Theater Exile and Arden win the top Barrymore Awards

Bailey Ryon (left)

Bailey Ryon (left)

Islamic militants kidnap an investment banker in Pakistan and a grade-school girl is entranced by a forbidden garden – productions on those two themes won Theatre Exile and Arden Theatre Company the top Barrymore Awards on Monday night for excellence on Philadelphia stages during the last theater season.

The scrappy, mid-sized Theatre Exile, which produces mostly in South Philadelphia, won five Barrymores – the most of any company. All were for a single production, the hot Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” about an investment banker kidnapped in Pakistan for a $10 million ransom. In addition to winning for best dramatic production, awards for the show went to director Matt Pfeiffer and its leading actor, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, playing a militant. J. Paul Nicholas won best supporting actor for his portrayal of the kidnappers’ ringleader, and Michael Kiley won for his sound design of the show.

This is the second year in a row that Theater Exile, whose audiences expect cutting-edge and at times risky work, has won the most Barrymores. Last year, the company also won five.

Arden Theatre Company’s production of the “The Secret Garden” – the sometimes dark and sometimes sunny musical adaptation by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon of the popular children’s story – won best musical production. The elegant staging on two levels had dead characters looking down on those who are living. Arden’s family production of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” won its associate artistic director Matthew Decker a Barrymore for his direction.

The Barrymore for the best new play went to R. Eric Thomas for “Time Is on Our Side,” his solidly constructed exploration of whether a family history can be used by an outsider to make money, and a survey of Philadelphia’s gay history as well. The world premiere was commissioned by its producer, Simpatico Theatre Project, which won the Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award – a Barrymore $25,000 cash prize for a production that demonstrates the ability of theater to illuminate community issues and interactions.

The 21st Barrymore Awards for excellence cited winners in 27 different categories with trophies, and four of them come with prize money worth a total of more than $75,000 for winners and runners-up. Of the 35 professional companies eligible for Barrymores, 15 were producers of shows awarded Monday night. The judges — mostly a volunteer collection of theater artists, academics and critics — saw 103 productions in all during the last season, which ended in June. The awards are overseen by the umbrella group Theatre Philadelphia.

The awards ceremony at the Merriam Theater is the way the metropolitan Philadelphia theater community celebrates its accomplishments in a glittery night out with lots of good feeling — and on Monday night, plenty of whooping and cheering. The two-hour show, which about 900 people attended, featured an original opening number, performances of pieces from best-musical nominees, a memorial tribute and an on-stage band. Off to one side of the stage, the ceremony was delivered in American Sign Language.

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.

E. Ashley Izard took home a Barrymore for best leading actress in a play, for her portrayal of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist “Happy Days.” The play was produced by Quintessence Theatre Group in Mount Airy. Jaylene Clark Owens, who played a pre-Civil War slave with a modern take on life in Wilma Theater’s production of the cutting-edge play “An Octoroon,” won best supporting actress in a play.

The best leading actor in a musical is Scott McPheeters, whose work has been primarily in dance; he won for playing the transsexual Candy Darling in “Andy: A Popera,” a show in last year’s Philly Fringe Festival that was a collaboration between the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia. Malgorzata Kasprzycka won best supporting musical actress for her portrayal of Andy Warhol’s mother in that show.

Jennifer Childs, the head of 1812 Productions, won as best leading musical actress for her portraits of many characters in “I Will Not Go Gently,” a show about aging that she wrote.

Jake Blouch’s performance of a lover, a husband and a derelict in 11th Hour Theatre Company’s “See What I Wanna See” won him a best supporting musical actor Barrymore.

Theatre Horizon in Norristown won three Barrymores, all for its electrifying holiday production of the musical “Black Nativity.” Jenn Rose won for her energetic choreography; Will Brock won for his musical direction, which included his arrangements; the entire cast won for its ensemble performance. The award for best play ensemble went to the cast of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning,” about a soldier who sends classified documents to WikiLeaks. It was produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company.

The Barrymore for scenic design went to Luke Hegel-Cantarella for “Auctioning the Ainsleys” at People’s Light in Malvern. The company’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” won Marla Jurglanis a Barrymore for her costume design. Ryan O’Gara won for his lighting design of “Man of La Mancha” at Bristol Riverside Theatre, and Josh Tortora for his original music in Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s “He Who Gets Slapped.”

A new cash award this year is $7,500 from the Victory Foundation for an outstanding education program run by a theater company. The award went to 1812 Productions for its 1812 Outreach, a program that teaches high-school students the basics of theatre: playwriting, acting, directing, production, and how to incorporate new multi-media technology.

The $15,000 F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist, funded by Carole Haas Gravagno to honor her late husband, went to the actress Bi Jean Ngo, who has worked on many area stages in the last few years, often in intense roles. The cash award she received supports its winners’ living expenses to encourage them to remain in the Philadelphia theater community.

Azuka Theatre, whose marketing material defines it as telling the stories “of outcasts and underdogs,” and whose audience is possibly the youngest adult audience in the region, captured the $10,000 award for an evolving theater company. The award is given by arts supporters June and Steve Wolfson for a developing company whose budget is under $400,000. The award was accepted Monday night by Kevin Glaccum, the producing artistic director, whose company has produced 13 world premieres by Philadelphia playwrights since its founding in 1999.

In a bold move this season, Azuka this year is allowing audience members to pay whatever they wish after they see Azuka productions. (For the record, I am a judge on the committee for the Wolfson Award.)

The Barrymore lifetime achievement award, which was announced earlier, went to the longtime leader of Philadelphia Theatre Company, Sara Garonzik. By coincidence, Garonzik has announced that after almost 35 years as the face of the company, she’ll be leaving in 2017 to pursue independent theater projects.

Garonzik was a Temple University Spanish major who stumbled into a theater career when she responded – just for something to do — to a call for actors to put on a show in the early ’70s, when the professional theater community in Philadelphia was nascent. She found work at the Philadelphia Company, co-founded by Robert Hedley, a former Barrymore lifetime-achievement winner and the current head of Temple University’s theater department. That company became Philadelphia Theatre Company and Garonzik became its artistic director, leading it through decades of productions, a money crisis that caused it to suspend production one season, and more recently into the company’s home at the Suzanne Roberts Theater at Broad and Lombard Streets.

Garonzik is currently called executive producing director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, which has introduced almost 150 world or regional premieres of American plays and musicals over the years. She served a three-year term as president of the board of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and is now vice president.

Among the 60 Barrymore nominators, teams of eight were randomly assigned to see each eligible production. They forwarded their recommendations to a panel of 12 judges who met periodically and eventually narrowed the choices to a maximum of seven nominees in play categories, four in musical categories.

The same 12 judges then 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 is the winner.To qualify for the 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. Larger companies eligible for Barrymore Awards hold higher-level contracts with Actors’ Equity, the national union of actors and stage managers, which requires more than those minimum scales.

At the end of the ceremony Monday night, attendees walked down Broad Street to an after-party at the University of the Arts’ Dorrance Hamilton Hall.

The full listing of winners follows.

2015 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre

Outstanding Overall Production of a Play“The Invisible Hand” (Theatre Exile)

Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical“The Secret Garden” (Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Direction of a PlayMatt Pfeiffer for “The Invisible Hand” (Theatre Exile)

Outstanding Direction of a MusicalMatthew Decker for “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” (Arden Theatre Company)

Outstanding Leading Actor in a PlayMaboud Ebrahimzadeh in “The Invisible Hand” (Theatre Exile)

Outstanding Leading Actress in a PlayE. Ashley Izard in “Happy Days” (Quintessence Theatre Group)

Outstanding Leading Actor in a MusicalScott McPheeters in “Andy: A Popera” (The Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia)

Outstanding Leading Actress in a MusicalJennifer Childs in “I Will Not Go Gently” (1812 Productions)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a PlayJ. Paul Nicholas in “The Invisible Hand” (Theatre Exile)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a PlayJaylene Clark Owens in “An Octoroon” (The Wilma Theater)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a MusicalJake Blouch in “See What I Wanna See” (11th Hour Theatre Company)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a MusicalMalgorzata Kasprzycka in “Andy: A Popera” (The Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia)

Outstanding Scenic DesignLuke Hegel-Cantarella for “Auctioning the Ainsleys” (People’s Light)

Outstanding Costume DesignMarla Jurglanis for “Sense and Sensibility” (People’s Light)

Outstanding Lighting DesignRyan O’Gara for “Man of La Mancha” (Bristol Riverside Theatre)

Outstanding Sound DesignMichael Kiley for “The Invisible Hand” (Theatre Exile)

Outstanding Original MusicJosh Tortora for “He Who Gets Slapped” (Philadelphia Artists’ Collective)

Outstanding Choreography/MovementJenn Rose for “Black Nativity” (Theatre Horizon)

Outstanding Music DirectionWill Brock for “Black Nativity” (Theatre Horizon)

Outstanding Ensemble in a Play“The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” (Inis Nua Theatre Company)

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical“Black Nativity” (Theatre Horizon)

Outstanding New Play/MusicalR. Eric Thomas for “Time Is On Our Side” (Simpatico Theatre)

F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre ArtistBi Jean Ngo

Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award“Time Is On Our Side” (Simpatico Theatre)

June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre CompanyAzuka Theatre

Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program1812 Outreach (1812 Productions)

Lifetime Achievement AwardSara Garonzik

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