Two mid-sized professional stage companies — one of them stranded here by Hurricane Katrina and the other begun boldly by young stage artists — on Monday night won the top Barrymore Awards, the annual honors for excellence in professional Philadelphia theater.
EgoPo Classic Theatre won the Barrymore Award for best production of a play for its freshly interpreted version of Anton Chekhov’s look at dashed hopes, “The Seagull.” Thom Weaver won for his scenic design of the show, a lakeside summer-house setting. EgoPo also won the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an evolving theater company — $10,000 this year and $2,500 for each of the next three years.
EgoPo, the vision of its artistic leader, Lane Savadove, was in a sense swept into Philadelphia from its New Orleans home by Katrina, which struck in 2005 while the stage company was rehearsing in the city for a touring production here. Its new theater in New Orleans was destroyed, and some of its theater artists were suddenly homeless. The Philadelphia theater community — burgeoning at that time into the minor but vibrant industry it is today — rallied and so did arts funders. EgoPo became both a rescue story and a success.
The 11th Hour Theatre Company, a producer of boutique musicals and concert versions of bigger ones, won for best production of a musical for the boisterous and edgy “Lizzie,” a rock version of Lizzie Borden’s life. During a season of musical concerts, the stage company produces one fully staged musical a year, and “Lizzie” was last season’s entry.
The show won five awards, the most handed out Monday for any production. Alex Keiper won as best musical actress for her portrayal of Borden, and the cast won for best musical ensemble. Its director, Kate Galvin, won for best direction of a musical, and Dan Kazemi won for the show’s music direction.
Three artistic entrepreneurs — Michael Philip O’Brien, his sister Megan Nicole O’Brien, and Steve Pacek, all in their 20s at the time – founded 11th Hour to produce musicals too bizarre or too intimate to be on the general radar of other companies. Its founders have become well-established in the theater community and, like EgoPo, the company has attracted a dedicated, even ardent, audience. Pacek directed the awards ceremony Monday night at the Merriam Theater.
The Barrymore for the best new play went to Will Snider for “How to Use a Knife,” a tough consideration of friendship set inside a restaurant kitchen and given a seamless production by InterAct Theatre Company. Blanka Zizka, artistic leader of Wilma Theater, took home the Barrymore for best direction of a play, for her staging of “When the Rain Stops Falling,” an exploration of a family over four generations and on two continents in an era of climate change. Its cast won for outstanding ensemble in a play, and two designers — Yi Zhao and Christopher Colucci — won for they play’s lighting and sound, respectively.
A new category for next year
The 22nd Barrymore Awards for excellence cited winners in 22 different categories with trophies, and four more categories came with prize money worth a total of $87,500. Of the 39 professional companies eligible for Barrymores, 10 were producers of shows awarded Monday night. The judges — a volunteer collection of theater artists, academics, and some critics and audience members — saw 107 productions during the last season, which ended in June. The awards are overseen by the umbrella group Theatre Philadelphia.
The Barrymore ceremony at the Merriam Theater is the way metropolitan Philadelphia’s professional theater community celebrates its accomplishments in a glittery night out with lots of cheering and good feeling. The show, which about 800 people attended, featured an opening number from Martha Graham Cracker — the popular drag-queen alter ego of actor Dito van Reigersberg — that mentioned the nominees for best overall production. The ceremony included an on-stage band and a memorial tribute during which actor-composer Pax Ressler performed. Off to one side of the stage, the ceremony was delivered in American Sign Language.
Next year’s Barrymores will include a new award for best media design, announced at the ceremony by Leigh Goldenberg, Theatre Philadelphia’s executive director. It will recognize designers’ work in projections, video, and other digital media — work that has become increasingly prevalent in stage productions over the past decade. With Goldenberg’s announcement, Theatre Philadelphia trumps Broadway’s Tony Awards, whose overseers give no recognition to media designers fighting for a place on the Tony roster.
Once again this year, the awards were skewed because the Walnut Street Theatre — the largest in audience and budgets and the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater — and Media Theatre, which produces musicals in Delaware County, chose not to participate.
Awards and prizes
The Barrymore for best actor in a play ended in a tie vote by the judges. It went to two actors visible on several local stages — Jered McLenigan for the Wilma’s production of the time-warping two-person “Constellations,” and Matteo Scammell as a novice female impersonator in Arden Theatre Company’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” The Arden, which overwhelmed the Barrymore nominations with 39 nods announced this summer, received four awards Monday night, including Scammell’s. Alex Bechtel — a composer, actor, director and performer — won as best musical actor for the Arden’s family production of “The Light Princess,” and Bechtel and Anthony Lawton, also a versatile theater artist, won for the original music they composed. Caroline Dooner won as best supporting musical actress for her portrayal of Gypsy Rose Lee in the Arden’s “Gypsy.”
For her portrayal of a motel maid whose rooms include Dr. Martin King Jr.’s the night before he is murdered, Patrese D. McLain won the Barrymore for best actress in a play. The play, “The Mountaintop,” was produced by People’s Light in Malvern.
Best supporting actor in a musical went to Doug Hara, who played Mr. Bungee, a TV character dressed like a frog, in the musical “A New Brain” at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. David Bardeen took home a best supporting-actor Barrymore for portraying a mentally challenged man who frequents a soup kitchen in Theatre Horizon’s “Grand Concourse.” The best supporting actress in a play was Hillary Parker, who portrayed all the Westerners in a drama about two North Korean sisters, “You for Me for You,” from InterAct Theatre Company.
The Barrymore for choreography went to Michael Cosenza, who created the swift movement for Tribe of Fools’ “Anithero,” a show about a man who fights the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Rebecca Kanach won for her fantasy animal costumes in “Peaceable Kingdom.”
That show, produced by a consortium of eight local playwrights called Orbiter 3, won the largest single monetary prize Monday night — the $25,000 Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award for a production that demonstrates the ability of theater to illuminate community issues and interactions. “Peaceable Kingdom,” about a group of animals living in a utopia, is by versatile theater artist Mary Tuomanen. On Monday night, Tuomanen found herself doubly celebrated — she also won the $15,000 F. Otto Hass Award for an emerging theater artist.
Curio Theatre Company, performing a season in West Philadelphia, took home the $7,500 Victory Foundation Award for a theater education program. The company is in its 13th year of providing theater education to teenagers in West Philadelphia, whether they can pay for the program or not, and also runs a performance group for advanced students in the program.
Three of the monetary award donors also give lesser sums to the runners-up, bringing the total of Barrymore cash awards this year to $87, 500. (For the record, I am a judge on the committee for the Wolfson Award.)
The Barrymore lifetime achievement award, announced earlier, went to Penelope Reed, director emeritus of Hedgerow Theatre Company near Media, a historic company she led and has acted with for decades. She was born into a family of actors, studied at what’s now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, acted for a dozen years with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and then at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
Reed also had studied in high school at Hedgerow, an abandoned mill in Rose Valley where actor Jasper Deeter led classes and the stage company. After a fire wrecked the property in the mid-‘80s, Reed came back to help restore the theater and rebuild the company, which runs a full season and education programs today.
To qualify for Barrymore awards, a theater company must pay its cast and crew minimums of $150 a week for actors, $500 a show for designers, and $750 a show for directors. The larger companies holding contracts here with Actors’ Equity, the national union of actors and stage managers, must pay more than those minimum scales.
An all-volunteer team of Barrymore nominators declared whether shows were eligible for nominations and in which categories. Among the 60 nominators — theater artists, academics and some critics and audience members — teams of eight were randomly assigned to see each eligible production. The teams forwarded their recommendations to a panel of 12 judges. The panel met quarterly and eventually narrowed their choices down to a maximum of seven nominees in play categories, four in musical categories.
The same 12 judges used a weighted scoring system to vote their choices for first, second, and so on in each category. The nominee with the highest score in each category became the winner.
The full listing of winners follows. (See the complete list of nominees.)
2017 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theater
Outstanding Overall Production of a Play
“The Seagull” (EgoPo Classic Theatre)
Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical
“Lizzie” (11th Hour Theatre Company)
Outstanding New Play/Musical
“How to Use a Knife” by Will Snider (InterAct Theatre Company)
Outstanding Direction of a Play
Blanka Zizka for “When the Rain Stops Falling” (Wilma Theater)
Outstanding Direction of a Musical
Kate Galvin for “Lizzie” (11th Hour Theatre Company)
Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play
Jered McLenigan, “Constellations” (Wilma Theater)
Matteo Scammell, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” (Arden Theatre Company)
Outstanding Leading Actress in a Play
Patrese D. McLain, “The Mountaintop” (People’s Light)
Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical
Alex Bechtel, “The Light Princess” (Arden Theatre Company)
Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical
Alex Keiper, “Lizzie” (11th Hour Theatre Company)
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play
David Bardeen, “Grand Concourse” (Theatre Horizon)
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play
Hillary Parker, “You for Me for You” (InterAct Theatre Company)
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical
Doug Hara, “A New Brain” (Theatre Horizon)
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical
Caroline Dooner, “Gypsy” (Arden Theatre Company)
Outstanding Scenic Design
Thom Weaver, “The Seagull” (EgoPo Classic Theatre)
Outstanding Costume Design
Rebecca Kanach, “Peaceable Kingdom” (Orbiter 3)
Outstanding Lighting Design
Yi Zhao, “When the Rain Stops Falling” (Wilma Theater)
Outstanding Sound Design
Christopher Colucci, “When the Rain Stops Falling” (Wilma Theater)
Outstanding Original Music
Alex Bechtel and Anthony Lawton, “The Light Princess” (Arden Theatre Company)
Michael Cosenza, “Antihero” (Tribe of Fools)
Outstanding Music Direction
Dan Kazemi, “Lizzie” (11th Hour Theatre Company)
Outstanding Ensemble in a Play
Cast of “When the Rain Stops Falling” (The Wilma Theater)
Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical
Cast of “Lizzie” (11th Hour Theatre Company)
Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist
Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award
“Peaceable Kingdom” by Mary Tuomanen (Orbiter 3)
June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company
EgoPo Classic Theatre
Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program
Curio Theatre Company
Lifetime Achievement Award