By BTL Staff
Although Michigan’s 2010-11 professional theater season opened amidst a still-sputtering economy, thespians statewide didn’t let skyrocketing gasoline prices, an unusually snowy winter and the rainiest (and coolest) spring in recent memory deter them from raising their curtains – and keeping them up – for yet another memorable year. Rather, theater executives all across the state seemed invigorated by the challenges they faced – and many were rewarded with sold-out houses, while others extended runs of their popular shows.
And a few brave souls came together, threw caution to the blustery Michigan winds, and opened theaters of their own.
So yes, Michigan’s professional theater industry found itself alive and reasonably healthy at the close of the 2010-11 season. And what a season it was!
Proving that quality theater is appreciated and supported by area theatergoers, several significant anniversaries were celebrated throughout the year. Meadow Brook Theatre turned 45, while two others – Michigan Opera Theatre and the UDM Theatre Company – observed their 40th birthdays. Joining the party were The Purple Rose Theatre Company at 20, while The Abreact and Water Works Theatre Company both reached the ripe old age of 10. Mother Nature, though, had a vicious way of wishing Water Works a happy birthday: A heavy thunderstorm blew apart its outdoor stage, but since the show must go on, staff and volunteers quickly repaired the damage in time for that night’s performance!
Unlike recent years, however, the winds of change were relatively quiet in the executive offices. Alex D. Hill came on board as executive director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, replacing LoriGoe Nowak who moved on to other opportunities, while Inga R. Wilson was named artistic director of Planet Ant Theatre.
Other changes were in the wind, however. West Michigan improv troupe Crawlspace Eviction found a new home at Farmers Alley Theatre, while the Blackbird Theatre moved to the festive Braun Court in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown District.
Two theaters, however, closed their doors: The popular Bon Ton Room stunned Jackson-area fans with its closure earlier this spring, while the VanBuren Street Theatre shut down – possibly for only a short while – following the unexpected death of its founder, Michael Richard Asiala. Meanwhile, Augusta’s beloved Barn Theatre, a favorite summer stock destination, took 2010 off to plan for its future. (And they succeeded, as a full 2011 season began May 31.)
But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens – or in this case, several. Stormfield Theatre found a permanent home in Lansing’s Frandor Shopping Center and produced its first full season of fully staged shows. The Michigan Actors Studio, a state licensed trade school, returned to its roots as the former Detroit Ensemble Theatre and began producing a season of professional shows in funky Ferndale. Downriver, The AKT Theatre Project morphed from a summer educational workshop program for high school students into a professional theater, while Downtown Battle Creek became home to What A Do Theatre. And The New Theatre Project burst onto the scene in Ann Arbor with an innovative approach to producing theater.
Like the phoenix, Plowshares Theatre Company rose from its self-imposed rest and returned to active duty in the spring, with a full season planned for 2011-12.
Elsewhere, The Encore Musical Theatre Company got edgy with its Encore on the Edge series, aimed at theatergoers who like their musicals a bit more contemporary and adult-oriented. Also, a handful of professional theaters in Southeast Michigan joined with their non-professional sisters to become part of the national Free Night of Theatre campaign. And the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance received a $250,000 grant from the Ford and Kresge Foundations to fund the implementation phase of its project.
But that’s not all.
Two local actors reached a significant milestone this past season, one that happens infrequently here and elsewhere. Michelle Mountain and Jim Porterfield celebrated their 1,000th performance on the stage of The Purple Rose Theatre while appearing together in the world premiere of “Some Couples May…” by Carey Crim. Both are longtime resident artists at the theater.
Two other actors, though, took the old theatrical saying “break a leg” a little too literally – ironically, while both appearing in different plays directed by Lavinia Moyer Hart. Samantha Rosentrater broke an ankle while appearing in the Hilberry Theatre’s production of “The Cider House Rules, Part II: In Other Parts of The World.” Only a handful of weeks later, Laurel Hufano broke her ankle while appearing in “The Model Apartment” at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre. We wish them both a speedy recovery!
So what does all this prove, you might be asking yourself? Just that Michigan’s professional theater industry is constantly evolving – yet one thing never changes: Their hard work and dedication to their patrons never waver – and that’s what we’re honoring with nominations for The Tenth Annual Wilde Awards!
Beginning May 19, 2010 and ending 12 very quick months later, Between The Lines and EncoreMichigan.com’s theater critics took to the highways and reviewed a record number of shows at more theaters than ever before. But more than just the numbers increased, explained Theatre and Arts Editor Donald V. Calamia. “For the first time ever, we reviewed shows at nearly every professional theater in Michigan, and to the best of my knowledge, no publication in the state has ever done that before.”
The decision to expand statewide, Calamia said, was one way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Wilde Awards. “With print media showing less and less interest in theater every year, we decided it was time to take responsibility for covering the entire state. For the previous nine years we grew and solidified our reputation for quality theater coverage throughout Southeast and Mid Michigan, and so we figured our 10th year was the perfect time to go statewide. After all, someone has to do it – so why not us?”
Simultaneously, one other change was implemented that impacted this year’s nominations – a decision aided by the immediacy of the internet. “We went from reviewing only shows that ran three weeks or more to shows that ran five consecutive days or two weekends or more – and that added several shows to our schedule,” Calamia said. “Before, with only a weekly print publishing schedule, it didn’t make sense to review short-run shows. But with daily updates to EncoreMichigan.com, we can now get reviews online within 24 hours after we see a show. And that provides a very useful service to both our readers and our theaters alike.”
The result, Calamia continued, means the competition to earn a Wilde Awards nomination has increased tremendously. “And as you’ll see, there are a lot of new faces in the race this year!”
Joining Calamia this past season on the mad dash across the state were critics Martin F. Kohn, Michael Margolin, Jenn McKee, John Quinn, Bridgette M. Redman and Judith Cookis Rubens. Assisting were David Blackburn, who left the team last summer to pursue other opportunities, and guest critic Carolyn Hayes, better known as the Rogue Critic. It’s an impressive team with a variety of voices and styles, Calamia noted. “And that’s what makes our coverage so successful. These are all professional writers with years of experience, and they bring to their work a unique and broad perspective that makes their work not only informative, but fun to read.”
But, he chuckled, “Whether you agree with us is another story.”
Together the team reviewed a record-shattering 195 productions at 53 theaters or venues across the state. “And what we found – for the most part – was a lot of very good and very entertaining theater wherever we went,” Calamia said.
The increased number of theaters and reviews not only added to the already hectic workloads of the critics, it also presented them with a significant challenge: How do you whittle down 195 productions and hundreds of actors, directors and technicians to a handful of nominations in 26 categories? “It wasn’t easy,” Calamia laughed. “But we did it – and not one of us was harmed in the process!”
The result, he said, reflects a fine representation of the excellence found across the state by each of the critics.
In total, 70 productions earned at least one nomination, as did 34 theaters. Plus, Calamia noted, “There are a handful of special awards that will be given out as well.”
Unlike prior years when one theater company or one show dominated the nominations, this year is different. “And we suspect there will be a lot of eyebrows raised over the nominations!”
Leading the nominations with six is a musical that earned high praise from theatergoers and critics alike: Performance Network Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Not far behind with five was yet another blockbuster, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Mason Street Warehouse. Four shows tied with four nominations each: UDM Theatre Company’s “A Life in the Theatre,” Meadow Brook Theatre’s “Dracula, A Rock Opera,” Who Wants Cake?’s “Mercury Fur” and “Hilberry Theatre’s “Of Mice and Men.” “And exactly half of the nominated shows earned a single nomination,” Calamia said, “which shows how deep and broad these nominations are.”
With 15, the top-nominated theater is Performance Network Theatre – its fourth such honor in a row. But unlike previous years, Calamia noted, another company is nipping on its heels. “With 14 nominations, Who Wants Cake? generated a lot of buzz this year – both at The Ringwald and at the City Theatre with “Evil Dead: The Musical,” which was not eligible for an award this year – and it shows in our nominations. Which company will walk away with the most awards will be the talk of the town, I’m sure!”
Other top-nominated theaters include Meadow Brook Theatre with nine, while newcomers Farmers Alley Theatre and Mason Street Warehouse tied with eight each. Eleven theaters earned a single nomination. Which companies are missing from the list may shock some people this year, Calamia said. “When the critics came together to work out the nominations, many of the area’s popular companies were included in the initial list of potential nominations. But with competition so fierce this year, some tough decisions had to be made. And regrettably, some fine companies were ultimately dropped from consideration.”
The toughest categories to determine were the “people” categories, Calamia explained – the actors, designers and playwrights. “We started out with about 160 possible nominations and had to work through the list until we reached the final count of 97 in 19 different categories. In fact, two categories were so close and competitive that we ultimately decided to make an exception and include six nominees rather than the standard five.”
Of the 137 artists nominated this year – which includes directors whose shows are nominated in the production categories – only 14 earned more than one. Of those, actor/director Joe Plambeck leads the pack with five, while Sandra Birch and Michael Brian Ogden each are honored with three. “This probably represents the broadest range of talent ever in the history of The Wilde Awards,” Calamia said. “What this proves, to me at least, is this: that Michigan is blessed with an abundance of creative and talented souls who work hard at their craft – in whatever field that may be. And when they join together to work on a production, the result is often quite memorable.”
One nomination in particular pleases Calamia. “Only one person was nominated in each of the first eight years of The Wilde Awards, but her record-making run was shattered last year due to problems at the now-defunct BoarsHead. But Carmen Decker is back this year thanks to her appearance in “Kimberly Akimbo” at Stormfield Theatre – which makes her the only person to be nominated in nine out 10 years of The Wilde Awards! That’s rather impressive, don’t you think?”
Another Wilde Night
Winners of The 2011 Wilde Awards will be announced at a delightfully prestigious ceremony Wednesday, Aug. 24 at Detroit’s Gem Theatre. Complete details will be announced soon.
“But since this IS our 10th anniversary, expect there to be plenty of surprises, good food, entertainment and camaraderie,” Calamia concluded. “Our goal has always been to honor the excellent work produced every year by our professional theater industry – and this year, not only will it be one of the few remaining theater awards sponsored by a media company in Michigan, we’re now the ONLY ceremony to honor theaters throughout the entire state. What won’t change, though, is the fact we’ll still be the most unique and fun event of the season. It’s an exciting adult night out, and we think Oscar Wilde, our namesake, would be proud! After all, as we’ve said many times, it IS One Wilde Night!”
For a complete list of nominations, log on to http://www.encoremichigan.com/article.html?article=4698