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By Carolyn Hayes
Posted: Aug. 22, 2012 at 9:00 p.m.
Changes took front and center at last night's 11th annual Wilde Awards, EncoreMichigan.com's celebration of the best of Michigan professional theater for the 2011–2012 season. Not only did the ceremony and reception move from downtown Detroit to West Bloomfield's new Berman Center for the Performing Arts, but the major changes in the organization itself received due attention.
After a long year of uncertainty and transition, ownership of EncoreMichigan.com has been successfully transferred from site founder and event co-sponsor Between the Lines to the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance, which produced this year's awards. The sense of passing the torch was in place from the opening statement, in which META Board Chair Carla Milarch took the podium to deliver a series of satirical remarks supposedly on behalf of host and EncoreMichigan.com editor Donald V. Calamia. The joke acknowledged the elephant in the room – this novel and unusual partnership of theater producers and reviewers, and the attendant questions it has raised – and dispensed with it swiftly to focus on the night's few dozen accolades.
EncoreMichigan.com's continuing expansion to statewide coverage was again reflected in the array of winners: Of the 18 theaters to receive awards, five were outside what had been the outlet's traditional market. Yet Calamia noted that the increased breadth consistently ramped up the competition, demonstrating the high quality of professional theater across Michigan. "After the critics got together late last spring to determine the nominees and the winners, one of the things that really surprised us was how evenly distributed the winners were," he reflected. "We hadn't planned that, nor was that one of our goals. But the excellent work produced by theaters large and small all across the state really stood out – and those are the shows that were honored tonight."
Among the standard Wilde Award categories, two new awards were introduced this year to highlight Shakespeare productions and performances. Michigan Shakespeare Festival received the Best of the Bard award for "The Winter's Tale," in addition to netting Best Design – Lights for designer Brian Scruggs and Best Comedy for "Tartuffe," the most wins of the night by a single theater.
For its part, The Berman proved an elegant backdrop as well as an almost too-amenable party venue. The inspired addition of bar stations and cabaret seating at the rear of the theater was so popular, longtime co-host Suzan M. Jacokes was moved to crack wise about the vast number of vacant seats up front. Yet the state-of-the-art facility was more than accommodating for the usual elements of a Wilde Awards production, from the mid-show musical selections from nominated production "Robocop: The Musical," to the seamless – and briefly animated – slide show visuals. "This was our first year at The Berman, and it's an amazing facility," Calamia said. "They made it clear almost a year ago that they wanted The Berman to be our new home, and they went all out to make this an exceptional experience for us. It was – and I appreciate how well this came off for a first-time event of this magnitude."
Special acknowledgment was abundant in the night's supplemental awards, including the always-offbeat Wilde-r Awards, which this year recognized a human ventriloquist's dummy and an inscrutably uproarious musical act, among others. Recognition of a more formal stripe included a special Performance of the Century Award to recognize the Actors' Equity Association for a century of service to the community. Michael A. Gravame, who received the Jim Posante Community Pride Award for his work at the helm of The Actors' Company, was one of many recipients who remarked on the challenges of pursuing theater, reflecting on personal and professional hardships before determinedly quoting Sondheim: "I'm still here."
In a final nod to EncoreMichigan.com's ownership transition, Calamia honored BTL publishers Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz with the Biggest Thank You Ever Award; they, in turn, announced the creation of the new Founder's Award for Excellence. In a nod to the former LGBT categories omitted this year, Stevenson and Horowitz presented the Founder's Award to the Ringwald Theatre for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the show that would have been selected for best production with LGBT themes or characters.
In total, distribution of 30 awards and a number of special features and vignettes raced by in less than two hours, a feat helped by the largely brief and jovial remarks of the recipients. In accepting the award for Best Drama, director Rhiannon Ragland of The Purple Rose Theatre Company's "A Stone Carver" began with humility, saying, "Thanks for taking a chance on a little girl from Flint." Peter Prouty, named Best Performance, Actor – Original One-Act Comedy or Solo Performance, charmingly evoked the genuine surprise that permeated much of the night: "Oh," he grinned timidly, "I always wanted one of these."
In brief expository comments, references to the highly politicized reading of "The Vagina Monologues" on the Capitol steps recently organized by Milarch, and the plethora of talent and achievement evident in the collective nominations and honorees, the Wilde Awards were once again a comprehensive reflection on the year in Michigan professional theater. Even the Critics' Choice Award recipient, The Hinterlands, was singled out in part for being a rare and thrilling import in a community that sees more artists leaving than returning.
Calamia summed up the 2011–2012 season with the same fortitude: "This was a season of change for the entire industry: A few theaters closed, even more opened – and the way EncoreMichigan.com functions also changed. But as we saw tonight, the energy in this community is amazing, and despite the hardships that all of us faced, amazing art was still produced. When times get tough, get out of the way: Artists are even tougher!"
Winners: The 2012 Wilde Awards
"Tartuffe," Michigan Shakespeare Festival; Robert Kauzlaric, director
"A Stone Carver," The Purple Rose Theatre Company; Rhiannon Ragland, director
Best Musical or Opera
"I Pagliacci," Michigan Opera Theatre; Bernard Uzan, director
Best Original One-Act Comedy
"Wirelessless," Go Comedy! Improv Theater; Bryan Lark, director
Best of The Bard
"The Winter's Tale," Michigan Shakespeare Festival; Janice Blixt, director
Best Touring Production
"Rock of Ages," Broadway in Detroit
Best New Script
Joseph Zettelmaier, "Dead Man's Shoes," Williamston Theatre & Performance Network Theatre
Best Performance, Actress – Comedy
Robin Lewis-Bedz, "The Dead Guy," Williamston Theatre
Best Performance, Actress – Drama
Linda Ramsay, "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice," Planet Ant Theatre
Best Performance, Actress – Musical or Opera
Kim Zimmer, "Sunset Boulevard," Barn Theatre
Best Performance, Actress – Original One-Act Comedy or Solo Performance
Cara Trautman, "Seance 4," Planet Ant Theatre
Best Performance – The Bard
Kat Hermes, "Henry IV, Part 1," Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company
Best Performance, Actor - Comedy
David Spencer, "The 39 Steps," Mason Street Warehouse
Best Performance, Actor - Drama
Guy Sanville, "A Stone Carver," The Purple Rose Theatre Company
Best Performance, Actor – Musical or Opera
Corey McKern, "The Marriage of Figaro," Michigan Opera Theatre
Best Performance, Actor - Original One-Act Comedy or Solo Performance
Peter Prouty, "Oh, Hell!," The Abreact
Miriam Henkel-Moellmann & Natalie Sparbeck, "Cinderella," Barn Theatre
Alexander Elisa, Will Lee Williams & Tyrick Wiltez Jones, "From My Hometown," Meadow Brook Theatre
Kathryn S. Williams, "Urinetown," Farmers Alley Theatre
Best Music Direction
Bill Meyer, "A Jazzy Christmas," Plowshares Theatre Company
Best Design - Sets
Monika Essen, "Red," Performance Network Theatre
Best Design - Lights
Brian Scruggs, "The Winter's Tale," Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Best Design - Sound
John Purchase, "A Few Good Men," What A Do Theatre
Best Design - Props
Diane E. Ulseth, "The Whipping Man," The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company & Plowshares Theatre Company
Best Design – Costumes
Nina Barlow and Megan Johnson, "The Tempest," Water Works Theatre Company
Critics' Choice Award
Founders Award for Excellence
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," The Ringwald Theatre; Joe Plambeck, director
Jim Posante Community Pride Award
Michael A. Gravame
Performance of the Century Award
Actors' Equity Association
The Biggest Thank You Ever Award
Jan Stevenson & Susan Horowitz
Publishers, Between The Lines