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Despite the challenges of a still-struggling economy and an environment that often seems hostile to the arts, Michigan's professional theaters not only survived their 2009-10 seasons, many seemingly thrived. They lowered ticket prices, implemented tough budgetary controls and offered patrons a slate of shows that filled their seats. But it was a wild and difficult ride, and as the season came to a close, Southeast and Mid-Michigan's theater landscape had been altered forever.
That's especially true in Lansing, where the BoarsHead Theater officially closed after a proposed partnership with Lansing Community College was voted down by LCC's board of trustees on May 17 of this year. The city's longtime Equity theater announced a short hiatus last November to reorganize its business and artistic operations, then suspended the season altogether. But considerable debt, fallout from the dismissal of popular artistic director Kristine Thatcher and a skeptical LCC board doomed the 44-year-old BoarsHead to a sad and ignoble end.
A week later an already-stunned community was further saddened to learn yet another favorite theater, Icarus Falling, shut its doors effective May 29. Co-founded in 2000 by artistic director Jeff Croff, the small, but spunky troupe earned a solid reputation for its staging of edgy and contemporary shows. But the company lost steam in 2007 following the untimely death of supporter Robert Busby and the loss of its longtime home, the popular Creole Gallery. And it never fully recovered.
Not all news coming out of Lansing was negative, however. Following her unexpected departure from the BoarsHead - which sparked nationwide outrage - Thatcher shot back by founding Stormfield Theatre. And she brought with her a couple of longtime favorites: award-winning actress Carmen Decker and BoarsHead co-founder and actor John Peakes.
Meanwhile, Michigan State University's Wharton Center for Performing Arts partnered with Broadway Grand Rapids to coordinate the day-to-day operations of the 21-year-old organization, which presents touring Broadway productions at DeVos Performance Hall.
The situation downstate was not much different.
The season opened last year with two announcements that got tongues and gossipmongers working overtime: the dismissal of founder and artistic director Evelyn Orbach from The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company and the resignation of executive director Christina Johnson from Tipping Point Theatre. Then, in August, artistic producer John Neville-Andrews resigned from the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.
Eventually, and after much rumor mongering, their seats were filled by Dr. David Magidson (JET), James Kuhl (TPT) and Jan Blixt (MSF). And just last month, Travis W. Walter was named permanent artistic director of Meadow Brook Theatre.
They - and their counterparts all across the state - then set out to accomplish the seemingly impossible: to keep their theaters alive for yet another season. The results speak for themselves, as Performance Network Theatre, The Encore Musical Theatre, the Fox Theatre, The Gem Theatre, The Ringwald, JET and TPT were among the theaters that packed their performances and extended runs of their most popular shows. And the Fisher Theatre broke box office records last December with Jersey Boys.
Not all good news was the result of increased attendance, however.
Pj Jacokes of Go Comedy! Improv Theater received national acclaim - and $100,000 - for his winning entry in Edy's Red, White & No More Blues ice cream contest, while Mosaic Youth Theater received two awards totaling $62,000 from the National Chase Facebook Challenge.
But that's not all.
Macomb County residents welcomed its second professional producing theater to the neighborhood when What's That Smell? opened its doors last fall at The Box Theatre in downtown Mt. Clemens. And across Detroit's international border, Windsor, Ontario saw the debut this spring of Crossing Borders Production.
Ann Arbor's Blackbird Theatre, however, became a gypsy troupe when it departed the Children's Creative Center for a home in the city's thriving downtown. But unexpected problems with a handful of potential spaces caused the company to modify its season and present the remainder of its shows in a variety of temporary locations. Founder Barton Bund promises an announcement soon regarding his company's new location.
Finally, when times get tough, thespians come together and work to resolve mutual problems. The Detroit Theatre Initiative appeared briefly last fall in the Motor City, but quickly disappeared from view. Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company spearheads an initiative to provide training and educational opportunities to artists in Metro Detroit. And the eight theaters that produce shows under contracts with the Actors' Equity Association along the Detroit-Ann Arbor-Lansing corridor have formed the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance.
But while the behind the scenes machinations are interesting only to a limited number of people, it's what the theaters produce that excites the general public. And during the recently concluded 2009-10 professional theater season, theatergoers were treated to an exciting selection of shows - and that's what we're honoring with nominations for The Ninth Annual Wilde Awards!
Beginning mid-May 2009 and ending 12 months later, EncoreMichigan.com's five theater critics crisscrossed Southeast and Mid-Michigan and reviewed another record-breaking 128 professional productions produced or presented by 33 theater companies. Editorial director Donald V. Calamia was joined by critics D. A. Blackburn, Martin F. Kohn, Jenn McKee and Bridgette M. Redman, each of whom was thrilled gas prices stayed below $3 a gallon as they traveled from Detroit to Lansing and numerous stops in between. No other publication in the state provided more comprehensive theater coverage.
The season, Calamia said, was one of the best in recent memory. "Every year the theaters step up and produce better work than the year before, and that's especially true of the 2009-10 season. There were a lot of memorable shows - from the smallest houses to the largest. And they seem to have filled a lot more seats than what I've observed over the last couple of years."
Because of the increased quality, Calamia continued, coming up with this year's Wilde Awards nominees was tough. "Our list of potential nominees was quite long," he explained. "But even with a few additional categories this year, a lot of noteworthy shows and performances didn't make the final cut. But the list we DID come up with is a fine representative of the excellent work that theatergoers were treated to throughout the season."
Categories announced this year increased from 18 to 23, Calamia noted. "Plus, we have a few specialty awards and a couple of surprise categories that won't be announced until the night of The Wilde Awards ceremony."
In total, 56 productions earned at least one nomination, as did 24 of the theaters reviewed.
And not unexpectedly - based on discussions circulating throughout the community - Performance Network Theatre's production of Little Shop of Horrors earned twice the number of nominations than its nearest rivals A Sleeping Country (Tipping Point Theatre), Gravity (The Purple Rose Theatre Company), It Came From Mars (Performance Network and Williamston Theatres) and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company), each of which has four.
At the other end of the spectrum, 24 shows received a single nomination. "I think I say this every year, but the shows nominated this year are probably the most diverse we've ever honored," Calamia said, "not only in the subject matter they cover, but also which theaters received them."
With 21, the top-nominated theater is Performance Network. "Five of the Network's shows this season walked away with multiple nominations, which I think is an all-time record. They kicked ass pretty much all year long," Calamia said.
Other theaters with significant nominations include Who Wants Cake? with 14, The Jewish Ensemble and The Purple Rose with nine each, and the Hilberry Theatre with eight. What this proves, Calamia believes, "is that even the theaters with the smallest budgets and tiniest houses can produce some of the best and most entertaining shows. Even Sweetlove Productions, with only one show to its credit, earned a nomination!"
So too did 96 individual artists - performers, directors, designers and playwrights. "These are the categories that changed the most - and a few changed after the season got underway," Calamia explained. "We separated and expanded the technical awards, which we felt was necessary to adequately honor these hardworking craftspeople. But we also changed the performance-based categories to better acknowledge the contributions of the supporting actors. That wasn't our original plan, but once the season got underway and we were knocked out by so many of the supporting performances, we simply HAD to give them their proper due."
Actor/director Joe Bailey earned the most nominations with four. Designers Monika Essen and Tommy LeRoy and director Tony Caselli followed with three each.
But one name was missing this year. "This is the first time since the beginning of The Wilde Awards that Lansing's Carmen Decker isn't nominated for anything," Calamia said. "The closure of the BoarsHead took away the one opportunity for her to earn a nomination, which in turn, ended her run as the only person to be nominated every year of The Wilde Awards. But hopefully that will change when Stormfield gears ups to produce full-length plays."
Another Wilde Night
Winners of The 2010 Wilde Awards will be announced at a delightfully prestigious ceremony Sept. 1 at Detroit's Gem Theatre. Complete details will be announced shortly. The annual event is sponsored by Pride Source Media Group and Encore Michigan LLC.
"It's hard to believe we've been doing this for nine seasons now," Calamia said. "And that we're the last surviving media theater awards ceremony in Southeast Michigan. But we feel it's important to honor the professional theater industry's best productions, performances and designs - and we do so in a very unique and fun style. It's an adult night out at the theater, and we think Oscar Wilde would highly approve of it! After all, it IS One Wilde Night!"
THE 2010 WILDE AWARDS NOMINATIONS! Click here for the complete list of nominations!
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