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Professional theater in 2012-13: A season of WOW!

By Encore Michigan Staff

Posted: July 2, 2013 at 1:50 a.m.

LIVONIA - Despite the continuing challenges of a struggling economy and a society that appears conflicted when it comes to the importance of the arts in our daily lives, Michigan's recently completed 2012-13 professional theater season proved yet again that when confronted with seemingly insurmountable odds, thespians come together to produce shows of the highest caliber. According to Donald V. Calamia, editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state's only media company focused on live professional theater, the proof is reflected in the nominations for The 2013 Wilde Awards.

"There's only one word that comes to mind when describing the 2012-13 season, and it's 'wow,'" Calamia explained. "Our team of critics had the toughest time we've ever had coming up with our list of nominees and ultimately, the winners because of the across-the-board excellence we found all across the state."

Now in its 12th year, The Wilde Awards honors the best productions, performances and technical work produced or presented by professional theaters across the state. Nominations are based on reviews written by EncoreMichigan.com's team of professional critics.

"But what's more indicative of the industry's commitment to their art is the fact that few theaters closed during the season and a handful of others made their first appearance," Calamia noted. "Common sense would tell you that when the economy is sputtering and several theaters are struggling to stay alive, it might not be a good time to enter the business. But a few brave souls did, and whether foolish or not, they add to the vibrancy of what is already one of the best states for professional theater in the country."

The most significant closure, Calamia said, was Lansing's Stormfield Theatre. Founded in 2009 by Kristine Thatcher shortly after her stormy departure from the now-defunct BoarsHead Theater, Stormfield attempted to offer Mid Michigan a quality alternative to the once-popular BoarsHead. But the recession and a serious health issue faced by the much-loved-and-respected Thatcher ultimately doomed the company. It was "a good run," she told Lansing's City Pulse. And it was.

Another notable closure was The New Theatre Project, the much-talked-about young theater company based in Ypsilanti. Celebrated as creative risk takers, news of the closure said to be the result of the creative team moving on to other opportunities and projects stunned and disappointed many in the community. "I don't view this as a bad thing, but an opportunity to keep exploring unknown territories in new places," said artistic director Keith Paul Medelis in a press release. "Perhaps we'll be back with something new in the future. For now, this is the end."

Also missed during the 2012-13 season were recent entrants HappenStance Productions and Khoros Inc. And The Gem & Century Theatres remain open, but reportedly decided to get out of the producing business.

Coincidentally, the new companies surfaced during the season were likewise spread across Southeast and Mid Michigan: Dionysus Theatre in Livingston County, Shop Floor Theatre Company in Flint, and Puzzle Piece Theatre in Detroit.

"As I've probably said far too often, when times get tough, artists get more creative and once again the proof was seen on stages from Lake Michigan to the Detroit River and everywhere in between," Calamia said. "Live theater is the perfect art form to address the news of the day just as it is the perfect escape from the news of the day. So whether a producer has a million-dollar budget or a buck ten doesn't matter. Ultimately, it's how well they tell their story that makes the difference and that's what was the driving factor as we considered nominations for The 2013 Wilde Awards."

The nominations

Beginning May 18, 2012 and ending May 11, 2013, EncoreMichigan.com's team of critics reviewed 179 productions produced or presented by 47 theater companies across the state. So how do 10 critics boil down such a large number of productions into a slate of nominations that purports to represent the best work seen on four dozen stages of all sizes and budgets throughout Michigan?

"Trust me, it wasn't easy but no critics were harmed in the process," Calamia laughed. "It's actually a blessing, since the starting point of our discussion proved one thing that Michigan's stages were jam packed with productions and performances that deserve recognition."

So what criteria did the critics use to sift through the hundreds of potential nominees? It all boiled down to one thing, Calamia explained: "The 'wow' factor that is, that one special, powerful moment in a production that separated a show or a performance or a design from the rest of the pack and made us go 'wow.'"

In particular, it's that "wow factor" that separated certain nominees from other noteworthy performances or designs, Calamia continued. "In fact, there were so many this past season that we decided to abandon a fairly strict rule of keeping nominations to five and instead go with the number that actually reflected the superb performances and designs we observed throughout the season. So what it came down to was this: When faced with multiple nominees that particularly and equally wowed our critics and were burned into their memories as something special, we decided to honor them all."

Beside Calamia, returning critics Martin F. Kohn, Michael H. Margolin, Jenn McKee, Sue Merrell, John Quinn, Bridgette M. Redman and Judith Cookis Rubens criss-crossed the state with new team members Carolyn Hayes, a former guest critic, and Dana Casadei, a recent Michigan State University graduate. Together, they comprised a formidable team unmatched anywhere in the state. "While we certainly recognize that not everyone agrees with everything we write and I have the 'stack' of e-mails to prove it what's indisputable is that all of us come to the job with a unique point of view and writing style, and with the sincere desire to give our readers and the theaters we cover our most honest and sincere criticism of the shows we review," Calamia said. "And now with the announcement of this year's Wilde Awards nominations, let the debates truly begin!"

As in seasons past, only shows produced or presented by the state's professional theaters that were performed for five consecutive days or more or over two weekends or more were eligible for review. And only shows reviewed by EncoreMichigan.com could be nominated for a Wilde Award.

But what changed was which professional theaters could be reviewed and which could not. "This was the first full season in which we operated as a non-profit media company supported in part by annual membership fees charged to participating theaters," Calamia said. "With ad sales negligible and unearned support through grants and sponsorships unable to meet our expenses, our new owners the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance adopted a revenue model similar to other 'Encore-like' projects around the country, one that offers member theaters a package of services and benefits not available to non-members. And one of those exclusive services is the eligibility to be reviewed."

That, Calamia said, explains the eight-percent drop in the total number of shows reviewed this season over last. "Unfortunately, a small handful of theaters decided not to become a member for the 2012-13 season. But the good news is that I've heard many (if not most) will be back for the new season that just got underway."

Awards will be given out in 26 categories, including separate awards introduced this year for Best Opera and Best Performance - Opera. "Although we only reviewed one opera company this year, we felt it was important to separate the genre from musicals, since although they ARE related they're such different art forms," Calamia said. "And since it appears we may have an additional opera company or two as members in the new season, we thought this was the perfect time to do what we did in 2012 with the Shakespeare productions: pull them out for their own special recognition."

Also presented this year will be a handful of special awards, including three "People's Choice Awards" announced in June and a new award named in honor of Council Cargle, the highly regarded Detroit-area actor who passed away this past January. "Council's sudden passing stunned the community," Calamia said. "He was one of the most beloved people in the industry, and we felt it was important to honor him and his memory by creating an annual award that will acknowledge other longtime contributors to the Detroit-area theater scene."

In total, 71 productions earned at least one nomination as did 27 of the producing or presenting theaters. And like last year, the critics believe the results will surprise many people. "What our nominations make clear is the fact that that there are quality shows being staged by companies large and small and from one side of the state to the other," Calamia said. "That especially became clear when we added the West Michigan theaters to our slate a few years back. But as you'll see, nominations are scattered across the board so much so that it might look like we planned it that way, to share the accolades with as many people and shows as possible. But that's not what happened at all. In fact, even we critics were kind of surprised at the depth of the results!"

Regaining the top spot this year as most-nominated theater is Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre with 15, followed by Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester), Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Jackson), and Williamston Theatre (Williamston), each with 10. Theaters with nine nominations are Farmers Alley Theatre (Kalamazoo), Go Comedy! Improv Theater (Ferndale) and Michigan Opera Theatre (Detroit). And honored with a single nomination are six theaters, including one that Calamia believes will raise an eyebrow or two. "While our mission is to promote the state's professional theaters only, every now and then we review a show that appeared on our radar from an unusual source and this past season it was Lansing Community College's Performing Arts Department. Armed with a grant to stage a two-person show that was originally part of Stormfield Theatre's never-to-be-produced season, 'Vigil' brought back to the stage legendary actress Carmen Decker and united her with noted actor Timothy Busfield. How could we NOT review that production?"

Of the 71 productions nominated, the top-honored show is "The Light in the Piazza" (Farmers Alley Theatre) with six, followed by "Julius Caesar" (Michigan Opera Theatre), "Love's Labour's Lost" and "Pygmalion" (Michigan Shakespeare Festival) with five. "What I find intriguing is the fact that only 19 shows earned more than two nominations, which means that nearly half of the nominated shows earned a single nomination. If that doesn't prove the 'wow' factor I've talked about that every production has the potential to 'wow' an audience, no matter their budget size or longevity in the business I don't know what will," said Calamia.

Another important indicator, Calamia believes, is the number of artists such as performers, directors, designers and playwrights whose work is honored this year. "Of the 142 artists we've nominated and that might be an all-time record only eight received more than one. And only one scored a hat trick: John Seibert, who knocked every performance out of the ball park."

The race was particularly competitive in the musical categories, Calamia noted. "Musicals comprised 25 percent of the shows we reviewed this past season, and it was tough coming to an agreement on which potential nominees should get the ultimate nod. But we did it, thanks again to the infamous 'wow' factor."

That also proved to be the case with performances in comedies and dramas, Calamia said. "I think there are two instances in which we nominated eight people because of how competitive their categories were. To do anything less would be unfair to the people who deserve the accolades."

And that, Calamia said, is the bottom line. "Our state's professional theaters work hard at producing and presenting quality entertainment, and the best of their work deserves to be recognized and honored. Congratulations to all nominees and non-nominees alike. They put on one heck of a season, and they should be very proud of what they accomplished!"

The 2013 Wilde Awards

The Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance will present The 2013 Wilde Awards on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. with an hors d'oeuvre and cocktails reception. The awards show, hosted by Calamia, will begin promptly at 8 p.m. and will be followed by a dessert afterglow.

"Last year was our first at The Berman, and we had a marvelous time," said META executive director Lesley Braden-Phillips. "They're wonderful hosts, and this year will be even better thanks to the hard work and generous assistance provided us by managing director Elaine (Hendriks) Smith and technical director Eric W. Maher."

The 2013 Wilde Awards is sponsored by Pride Source Media Group, publishers of Between The Lines, and Actors' Equity Association.

Admission is $21 per person; VIP admission is $46 per person, which includes unlimited bar service. Drink tickets for all others will be available for purchase on the day of the event.

Tickets are available now at The Berman's box office, by phone at 248-661-1900, or online at theberman.org .

The Berman Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6600 W. Maple Road, on the campus of the Jewish Community Center at the northwest corner of Maple and Drake Roads in West Bloomfield. Parking is free.

"Our 12th annual celebration of professional theater in Michigan will be a great way to salute the previous season and kick off the next," said Braden-Phillips. "And, given who's involved, it will truly be 'one Wilde night' to remember!"

NOMINATIONS: The 2013 Wilde Awards: CLICK HERE for the complete list of nominations!




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