Encore Michigan

A season of excellence and off-stage drama: The 2014 Wilde Awards

News August 25, 2014 Encore Staff

Theater professionals from across Michigan will gather together Sept. 22 when The 2014 Wilde Awards are presented at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield. Presented by EncoreMichigan.com, the most comprehensive resource for news and information about the state’s professional theater industry, The Wilde Awards were established in 2002 to honor the excellent work produced by Michigan’s professional theaters.

And this past season was “wilder” than most, said Donald V. Calamia, co-founder and editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com. “With the sudden closure of Performance Network in the middle of a run, a surprising announcement from Magenta Giraffe, the planned shuttering of Broadway Onstage, the unexpected passing of long-time theater critic Michael Margolin, executive downsizing at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company, the shutdown of the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance – our most recent owner – and a ferocious winter that saw record-setting snowfalls, this has been the most tumultuous season I can recall in my 40 years of involvement in our state’s professional theater community.”

Yet despite the turmoil and challenges they faced, Calamia continued, “our producers and artists turned out work of the highest caliber all season long, which presented us with quite a challenge: How do you single out a handful of people and shows to honor when the season was filled with so many noteworthy accomplishments? But as I’ve said many times in the past, when times get tough, thespians get more creative – and once again the proof was seen on stages from Lake Michigan to the Detroit River and everywhere in between. So whether a producer has a million-dollar budget or a buck ten, it doesn’t matter. It’s how well they spend their budget and tell their story that makes the difference – and that’s what we considered most as we debated our nominations for The 2014 Wilde Awards.”

Now in its 13th 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.

This year’s team of critics included Dana Casadei, Carolyn Hayes Harmer, Martin F. Kohn, Michael H. Margolin, Jenn McKee, Sue Merrell, John Quinn, Bridgette M. Redman and Judith Cookis Rubens. “And for the first time since the inception of The Wilde Awards, I had no horse in the race,” Calamia said. “I reviewed a grand total of one-third of a play festival this past season, and that’s it. But I certainly had a lot of input based on the number of shows I saw throughout the season.”

For this year’s awards, Calamia noted, the season under review was longer than in the past. “When The Wilde Awards were created, we were part of Pride Source Media Group, publishers of Between The Lines, which is the state’s gay and lesbian weekly newspaper. And so we timed the announcement of our nominations to match the annual Gay Pride event in Metro Detroit, which was generally the first weekend of June. So for our purposes, the season ran from mid-May to mid-May – which was a bit confusing for everyone. With META taking ownership of us a few years back, we decided to move to a more-traditional season, but we had to catch up first – so this year’s nominations include shows from May 24, 2013, through July 27, 2014. And those additional two months had some pretty unusual ramifications.”

The most notable, Calamia explained, was the number of summer theaters that competed against themselves across two different seasons. “That won’t happen again, as our season from this point forward will be August through July. But to account for this, what we did in some cases was to expand the number of nominations in certain categories. And because of the large increase in the number of shows and individual accomplishments we had to consider, we also added honorable mentions to many of the categories. Even then, however, there were many notable shows that might have received nominations under normal circumstances, but didn’t.”

In total, EncoreMichigan.com’s team of critics reviewed 225 productions produced or presented by 49 professional theater companies across the state during the 2013-14 season. Shows had to be performed for four consecutive days or more or over two weekends or more to be eligible for a review. And only shows reviewed by EncoreMichigan.com could be nominated for a Wilde Award.

Not every professional theater in the state was eligible to be reviewed, however. “This was the second season – and hopefully the last – 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, grants and sponsorships negligible and unable to meet our expenses, META adopted a revenue model for us that was 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 was the eligibility to be reviewed.”

Awards this year will be given out in 27 categories, including one that is new this year, Calamia noted. “After the 2013-14 season was well underway, we were asked by a professional company that stages shows for young audiences if we would review a show of theirs. So we did – and then continued to review shows for young audiences as long as they featured professional adult actors in major roles. Although we had missed several shows by this point, we decided it was still important to honor the best of those shows we reviewed, so late in the process we went ahead and established a single ‘best production’ category for them this year. And this coming season, we’ll add a ‘best performance’ category as well.”

As in previous years, a number of special awards will also be presented.

After sifting through hundreds of potential nominees, 85 productions earned at least one nomination – as did 28 of the producing or presenting theaters. The top nominated theater is the Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Jackson) with 19, followed by Williamston Theatre (Williamston) with 13, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre (Holland) with 12, and Planet Ant Theatre (Hamtramck) and Tibbits Summer Theatre (Coldwater), both with 11. The only other theater with double-digit nominations is Farmers Alley Theatre (Kalamazoo) with 10. “With three of the top six nominated theaters having two complete summer seasons in the running – Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Hope Summer Rep and Tibbits – it’s easy to see how our lengthened season impacted the results,” Calamia said. “But one thing is clear: Their West Michigan cousins are giving our Southeast Michigan theaters some great competition!”

Of the 85 nominated shows, no single production leaped to the forefront. Four shows tied for the top spot with five nominations each: “10:53” (Williamston Theatre); “Cymbeline” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Michigan Shakespeare Festival); and “The Producers” (Tibbits Summer Theatre). Three others tied with four each, while 13 productions each earned three. “That means that 65 out of 85 shows are being honored with two or less nominations, which to me means that quality is spread out pretty equally across our state, and that high-quality, entertaining productions can be found in theaters of all sizes and budgets,” Calamia said.

A similar indicator is the number of artists – actors, directors, designers and playwrights – whose work is honored this year. “Of the 140 people we’ve nominated, only 16 have two nominations, and just three individuals – Janice L. Blixt, John Manfredi and Michelle Raymond – earned three. This shows we have a ton of very talented people working – and mostly living – in this state, and we’re pleased to acknowledge at least some of them and their craft with these nominations,” Calamia said.

And that, Calamia said, is what he hopes people come to recognize about professional theater in Michigan. “One of the world’s best-kept secrets is not only how much professional theater exists in the state, but how much of it is so well done. Our producers, directors, artists and staff people work very hard to offer our communities the highest quality shows they can, and we’re honored to shine the spotlight on them for their endeavors. Congratulations to all our nominees and non-nominees alike. They staged one heck of a season, and everyone should be very proud of their accomplishments – especially during a season that saw so much upheaval and off-stage drama! And I encourage them to aim even higher this upcoming season!”

But will EncoreMichigan.com be there to cover it? And what is the future of The Wilde Awards? “With no owner and no budget right now, it seems like we’re adrift without a paddle,” Calamia said. “But there are plans afoot – and people have reached out with some ideas that may make us stronger and better able to serve our readers and our theaters. So be on the lookout: Encore 2.0 might be right around the corner!”

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