By BTL Staff
As the nation’s economy sputtered and tanked, Michigan’s professional theater community proved once again that when times get tough, thespians get creative. So what could have been a disastrous 2008-09 season was anything but, as theater executives quickly replaced dramas with comedies, dropped large cast shows for smaller ones, slashed ticket prices, reduced staff salaries, cut production schedules and created numerous incentives to lure patrons into their seats. But what they didn’t do was even more significant: They didn’t cut corners on their production values – and as a result, theatergoers in Southeast and Mid Michigan were treated to some of the most memorable and noteworthy shows to hit area stages in quite some time!
Yet even more surprising was this: that despite a significant loss of ticket revenue, state funds and contributions from foundations, corporations and individual donors, only one theater permanently closed its doors – Zeitgeist Gallery and Performance Venue – despite gloomy rumors to the contrary. Instead, Plowshares Theatre Company and StarBrite Theatrical Productions each took a season off, with plans to launch again during the 2009-10 season, while a handful of small, vagabond troupes such as The Actor’s Company and Theater One simply disappeared off the radar screen (as many of them do every year).
But for every loss there was a gain, as six new production companies opened for business during the 2008-09 season. The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter mixes Broadway actors with local talent, while Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale packs the house five nights a week with all-original programming. Meanwhile, the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company took up residence at the new Gryphon Theatre in downtown Detroit, while dinner theater options increased with the addition of Play With Your Food Productions in Wolverine Lake and TNT Productions in Wyandotte. And Etico Productions debuted as a full-service, independent entertainment and arts education provider.
There were also plenty of changes behind the scenes. BoarsHead Theater managing director Marlene Shelton left Michigan for the warmer climes of North Carolina and was replaced by John Dale Smith as executive director; Blackbird Theatre took the next step in its development with the hiring of Mori Richner as executive director; and Janet Torno joined Performance Network Theatre as director of development.
In other news, Detroit’s Fox Theatre turned 80; the Detroit Actors Guild celebrated 10 years as producer of the ever-popular “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding”; and Dog Story Theatre moved into its brand new home in Grand Rapids.
Plus, theatergoers were treated to an exciting season of professional shows – and that’s what we’re honoring with nominations for The Eighth Annual Wilde Awards.
Beginning mid-May 2008 and ending 12 months later, BTL’s four theater critics reviewed a record-breaking 112 professional productions produced by 30 Southeast and Mid Michigan theater companies. Assisting theater and arts editor Donald V. Calamia were associate critics Robert Bethune, D. A. Blackburn and Martin F. Kohn, who cringed every time they filled their gas tanks at, near or above $4 a gallon. Yet they happily drove from Lansing to Downtown Detroit and numerous places in-between to provide readers with the most comprehensive theater coverage in Michigan.
And what an unusual, interesting and intriguing season it was!
In total, 49 productions earned at least one nomination this year, as did nearly every theater reviewed (26).
Yet surprisingly, no single show – or theater company – dominates the nominations.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company’s “Panhandle Slim & The Oklahoma Kid” tops the nominations with four. Twelve productions are honored with three each, including “Geoffrey and Jeffrey” at Performance Network Theatre, “Killer Joe” at The Ringwald, “Panache” at Williamston Theatre, “Radio Golf” at the Detroit Repertory Theatre and “Beyond the Rainbow” at Meadow Brook Theatre. Another nine shows have two each, while 27 others are recipients of a single nomination.
“This was by far the most diverse set of show nominations we’ve ever had,” said Calamia. “It certainly wasn’t planned that way, but when the four of us got together and reviewed our scorecards for the season, this was the result. What it proves, to me at least, is that quality theater is happening in all of our theaters – not in just a select few or in those with the biggest budgets. And that’s great!”
Performance Network Theatre, with 15 nominations, is the top-nominated company for the second year in a row. Williamston Theatre follows with 10. Other top-nominated companies include The Ringwald (9), Meadow Brook Theatre(8) and the Detroit Repertory Theatre (6). Ten venues earned a single nomination.
Far more varied, however, are the 54 performance and design nominations. Only nine individuals received more than a single nomination – including five in non-performance categories – led by Malcolm Tulip (4) and Kevin T. Young (3).
And continuing to make Wilde Awards history is Lansing-based actress Carmen Decker, who is the only performer to receive a nomination in all eight years of The Wilde Awards.
“These are always the most difficult categories for us,” Calamia revealed. “We see hundreds of actors a year, and – this year – 112 different technical designs, so how do you narrow them all down to highlight the best performances, sets, lights and so on? It’s not as easy as you might think – especially considering the great work we saw this season. Trust me: We have some spirited discussions when it comes to these categories!”
One Wilde Night
Winners of the 2009 Wilde Awards will be announced at a delightfully prestigious ceremony August 26 at Detroit’s Gem Theatre. Complete details will be announced shortly.
“The Wilde Awards are our way to honor the professional theater industry’s best productions, performances and designs, and we do so in a unique, but very fun manner – which I think our namesake Oscar Wilde would highly approve of,” Calamia said. “It always is One Wilde Night – and this year will certainly be no different.”