Philadelphia theater celebrates with cash awards and a posthumous honor

 An image from a scene in Arden Theatre Company's

An image from a scene in Arden Theatre Company's "Next to Normal," which won a $25,000 award Monday night. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

A production of a musical about mental illness, a theater artist with a broad interest in performance, and a spunky stage company devoted to musicals won a total of $56,500 in cash awards Monday night when Philadelphia’s theater community came out to celebrate itself.


Theatre Philadelphia, created by artistic directors and others a year ago after the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance closed its operations, sponsored the sold-out ceremony. It drew more than 400 people to the Arden Theatre for an evening that ended with a party that included performances at the Arden’s just-opened Hamilton Family Arts Center, a few doors from the company’s main theater complex on Second Street.

Normally at this time of year, the now-shuttered Alliance would present its Barrymore Awards — the highest honors for actors and theater professionals who design, direct, and produce about 180 plays and musicals at metropolitan Philadelphia’s 50-plus professional theater companies. But the Alliance closed in 2012 after declaring that it did not want to compete for funding with the theaters it served as an umbrella organization, and the Barrymore Awards were left stranded.

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No Barrymore judging was done last season. Theatre Philadelphia has revived the awards for next fall, and a large group of judges has been fanning out to shows this season. “We will gather together again in October of 2014 for the new and improved Barrymore Awards,” actor Johnnie Hobbs Jr. assured a cheering audience on Monday. “The Barrymore nominators and judges are already hard at work, and will continue to see all of the productions this coming season. The Barrymores are back.” Hobbs and another veteran local actor, Tom McCarthy, introduced the evening, an entertaining, polished and mostly scripted show of strength from the theater community.

The celebration Monday night, like one mounted quickly last fall after the Alliance’s demise, presented key holdovers from the Barrymores. On Monday, these were two long-established monetary awards, a new one and a lifetime achievement award.

The $10,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist went to Charlotte Ford, an actor, conceiver of unusual pieces and director. Ford works on many local stages, and her attachment to edgy Pig Iron Theatre Company has led her to broaden a career that takes stage risks and demands versatility – Ford is adept at everything from outré clowning to physical theater to Shakespeare.

“She’s a freakin’ daredevil!” according to Jennifer Childs, artistic director of 1812 Productions, who shouted that line out as part of a rap number in which she and an ensemble of women introduced Ford as a nominee for the award, dedicated to theater artists with outstanding promise and a commitment to work in the region. Among Ford’s recent work was a role in 1812 Productions’ “It’s My Party,” an original show exploring the relationship between women and comedy, last spring. In accepting the honor, Ford spoke of the teamwork in creating theater that exposed artists’ vulnerabilities to one another, and called it a process that lets “light shine through the cracks.”

Finalists for the Haas award, named for the late chairman of Rohm & Haas, each received $1,000. They are actor and writer-composer Liz Filios, a member of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret; playwright and dramaturg Jacqueline Goldfinger; director and Swim Pony Performing Arts’ co-founder Adrienne Mackey; and actor-director Alex Torra, a member of Pig Iron Theatre Company and the versatile director who co-founded Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. .

The $25,000 Brown Martin Philadelphia Award for a production that illuminates the way audiences understand issues and “individual, cultural and spiritual differences” went to the Arden Theatre Company for its production last season of the musical “Next to Normal,” among the first since the show had appeared on Broadway. The striking production – like the Broadway version – hit many audience members close to home with its uncanny real-life feel set inside the framework of musical theater. “Next to Normal” examines the effects of mental illness on family and caregivers, often one in the same. At the Arden, as on Broadway, some of the ticket holders were repeat audience members during the run.

This year for the first time, the Brown Martin award, sponsored by the Virginia Brown Martin Fund, presented each runner up with $2,500. They are 1812 Productions for the aforementioned “It’s My Party”; Simpatico Theatre Project and the Renegade Company for their co-production of “The Amish Project,” about the 2006 shooting at Nickel Mines schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pa.; and the Wilma Theater for its production of Tony Kushner’s “Perestroika,” the second of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” plays.

New this year is the $10,000 June and Steve Wolfson Award for an evolving theater company, which recognizes growth and excellence among local theaters with an annual operating budget of less than $400,000. Given the explosion of professional theaters here over the last decade, many qualify. The award by the Philadelphia family went to 11th Hour Theatre Company, which produces intimate, boutique and sometimes unusual musicals on stages in Center City and also now presents concert versions of musicals.

Over the eight years of 11th Hour’s operation, the company has won seven Barrymore Awards for its productions, including two for best ensemble. It was founded by three theater artists – Michael Philip O’Brien and Megan Nicole O’Brien (brother and sister) and Steve Pacek – all from the area and still running the company. (As a matter of record, this critic was among the judges for the award.)

The Lifetime Achievement Award, continuing a Barrymore tradition, was presented posthumously to the expressive actor Ceal Phelan, who performed on many stages but had become an iconic presence in 33 years of productions at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, where she was a longtime part of the repertory company. Ms. Phelan died February after a 10-year battle with cancer, through which she performed regularly.

In another part of her theater career, Ms. Phelan taught at numerous schools and universities. Although her illness had deepened by last December, “she insisted on making her final class at West Chester, watching scenes while propped up on pillows,” locally-based director David Bradley told the audience Monday night. As an actress, “she could fill the classics and bring life to new plays,” he said.

Ms. Phelan had acted with and guided many professionals, said People’s Light’s Kathryn Petersen who, among other work, writes the scripts to the stage company’s popular pantos at Christmastime. “Ceal’s commitment to craft, her pursuit of truth, her humility and her great belief in what art could do to effect change – these all live now in the work of a whole cadre of artists,” said Petersen who, with Bradley, announced the award. Ms. Phelan’s husband, actor Peter DeLaurier, often among her creative partners at People’s Light, accepted the award in her name. The two met in a play as college students, and DeLaurier offered thanks to her, in his speech, “for the very great gift of letting me share her entire career and adult life.”  

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