisions and handle them poorly,” he said of their attitude, “you have to be able to accept the repercussions from it.”
Still, Calamia was happy to note that despite the rough financial situation, things were not so bleak in Michigan’s 2009 theater season after all. “Despite the worst economy since the great depression, theater goers were treated to an amazing year of top-notch work,” he announced to big cheers. “And surprisingly, no theaters shut their doors.”
And with some expected help from passionate supporters like Pugh and local funders, they can only hope that 2010 yields the same – and keeps the artistic directors.