Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The 2016 Wilde Awards honor best productions and performances of Michigan’s 2015-16 professional theater season

ANN ARBOR, Mich – It was another Wilde night at West Bloomfield’s Berman Center for the Performing Arts, as Michigan’s professional theater community came together for The 15th Annual Wilde Awards presented by EncoreMichigan.com. Established in 2002, The 2016 Wilde Awards honored the best productions, performances and technical accomplishments of the recently concluded 2015-16 season.

In all, 37 artists and 26 productions produced or presented by 20 professional theaters across the state earned an award. In an unusual feat, no single show, artist or production dominated the awards – a trend that is becoming more common with each passing year.

“Although it might look like we’re trying to spread the number of awards across as many theaters and artists as possible, that’s certainly never our intent,” said co-founder of The Wilde Awards Donald V. Calamia. “But when you have more than a dozen critics spanning out across the state reviewing nearly 250 shows produced or presented by more than five dozen theaters like we did this past season, it becomes very tough for one artist, one show or one company to win multiple awards. And to me, that’s a good thing, because it’s a sign that great work is happening in theaters of every size, shape and budget – and they’re being recognized for it.”

This year’s top theaters – Saugatuck’s Mason Street Warehouse, Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre, and Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre – each earned four awards. The top production was Mason Street’s “Cabaret,” with four wins; Planet Ant’s “Antenna” was next with three. And only Kurt Stamm, founding artistic director of Mason Street Warehouse, was the only artist to win multiple awards – with two.

“The wealth of talent on display at theaters all across the state is evident by these awards,” said David Kiley, owner and publisher of EncoreMichigan.com. “Since taking over the company last year, I’ve been blown away by the work I’ve seen on our stages. And this year’s results – with so many people being honored for their work – should prove to the world that Michigan can compete with the best of them when it comes to producing high quality theater.”

The awards were determined by EncoreMichigan.com’s team of professional critics who reviewed 241productions produced or presented by 66 professional theater companies located in 36 communities across the state. The critics included Paula Bradley, Calamia, Tom Emmott, Carolyn Hayes-Harmer, Marin Heinritz, Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Kiley, Martin F. Kohn, Jenn McKee, Sue Merrell, Amy J. Parrent, Frank Anthony Polito, John Quinn and Bridgette M. Redman.

Thespians from theaters around the state attended the event that began at 6:30 p.m. with a social hour of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; the awards presentation began at 8 p.m. Hosted by Calamia, the evening included performances of songs from shows nominated for Best Musical, and an original mini-production created by Brandy Joe Plambeck of The Ringwald Theatre.

“It’s been a long-standing tradition to poke fun of ourselves at The Wilde Awards, and Brandy Joe’s spoof of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did just that. While the awards themselves we take seriously, we can’t help but laugh at ourselves and our industry at an event such as this, since it’s not often that the community comes together in a single spot to celebrate what ties us together,” Calamia said. “And laughter IS the best medicine, after all!”

Other top productions include “Charlotte’s Web” by Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater (Best Theater for Young Audiences; Best Performance – Theater for Young Audiences); “Mary Poppins” by Augusta’s Barn Theatre (Best Performance, Supporting Actress – Musical; Best Design – Lights); “The Rivals” by Jackson’s Michigan Shakespeare Festival (tie for Best Supporting Actress – Play; Best Design – Costumes); and “The Passenger” by Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre (Best Opera; Best Performance – Opera).

Even the recently defunct Performance Network Theatre walked away with two awards for its spectacular production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (tied for Best Play; Best Performance, Lead Actor – Play). “Performance Network is the winner of more Wilde Awards than any other theater in our history, and they certainly left us on a high-note,” said Kiley. “They’ll truly be missed.”

Special awards were presented to Rochester’s Meadow Brook Theatre in honor of its 50th season; Hal Soper of Planet Ant Theatre; David Regal in honor of his retirement from the University of Detroit Mercy and the UDM Theatre Company; Tom and Kathy Vertin of The Snug and Riverbank Theatres (Marine City); Scott Myers of Little Man Public Relations; and recently retired George Cvetanovski of the 7 Brothers Bar, whose love for the Metro Detroit theater community will be missed.

Only shows that were produced or presented by Michigan’s professional theaters and opera companies—both union and non-union—and reviewed by EncoreMichigan.com’s theater critics during the 2015-16 season were eligible for a 2016 Wilde Awards nomination. Shows had to be performed for four consecutive days or more or over two weekends or more to be eligible for a review.

The 2016 Wilde Awards were sponsored by Comcast, Pride Source Media Group, Actors’ Equity Association, The Berman Center for the Performing Arts, and Little Bill’s Trophies.

EncoreMichigan.com is web-based publication established in 2008 that is focused on Michigan's professional theater industry. Designed as a one-stop shop for consumers, industry professionals and others with an interest in the performing arts, EncoreMichigan.com is updated daily and packed with informative interviews, insightful reviews, comprehensive show listings, thoughtful commentary, audition notices, podcasts and much, much more. Original content is created by a dedicated team of veteran freelance journalists and theater professionals. For more information about EncoreMichigan.com, log onto www.encoremichigan.com.

WINNERS: The 2016 Wilde Awards

Best Musical
Cabaret, Kurt Stamm, director; Mason Street Warehouse

Best of The Bard
Henry IV, Janice L. Blixt, director; Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Best One-Person Show
From Broadway to Obscurity, Brian P. Sage, director; Detroit Public Theatre

Best Opera
The Passenger, Rob Kearley, director; Michigan Opera Theatre

Best Original Production or One-Act
Antenna, Mike McGettigan, director; Planet Ant Theatre

Best Play
A Streetcar Named Desire, Randy Wolfe, director; What A Do Theatre
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Suzi Regan, director; Performance Network Theatre

Best Theater for Young Audiences
Charlotte's Web, Lauren Mounsey, director; Wild Swan Theater

Best Touring Production
A Christmas Carol, Graham McLaren, director; University Musical Society

Best Performance - One-Person Show
Sebastian Gerstner, Chesapeake; Theatre Nova
Richard Payton, Buyer & Cellar; The Ringwald Theatre

Best Performance - Opera
Adrienn Miksch, The Passenger; Michigan Opera Theatre

Best Performance - Original Production or One-Act
Lauren Bickers, Antenna; Planet Ant Theatre

Best Performance - Rising Star
Maxim Vinogradov, BFs!; Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Best Performance - The Bard
David Montee, As You Like It; Interlochen Shakespeare Festival

Best Performance - Theater for Young Audiences
Sandy Ryder, Charlotte's Web; Wild Swan Theater

Best Performance, Lead Actor – Musical
Christopher Behmke, Cabaret; Mason Street Warehouse

Best Performance, Lead Actor – Play
Joe Bailey, The Whale; UDM Theatre Company and The Ringwald Theatre
John Seibert, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Performance Network Theatre

Best Performance, Lead Actress – Musical
Stacey Harris, Cabaret; Mason Street Warehouse

Best Performance, Lead Actress – Play
Jamie Warrow, A Streetcar Named Desire; The Ringwald Theatre

Best Performance, Supporting Actor – Musical
Vince Kelley, Heathers: The Musical; The Ringwald Theatre

Best Performance, Supporting Actor – Play
Dax Anderson, Orson's Shadow; Planet Ant Theatre

Best Performance, Supporting Actress – Musical
Shinnerrie Jackson, Ghost the Musical; Barn Theatre

Best Performance, Supporting Actress – Play
Wendy Katz Hiller, The Rivals; Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Allison Megroet, Precious Little; Matrix Theatre Company

Best Choreography
Kurt Stamm, Cabaret; Mason Street Warehouse

Best Design – Costumes
Laura Heikkinen, R.U.R.; Puzzle Piece Theatre
Melanie Schuessler, The Rivals; Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Best Design – Lights
Andrew Carson, Mary Poppins; Barn Theatre

Best Design – Props
Thomas Koehler, August: Osage County; What A Do Theatre

Best Design - Sets
Shy Iverson, Mary Poppins; Barn Theatre

Best Design - Sound or Video
Mike Eshaq, Antenna; Planet Ant Theatre
Tom Whalen and Noelle Stollmack, 2AZ; The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Best Music Direction
Tyler Driskill, Into the Woods; The Encore Musical Theatre

Best New Script
David Wells and R. Mackenzie Lewis, Irrational; Theatre Nova


Critics’ Choice Award:
Meadow Brook Theatre
50th Anniversary

Critic’s Choice Award
George Cvetanovski
7 Brothers Bar

Founders Award for Excellence
Hal Soper
Planet Ant

Jim Posante Community Pride Award
Scott Myers

Council Cargle Award for Dedication to the Michigan Theatre Community
David Regal

Publisher’s Award
Tom and Kathy Vertin
The Snug and Riverbank Theatres

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The 2016 Wilde Awards: Yes, the critic DOES get cranky

From The 2003 Wilde Awards: Don Calamia and Serena Escevelle

People have teased me for some time now that the name of this blog (and my nickname) is a misnomer. I'm rarely cranky, they tell me. So why call it that?

You're about to find out why: Today I'm cranky as hell!

It's hard to believe that the upcoming Wilde Awards is now in its 15th year. It seems like it was only a short while ago that Jan Stevenson, Susan Horowitz and I thought it was important to bring two related groups together - thespians and the LGBT community, between which there is a lot of crossover - to celebrate the great work produced by our professional theaters. That first year at The Furniture Factory in what's now called Midtown Detroit (among other, more recent names) was a much smaller affair, and my first co-host was the lovely and memorable Serena Escevelle, a popular, up-and-coming female impersonator of that era.

But as times changes, so too did the awards - and who owned them. But no matter who was paying the bills, I always considered it a great honor and responsibility to produce the show and manage the nominations process. And I truly appreciate the hard work everyone put into making past ceremonies a success.

One thing, however, has never changed throughout the years, and that's this: Producing the show is a royal pain in the ass - a lesson EncoreMichigan.com owner David Kiley is learning as he assumes the job of producer this year. (My role this year was to manage the nominations process, write the script and host the show.)

Producing the annual Wilde Awards is a frustrating and time-consuming process - and it never goes according to plan. As this is David's first attempt at producing the event, he's working hard to make it a memorable one - going so far as to arrange the night's ceremony to be professionally recorded by Comcast for later broadcast. (How cool is that!)

But as he's discovering, the best of intentions don't keep the gremlins away - and Friday's twists and turns were a reminder that a good sense of humor helps keep things in perspective. ("Why are we doing this again?" is a question I asked myself many times since the awards were created back in 2002. And I think the thought has already crossed his mind, as well!)

Roadblocks and detours are to be expected when so many moving parts - and so many people - are involved in a project such as this. But this year we've experienced an extraordinary number of unusual ones. (Since I don't want to give away any secrets, I won't mention them right now. But there have been a few doozies no one could have foreseen!)

Heck, I've even lost yet another co-host, thanks to a job offer that couldn't be resisted. (The road to landing a co-host this year is another tale for another time. Anyone interested in the position? It's still available. The pay is a free ticket, the stress is over in a few hours after which alcohol and sweets are available to soothe the nerves, and it's fun!)

All of this is manageable, of course. Every producer and stage manager faces stuff like this all the time.

It's the rumors, gossip, bitching and complaining from the community itself that drives me especially crazy. And this year is no different.

It's easy to ignore what I hear more than anything: "Why didn't so-and-so or such-and-such-a-play get nominated? I saw it, and it was the best thing I saw all season." It might have been. I don't doubt that. But as a team, it's a safe bet that we saw 5-10 times as many plays as did any individual - and likely more - and so our universe of potential nominations is quite large. So maybe if we were back in the days of reviewing only 75 or 100 shows, many of the "favorites" I hear about would have been nominated. But we've grown way beyond that now, including reviewing shows statewide. And so it's not as easy as it used to be to earn a nomination.

I also pay little attention to the rumors of people boycotting the awards because of one perceived injustice or another. If people want to skip a party that's attended by many of their industry friends and peers, that's their choice.

What's truly frustrating, however, are the destructive whispers and innuendos that creep through various corners of the community, delivering dabs of false information as if they're facts. (Apparently, it's too much of a bother for folks to reach out directly to us to resolve their concerns, when it's far more fun to damage us instead.)

Personally, I'm offended by such crap, as it questions my integrity and is harmful to my reputation, both of which I work very hard to maintain as an honest and trusted advocate for the community.

So what are this year's top rumors that have made their way to me, you might be wondering? In no particular order:

Rumor #1: Nominated theaters that didn't buy a congratulatory ad in this year's expanded Wilde Awards program may not win the award they deserve.

I'm starting with the one that especially pisses me off. As the person who drives the entire nominations process, rumors like this impugn my honesty, integrity and sense of fairness.

Never did this fundraising effort factor in to who would win and who would not this year. In fact, nominations and winners of the adjudicated awards were determined (and set in stone) back on June 11, seven weeks prior to the solicitation David sent out to the community. What's more, if my memory is correct, he hadn't even come up with the idea until sometime in July. So one did not impact the other whatsoever.

And I would never, ever allow such a thing to happen. If it was suggested or forced upon us, my resignation would have been immediate and irrevocable.

(In all fairness, I will admit to changing the winner of one of this year's special awards - but it had to do with the results of the vetting process I did on the group that was initially suggested as the winner. They're not ready yet for such an honor, and so it was changed. In the future? Who knows.)

Rumor #2: The reason for the increase in the number of theaters and individuals who were honored with a nomination this year was to sell more tickets to the awards.

While it's always nice to sell more tickets to help pay for the event - which ain't cheap, by the way - I address this accusation head on in the press release that will be issued this Tuesday announcing the winners. In it, I say this: "(W)hen you have more than a dozen critics spanning across the state reviewing nearly 250 shows produced or presented by more than five dozen theaters like we did this past season, it becomes very tough for one artist, one show or one company to win multiple awards. And to me, that's a good thing, because it's a sign that great work is happening in theaters of every size, shape and budget - and they're being recognized for it."

And I truly believe that!

Now, let me break things down a bit deeper for you: During this past season, we reviewed 241 productions staged or presented by 66 theaters. During the two seasons prior, we averaged 197 performances at 49 venues. That's a significant jump - which helps explain how much tougher the competition was this year. (Why did I average the prior two seasons? Because as some of you might recall, our review seasons fluctuated a bit back then, with one year including only 10 months and the other 14. So the data is now comparing apples and apples, so to speak.)

But then there's this: We also increased the number of adjudicated awards from 25 to 30 - mostly to respond to the many requests we had from the community to once again split many of the acting nominations between "lead" and "supporting" roles. To do that, though, we needed to be mindful that there's a limit to how many awards we can give out on a single night without the audience tiring out and drifting away. And so we made a few other changes as well (some of which were equally not very popular in certain quarters, but you can't please everyone), and the result was an overall increase by five in the number of adjudicated awards given out this year.

So let's do the math, shall we? More award categories + more reviews + more theaters + more artists whose work we've seen = more potential nominations.

It really IS that simple. But if more people show up Monday night, we won't turn them away; we'll be happy to see them!

(Again, in all fairness, there may have been an instance or two when the critics narrowed a category down to two specific individuals, one of whom was already guaranteed a nomination. If nothing else could break a tie and everything else was equal, the artist without a nomination got it. So yes, we may have "spread the wealth" once or twice, but it had nothing to do with selling more tickets; rather, we wanted to see as many artists as possible get recognized for their splendid work.)

Rumor #3: Personal biases and grudges prevented some theaters or artists from getting more nominations.

This, too, really rankles me.

Do theater critics have biases? Or favorites? Of course we do, because contrary to popular belief, we are human, too!

But part of our job as critics is to set those biases aside and focus our attention on the production and performances we see before us, and not let past experiences color our perceptions. As such, our personal opinions - which is what they always are - should always be presented with intelligence, integrity and insight, with never a hint of malice or prejudice. And determining the nominations and winners each year is no different.

So to accuse us of purposely sabotaging the nominations to settle petty, personal grievances is absurd.

I've always viewed my role as manager of the nominations process (which includes determining the winners) as one who pokes, prods, questions and challenges the critics to arrive at the best slate we possibly can. My objective, then, is to keep everyone focused on "the best" of the season, not on outside or past influences of any kind. In the end, I think I've been more successful at it than not, given the different personalities of the critics and the wide variety of shows and performances we're comparing. (Its ain't easy, though, trust me!)

Are we always correct with our decisions? I'd like to think so, but - again - we're human and we occasionally fail in our mission. But I bet we miss the mark far less than some would have us or you believe. (Re-read my response to number 2 above for another reason why I say that.)

In conclusion: Although I'm breathing easier now that I've gotten this off my chest, now I'm anxiously awaiting the reaction to the winners after they're announced. I suspect I already know what will likely cause a few heads to explode, and I can't wait to see if I'm correct.

* * * * * * * * * *


On Tuesday, I'll link to the list of winners. And shortly thereafter, I suspect you'll see more of the crankiness. Plus, I'll finally start uploading on to EncoreMichigan.com much of The Wilde Awards history, while here you'll find some of the analyses that go with it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

It's all a crap shoot: The art and science of programming a season

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the closing performance of The Encore Musical Theatre Company's production of "Always...Patsy Cline," which was a near-perfect, two-hour romp through approximately two dozen of the country superstar's songs. It was easy to see why most of the four-weekend run was sold out: Cline's memorable tunes and Ted Swindley's script were given life by a superb team of actors (Emmi Veinbergs and Sonja Marquis) and musicians (under the direction of Dan Mikat) whose skills and love of the material were evident from the moment the lights went up on the first number. Because they were having blast, so too was the audience - so much so that I expected the woman next to me to burst into song at any moment. (Thankfully, she didn't, but you could tell she really, really wanted to!)

But it was a conversation with development director Chuck Colby during intermission that got me thinking.

One of the toughest tasks faced by artistic directors everywhere is deciding which shows to schedule in an upcoming season. As every AD knows, it's one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck added to the mix.

In other words, despite careful planning, examining historical trends and the best of intentions, putting a season together is like a roll of the dice: Sometimes you come up with a seven, but oftentimes you don't.

In the past, conventional wisdom recommended that theaters should program two comedies, one drama and a musical in a four-play season. Others stressed the importance of mostly "name" shows each season in order to guarantee a certain level of ticket sales (which would then subsidize the one "risky" show of the season).

So how'd that work? Pretty much like you'd expect: Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In recent years, however - thanks to the long recession we've been in - so-called experts have recommended ADs schedule mostly well-known comedies, small-cast shows and as many musicals as a theater can afford. Some have even discouraged new works. ("Who's going to want to see something they've never heard of before with so much competition out there," I've heard these so-called experts say.)

So how'd this philosophical change work out? Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In other words, it appears that "conventional wisdom" gets you only so far - which brings me back to my discussion with Chuck, who noted how "Always...Patsy Cline" outsold the earlier "Sondheim on Sondheim" by quite a bit. Both of us found that to be rather interesting; "conventional wisdom" might suggest otherwise - that the "god of musical theater" would outrank a long-deceased country western singer. But that wasn't what happened.

A similar question was raised last year when The Purple Rose Theatre decided to shut down its excellent production of "2AZ." Despite great word of mouth, the slick execution of a well-thought-out marketing plan and the popularity of zombies, the early closure left many wondering why audiences failed to materialize in the numbers "conventional wisdom" may have predicted. (Some theorized that the box-office letdown was because "2AZ" was a world premiere - hence, an unknown product with no track record. But that doesn't explain the success of many other world premieres at The Purple Rose.)

There are many other examples of unexpected box-office failures, of course; "name" shows expected to sell well at the Fisher Theatre, for example, did just the opposite. And I could go on and on.

So what defies "conventional wisdom," you might be wondering? A lot, actually. And much of it comes down to what I refer to in this and many other instances as "The Infamous X-Factor." More about that in a minute or five.

Personal experience with conventional wisdom

But first, a momentary diversion.

As many readers may not know, I spent much of the 1970s through the 1990s working as an executive for various local professional theater companies that specialized in what's known as Theater for Young Audiences (meaning professional adult actors performing shows for children, teens and adults). With lofty titles that included administrative director, producer and executive director (and without the lofty pay to go with them), my responsibilities often included working with our artistic directors to plan our future seasons. Or in some cases, to plan them myself.

And so I've experienced first hand what goes into putting together a slate of shows - and then watched as "the fates" went to work proving us to be a mix of geniuses and fools.

What I learned from years of firsthand experience was this: Even the best planning can't escape The Infamous X-Factor.

Those who know me both in and out of theater can tell you that I'm a data-driven guy: Numbers and spreadsheets are my constant companions.

Because most of my theater career was spent producing shows that toured to schools, libraries, recreation centers and other such places across the state, that meant we were invited guests at these facilities - and since the managers and I couldn't attend every performance, I needed a tool that would help us determine how successful we were at providing a quality product and service to our customers.

And so I developed a brief survey form (that many of our production managers hated, by the way) that we distributed at every performance to five or 10 of "the decision makers" who brought us into their space and/or paid for our visit, such as the principal, PTA president, sponsoring teachers, etc. These were passed out prior to the performance and usually collected before we left, and from these we developed various statistics that helped us understand our company's strengths and weaknesses. (Why didn't we give surveys to the kids in the audience, you might be wondering? Because - as anyone who has ever worked in this field of entertainment can tell you - children are the most honest audience members you'll ever encounter: If they love the show, you'll know it; you'll know it even more if they hate it! Adults are not so honest - at least not to your face; they are are much more prone to be honest and critical in writing.)

The surveys, then, helped us to quickly spot problems that our sales team and production managers might not have realized. (Or that they tried to hide from management.) And they also served as a window into the country's rapidly changing culture and what adults considered "acceptable" for children's entertainment.

So after combining the survey results with actual sales data, it became pretty clear which shows were successful and which were not; which types of shows were more popular than others; which shows should be carried over into another year and which should not. And suggestions from our customers would also help shape our future.

But relying on data alone can also prove disastrous - as we learned with a show called "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose."

One of several shows we commissioned from Canadian playwright Jo Hubbard (a one-time puppeteer on the CBC-TV series "Sun Parlor Country"), "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose" was just that: a satirical retelling of classic fairy tales. We introduced it in 1980 and it sold well enough (and was popular enough) to return the next year for half a season. A few years later it was revived by popular demand, this time as a mini-musical - and once again it sold quite well and was very well received.

Therefore, based on the extremely positive feedback we received, we decided to extend the show into the next season - with the same cast, the same director, and the same music director. And when the first performance of the new season hit the road, it bombed. Horribly so.

Not with the kids, however. They loved it - hence, the reason why our production manager and cast didn't know a dangerous storm was brewing.

So imagine my surprise shortly after the first performance when - via U.S. mail - a handful of surveys arrived that deemed the show one of the most offensive productions ever presented in front of a young audience. (Yes, I'm exaggerating, but only slightly so.)

Since no one on our team could explain the differences of opinion, past experience told me to chalk it up to a bad day at the school and leave it at that. (Everyone connected to the show claimed it went well.) Bad move.

The next performance received a similar response from the adults. (Again, the kids loved it.)

So where was the disconnect?

In the script, Hubbard included an updated "bit" used for centuries to entertain kids and adults alike, one that's familiar to (and beloved by) fans of the "I Love Lucy" series. Remember the "Vitameatavegamin" episode? In "Mother Goose," it wasn't alcohol that caused the Baker to create a rather unusual cake, but some other cockamamie excuse (that I no longer remember). The result, however, was the same: His skills deteriorated - and the stage got messier - the more the Baker ingested this substance.

So why was this scene perfectly fine one year, but detested the next?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving had entered the public consciousness, effectively removing from the public square any and all such portrayals. (Remember Foster Brooks? His long-beloved character was swept into the dustbin of history at around the same time and for the same reason.)

After calling the second school and getting a blistering earful, I made the decision to cancel the rest of the tour - and to replace the bookings with a very popular (and much more expensive) show at no extra charge by mime O.J. Anderson. (Removing the offending scene would cut too much time from the show, and there was no time to create something new in its place.)

Reactions to the cancellation were interesting, however: Several of the schools I called still wanted the show, even after I read them comments from the written surveys and told them what the second school said of the production. "Trust me," I told them. "Wouldn't you rather have a guaranteed fabulous event instead of taking a risk with a show that may likely offend some people?" Ultimately, everyone agreed to make the change. And as predicted, everyone loved O.J.!

Yes, ya gotta love them Infamous X-Factors.

So what exactly is an Infamous X-Factor?

Basically, what I refer to as an "Infamous X-Factor" (from a theater perspective, at least) is anything an artistic director can't predict when planning a season - such as a blizzard on opening night; playoff games added to the schedule that now conflict with your production (and compete for limited parking) a few blocks from the stadium; your landlord shuts down your rental space; the rights to a show are pulled because a revival is opening soon on Broadway; the cast comes down with food poisoning; a nearby competitor opens a show that runs the exact dates as yours; and what was once socially acceptable no longer is.

The list goes on and on.

But of equal importance are the many decisions we humans make based on feelings that can change one moment to the next. Don't feel like catching a show tonight? Then I won't go. Not in the mood for a musical? Then I'll check out a drama. Don't like Sondheim? I'll skip the next show at my favorite theater. Get a better offer? I'll skip the theater altogether. Running low on cash? I'll go to a movie instead. Don't have someone to go with? Then I'll stay home.

This list, too, goes on and on.

So, yes: Things don't always go as planned. Some shows sell well, while others don't - and it's not always easy to figure out what happened - if at all.

The bottom line, then, is this: Planning a theater season is one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck thrown into the mix. And one can only hope that fate deals far more winning hands than losing ones.

But as any artistic director will likely tell you, it sure is a whole lot of fun planning (and then executing) a new season - as long as you keep plenty of Tums close by at all times, that is!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Change: a nerve-wracking tale of Two Muses

Imagine for a moment that you're a business owner. You've built your business quite nicely since its inception, as the number of patrons visiting your business continues to grow, and your reputation for providing quality products and services is quite high. And indications are for those trends to continue.

So what does the smart business person do to help grow the business? Take some risks, of course! With loyal customers and a solid reputation to back you up, it's likely time to shake things up a bit - expose your patrons to something new or different, and hope your ideas please your existing customer base while they also bring new faces into your business.

And so you set plans into motion - and then the unimaginable occurs: Your landlord also decides it's time for a change. The property is being sold, and you're being evicted.

Sounds like a nightmare, right? Unfortunately it's not.

What I described above is pretty close to the scenario in which Two Muses Theatre found itself last fall, when its landlord (Barnes & Noble in West Bloomfield) informed executive/artistic director Diane Hill that its landlord had decided to do something else with the property - which meant that both businesses were now without a home.

So with a season already announced and underway, what's a producer to do?

Find a new home, of course. Quickly - and therein begins the off-stage drama.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the years, uprooting from one location to another is fraught with danger. Will your established customers follow you to the new location? Will the number of seats available to sell remain comparable? Will the new facility's rent and utilities blow the budget? Will the space meet the needs of the announced schedule? And on and on and on it goes.

After a frantic search, Two Muses accepted an offer from Paul Stark of Monster Box Theatre in Waterford to move in and share the space. And while that sounds like a great solution, that too is fraught with potential problems.

Specifically: With approximately 9 miles between the new and old locations, will Two Muses' customers follow them to Waterford?

But more importantly is this: Of the two, Two Muses is much better known and enjoys a much better reputation. From reports I've received since its opening, the quality of shows at Monster Box have fluctuated greatly.

And so I'm sure Diane has to be wondering: Will Monster Box's erratic reputation rub off on Two Muses? If people show up at a Monster Box show and don't like it, will that reflect badly on Two Muses as well? Will patrons - potential or otherwise - confuse the two? Or think them one and the same?

It's certainly a scary and uncertain future that Diane and Two Muses face - and that's a shame.

Since its inception, Diane and everyone involved with Two Muses have worked hard to create a home for women artists through which quality programs are made available to the community at affordable prices. And they've been rewarded for their efforts by developing a strong base of loyal patrons and donors who've eagerly supported the theater.

To see that damaged in any way is disheartening - especially since its final show in West Bloomfield, "The Light in the Piazza," was a superb piece of theater and one of its best efforts.

Unfortunately - and despite excellent reviews - audiences for "How I Learned to Drive" at Monster Box have reportedly been a fraction of what they were for "Piazza."

And so I'm sure Diane is asking herself, "Has it been the weather that's kept audiences away? Or is it the edgier show? Maybe our patrons haven't found us yet? Or are we too many miles away from our fan base?"

With one weekend left, there's still time for folks to come out and support Two Muses in its new home. Personally, I hope they do, as this scrappy little theater has been a fine and important addition to the community. I very much have enjoyed their shows, and I wish them a long and prosperous life.

But that won't happen unless patrons show up and buy tickets for this and the next show, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." (It's a musical, so that might help!)

I'm keeping my fingers crossed...

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CLICK HERE to read Frank Anthony Polito's review of "How I Learned to Drive" from EncoreMichigan.com

CLICK HERE to read Patty Nolan's review from Examiner.com

CLICK HERE for show information: "How I Learned to Drive"

Friday, March 11, 2016

Two quick questions (and their answers)

A couple of conversations I had in recent days reminded me I have a backlog of topics to discuss and questions to answer, and so now that I've filed my 2015 income tax return - always a laborious pain in the neck - it's time to get back to chatting about what's important to readers of this blog: what's happening in Michigan's professional theaters.

So what were those questions, you may be wondering? Although they were similar, the two were asked by different people during separate conversations.

"Is there really a lot of very good theater happening around town, or are you and the other critics just making it sound like there is?"

That's a question I get quite often, actually. And my answer these days is always pretty much the same: Yes, there is a lot of very good work being staged in our professional theaters this season - and it's happening in theaters both large and small, new and long established.

In fact, of the 35 productions I've seen so far this season, only one was underwhelming and disappointed me - and my review for EncoreMichigan.com reflected that. (I suspect the theater involved wasn't pleased with my crankiness, however.)

Of the other 34, several were spectacular (none of which I'll name, since they might be recommended for possible 2016 Wilde Awards nominations), while the rest were very enjoyable and worth my time. In short, the hits far outweighed the misses, thanks to the hard work and dedication put forth by some of the best talent to be found on stage anywhere in the country.

The second question - which has come up a handful of times this season, actually - asked for my opinion regarding the onslaught of new companies that have popped up recently. My answer somewhat varied depending on the context in which the question was asked, but here's my overall observation and opinion on the subject:
  1. The fact that we have so many new companies around town is a sign that we have a healthy and vibrant professional theater community here in Southeast Michigan. It shows that we have an energetic and creative population of young artists who want to put down roots and earn a living here, despite the many obstacles they face.

    Personally, I welcome their efforts and wish them the best; we're blessed and lucky to have them here at a time when so many young people flee the state for supposedly greener pastures.

  2. What I find fascinating about the new companies is the fact that each is seeking to carve out a unique niche for itself. The Detroit Public Theatre, for example, is determined to become a major artistic force in the rebirth of the Motor City, and its founders have charted a course that seems very likely to succeed. Others, however, seem content to expand the existing theatrical pie by taking risks on productions and subject matters their larger counterparts would never tackle, or by locating themselves in cities in which theater is not a destination spot. (Southgate and Marine City, for example) And then there are those that simply want to shake up existing paradigms and test boundaries.

    So now we have theater in cities where few or none have been before, and patrons have choices they've never had before.  To me, that sounds like a win-win situation, wouldn't you agree?

  3. What's even more fascinating is how the word "competition" doesn't seem to come into play with these new companies. Instead, they've replaced it with "cooperation." Unlike in earlier days when theater executives seemed quite concerned that new or established companies would steal away their customers, we're seeing far more cross pollination than ever before - whether it be actors and directors working at multiple venues, or cross promoting shows in programs and other promotional materials. Co-locations have also been on the rise, with Puzzle Piece Theatre sharing the space owned by Slipstream Theatre Initiative, while Two Muses Theatre is about to produce its first show at Monster Box Theatre.

    Gone are the days, it seems, when producers viewed every competitor as a threat to their existence. (Or at least it's getting that way!) So if the industry is to survive and thrive, working together to grow and prosper makes total sense.

  4. If I had to choose a term for what is happening these days, I'd say what we're seeing is a theatrical renaissance - a time in which theatergoers across Southeast Michigan are blessed with more choices and opportunities than ever before, and at prices to fit everyone's budget.

    I've observed such periods several times throughout my 40-plus years in and around the local industry - but this feels different. This time, the theatrical bloom is not in response to something - such as the economy or a war. Instead, it appears to be a confluence of people and their shared goal of creating theatrical magic - to tell their stories, to engage their peers in conversations about things that matter to them. And to tell their stories their way. I find that quite exciting.

    I also recognize that their stories may not be my stories. And they're not necessarily meant for me. I'm perfectly fine with that, too.

  5. But I have to wonder: Is the market able to support the explosion of professional theater we're experiencing? Are their enough patrons to go around? Enough grant and support money? Can theaters with a maximum of 30 or 40 seats sustain themselves in the long run? Or will these new theaters be able to accomplish what the industry has been concerned about for several years now - and that is to bring new faces and customers into their venues - especially younger folk?

    Only time will tell, of course. But from what I've observed during my visits to some of our newest theaters, this current renaissance might be one for the record books!
COMING SOON: A brief return to my roots; a project I've been thinking about for quite some time; and the perils of change.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief thoughts on four shows I've seen these past two weekends

In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to catch four shows around town, but given my schedule recently, I haven't had much time to write about them. (My next post in a day or two will expand on that a bit.) And so while I have few minutes to spare today, here are some short notes about each of them, arranged in the order in which I viewed them:

Not so odd: Tipping Point does Simon well

As I believe I've said in at least one prior post, the most consistent producer of quality shows is Northville's Tipping Point Theatre.

Under the leadership of James Kuhl, everyone you encounter there is friendly and engaging - even the volunteer ushers who direct you to your seats.

But equally of importance, Kuhl and his team know their audience, and as such, they deliver to them the types of shows they enjoy with production values that rank among the best the industry has to offer.

Its current show is no different. With that said, however, I'm not a fan of "The Odd Couple (female version)."

When Neil Simon's original "Neil Simon" debuted in 1965, it examined something that was quite rare up till then: two middle-aged straight guys living together. Social mores at the time looked suspiciously at two men in such an arrangement, with an assumption that the two must be gay. (An historical note for my younger readers: Being labeled as gay was seen as a terrible, horrible, dirty thing back then, which meant most gay men were deeply and securely hidden in the closet. Men were often fired and harassed - or even arrested - for nothing more than a passing suspicion.) And so Simon had some fun with his play, exploring male relationships and their ways of bonding. Stereotypes, too, were part of the equation, as Oscar was a butch sportswriter and Felix was a "light in his loafers" (to use an old expression) news writer.

The show enjoyed great success, and 20 years and a popular TV series later, it spawned the female version.

Why, I don't understand. For starters, social dynamics at the time were different for women than men. (Both of my grandmothers took in borders, for example, and no one gave it a second thought.) And to me it seemed to be unoriginal and not very creative for a celebrated playwright of his caliber.

Nevertheless, the bazillionaire's instincts proved better than mine, and the play has been a popular staple off theaters everywhere ever since.

So too were Kuhl's instincts, as tickets have been flying out of the box office, with many (or most) performances totally sold out.

Which only proves one thing: What do I know!

I do know a slick, well-produced production when I see one, however, and that's exactly what's on the Tipping Point stage through March 6.

Fine direction by Lynn Wilde Concannon briskly moves the story along, while the entire cast brings energy and fun to their roles. (People around me a few weeks ago especially loved Sonja Marquis' scene changes.) And Patrick Loos and Nick Yocum make a delightful team as the Latino neighbors. But kudos to Katherine Banks and Dani Cochrane as Florence and Olive, respectively, for making me believe Simon's time wasn't wasted in crafting this update.

The Bottom Line: I really did have a great time, probably the best I've had in all the times I've seen productions of this script.

Want to see what other critics thought about the show?

David Kiley, EncoreMichigan.com

Patty Nolan, Examiner.com

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

The show is now closed. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

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Yes, Butler did it (so to speak)

One of the many things I love about the Detroit Repertory Theatre is its emphasis on producing new works - whether as a world premiere or something that's new to Michigan. And as a history nut, I especially love it when the Rep stages a show that has its roots in a real life incident.

It's current show, "Butler," is both.

Based on the true story of a runaway slave who shows up at Virginia's Fort Monroe near the start of the Civil War asking for asylum, director Barbara Busby crafts a production that's both funny and engaging.

It also features two seasoned pros as adversaries Major General Benjamin Butler and Major John B. Cary: Todd Hissong and Robert Grossman, respectively. Butler is an inexperienced officer, having recently earned his commission after practicing law and serving as a state legislator in Massachusetts. His counterpart, Cary, is a teacher-turned-Confederate officer, and the two tangle over what do with Shepard Mallory.

It's a fascinating story that had repercussions for slaves throughout the area, to which playwright Richard Strand hews quite closely. (Do the research; it's quite a tale!)

To watch Hissong and Grossman create such strong, unique characters is quite fun. And Peter Podalski as the "by-the-rules" Lt. Kelly, has many fine moments. (The woman behind me kept commenting on Podalski's eyes. Catch the show to see what she means; his expressions are priceless.)

But I was particularly impressed with Christian Williams as Shepard Mallory. A relative newcomer to the professional stage, Williams must make an unlikable character likable, which is not an easy task to achieve. Yet that's exactly what he does. And he does so while working alongside two accomplished veterans of the local stage without looking the least bit intimidated. That alone is worthy of acknowledgment!

The Bottom Line: I highly recommend the show!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

David Kiley, EncoreMichigan.com

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

"Butler" runs through March 13. For more information about the production, CLICK HERE

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Scary futures can be fun indeed

I love it when theaters take risks - especially the smaller theaters that have tiny budgets and limited resources, but instead are gifted with enormous creativity. I also love it when they accept the challenge and conquer it through careful planning and meticulous craftsmanship. And I love it even more when those risks are handsomely rewarded by stellar reviews and sold out houses.

Such was the case with Puzzle Piece Theatre's decision to stage "R.U.R.," a rarely performed script by Czech author Karel Capek first presented in 1921 that explores a question frequently addressed by science fiction writers throughout the 20th century: What would be the fate of man should artificial life forms become sentient?

For director D.B. Schroeder, the question must have been: How do I take a "fantastic (but somewhat dated) melodrama" with a large cast (including six robots) and squeeze it into a somewhat tight black box performance space and make it relevant to today's audiences?

It was a heavy task to be sure, yet one he and his team accomplished quite well.

From the moment I walked into the performance space I was immersed into a possible future in which lifelike, unthinking robots (or androids, as we refer to them today) are tasked with doing our heavy work. And that's exactly what was happening around me as I entered the space: Robots Marius (Stebert Davenport), Sulla (Anna Marck) and Radius (Joshua Daniel Palmer) silently and methodically went about clearing the stage.

The three performed their work with great precision, with every movement carefully drawn - and with focused eyes that never wandered. (They even navigated around unsuspecting patrons who didn't immediately realize what was happening around them - and they did so without any unnecessary blinks of the eye or noticeable irritation.)

This set the tone, quite frankly, for what was to come: a well-played melodrama that flowed like clockwork. Even the music used throughout the production perfectly underscored the plot as it unfolded.

The Bottom Line: So despite the script's dark message, "R.U.R" was indeed a fun and enjoyable night at the theater. Risks can indeed pay off, and here's proof!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

Martin F. Kohn, EncoreMichigan.com

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

Patty Nolan, Examiner.com

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

"R.U.R." is now closed. For more information about Puzzle Piece Theatre: CLICK HERE

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'You'll rue the day' you missed 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play'

About a week ago I heard from a very excited Vanessa Sawson who had just seen "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale. To say that she loved it would be an understatement. "(It) was incredible," she exclaimed. "I have to see it again." And then she asked me to join her at last night's performance. How could I refuse? Her enthusiasm was infectious. (That, too, is an understatement.)

So there I was, sitting next to her, waiting for the show to begin. She was itching to talk about it, but wouldn't. "You have to see it for yourself," she bubbled. Her excitement was palpable.

And now I know why.

What I experienced, though, is hard to explain. (It takes a while to digest.) All I know for sure is that I'll never see Bart Simpson quite the same way ever again, thanks to a heart-choking final act with Dyan Bailey playing America's favorite young rebel.

Imagine, if you will, the very near future. A global catastrophe has occurred, and the world we knew no longer exists. Instead, survivors roam the forests and streets in search of supplies. Death and fear are everywhere. But since there is safety in numbers, small, tight-knit groups form for mutual survival. For one such group, their entertainment is recalling their favorite episodes from the hit TV series "The Simpsons" - most notably, the one entitled "Cape Feare."

The episode, which originally aired on Fox in 1993, is among the favorites of series aficionados - and rightfully so, as it's a parody of the movie "Cape Fear" and is filled with more cultural references than one can possibly find on their own. And that gives the playwright (and actors) plenty of things to work with as the story moves through three very different acts (the third of which is a rather dark musical) and across 82 years.

But why "The Simpsons" as the starting point of the script, you might wonder?

In a 2013 interview published in the Gothamist, playwright Anne Washburn told John Del Signore that the idea for the play was something she had had for a long time - "to take a TV show and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened to it." Her initial inclination was to use "Friends," "Cheers" or "MASH" - or "any show that had had a long term viewership and was much beloved and cheerful."

But then she settled on "The Simpsons," which is now in its 27th season and is American television's longest-running prime-time series. Her decision makes total sense, as the series is a cultural cornerstone that multiple generations are familiar with. And that means the plot she developed would have resonance and meaning for theatergoers young and not-so-young alike.

That certainly seemed the case at last night's performance. What's even more intriguing, though, was eavesdropping on (or participating in) conversations after the show, as patrons struggled to share their thoughts on what was likely an experience they didn't expect. If only I could have followed them to their cars or bars where they likely continued their conversations.

Because if they're like me, they're still not sure what the heck they experienced. I do know, however, that everyone in the room was intensely following the plot and focused on the action as it unfolded - even if they were unsure what was occurring. (At one particular point - following a very tense confrontation - not a sound could be heard throughout the audience as Brandy Joe Plambeck's Sam and Joel Mitchell's Gibson shared a powerful, poignant moment.)
Long-time readers know I love challenging, thought-provoking theater. As I continue to scratch my head in a mix of wonderment and bewilderment, there's one thing I know for sure about "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play": Director Joe Bailey and his team of artists and craftspeople took yet another risk and nailed it.

The Bottom Line: Although I'm still not sure what it was that I saw at The Ringwald, I do know that I loved it, thanks to excellent technical work and performances that will stick with you for quite a while.

Want to see what other critics thought of the play?

David Kiley, EncoreMichigan.com

Patty Nolan, Examiner.com

"Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" runs through March 14. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What a debut: Kickshaw kicks ass

New theaters seem to spring up like wild flowers; some wither almost immediately, while others enjoy a very long and fruitful existence. So when word first got out early last year that a new Equity theater was planned for Ann Arbor, I greeted the news with an equal mix of skepticism, interest and curiosity.

On the plus side, Kickshaw Theatre seemed to be a promising addition to the community. Founders Lynn Lammers and Julia Glander (and their management team) seemed to be taking a careful and deliberate approach to building their company, and since the women involved all enjoyed sterling reputations and noteworthy track records, their likelihood of creating a successful endeavor seemed far greater than many others that came (and disappeared) before them.

Plus, their stated goal - wanting to be known for "uncommon stories and stylistic daring" - intrigued me. (Pleasant memories of innovative shows staged at the long-defunct Zeitgeist Theatre and the early days of Performance Network came flooding back to me.)

But then I asked myself, "Is Ann Arbor able and willing to support yet another theater?" Are there enough patrons, donors and funders to go around, I wondered, when the town is already home to Performance Network, Theatre Nova, Arbor Opera, The Penny Seats and the University Musical Society? And the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, and the various theater programs at the University of Michigan? And with the nearby Purple Rose Theatre and The Encore Musical Theatre soaking up dollars from the community?

Only time will tell, of course. But more on that later.

For its initial offering, Kickshaw chose "The Electric Baby," an odd-duck of a script that certainly meets the company's goal of telling unusual stories. Perfectly described in a press release as "a dark and fantastical comedy about sad endings, strange beginnings and the unlikely people that get you from one place to the next," playwright Stephanie Zadravec starts out by introducing the audience to what looks like a series of unrelated characters and random events. But the beauty of the script is how she weaves together a young, fourth-wall-breaking Romanian mother, a lottery ticket-loving Nigerian cab driver and two couples of differing ages and worldly experiences having a bad night into a powerful journey that questions the randomness of life and how the unexpected and unpredictable interactions of strangers can impact each other's lives and futures.

It's a unique script, to be sure, filled with folktales and legends and a baby that glows like the moon. It's also one that lesser directors could surely mess up in its transition to the stage - but not Lammers, who kept the show grounded and focused, tight and balanced. Right from the opening moments - which I'll discuss later - Lammers drew her audience into the story and never let them go.

And for good reason: Her eye for casting the appropriate actor for each role couldn't have been better.

This is a production in which every character was carefully drawn and fully realized, even when the playwright gave the artists little to work with. The result, then, were characters and situations we could relate to, even when the plot and specific circumstances might feel otherwise.

(How convincing were they, you might be wondering? The show opens with Natalia (the young Romanian immigrant and mother) talking to her baby. Played by the superb and always-delightful Vanessa Sawson, Natalia acknowledges our presence, asks us to turn off our cell phones, and strongly, but sweetly, in that all-knowing, motherly way, urges us to resist coughing during the play so that we don't irritate our neighbors. And guess what? Her request, recommendation, or perceived threat worked, as I don't recall a single cough throughout the entire performance. Even I stifled one out of fear of the repercussions...)

All-in-all, when you mix the fine performances by Sawson, Julia Glander, Peter Carey, William Bryson, Mary Dilworth and Michael Lopetrone (who plays three roles) with the excellent work of technical director Charlie Gaidica and his team of craftspeople, the result is one of the best opening productions by a new company I've ever seen.

So what does that mean long term?

If Kickshaw's opening production is any indication, the company has already accomplished two important things:
  1. It has quickly staked out its niche within Southeast Michigan's professional theater community; and
  2. It has already mastered the art of creating excellent, thought-provoking theater, something new companies often (if not usually) struggle with over the course of several shows.
With the recent demise of Performance Network, Kickshaw is now Ann Arbor's sole producer of Equity theater. (The CRLT Players at the University of Michigan also operates under an Equity contract, but it functions as an educational arm of the university for workshops and consultations.) And with Theatre Nova, the two are now the town's dominant non-profit, professional producers of live theater.

But there's still work to be done.

In this not-so-humble critic's opinion, what Kickshaw needs to do in order to become a permanent fixture in the community is to develop a broad and loyal group of patrons and donors that would enable the company to grow and prosper. But that won't happen without a permanent facility to call home.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the past few decades, it's difficult to retain and build an audience when you move from one location to another for each show. People (and patrons) are creatures of habit; change is difficult - even for something as simple a concept as this. Although Kickshaw has been searching for a permanent facility for quite some time, that should be their primary focus before staging another show. Hoping and praying for a miracle - that your audience will follow you wherever you go - isn't the worth the risk when a great future looms before you.

 So welcome, Kickshaw, and congratulations on a great opening! I look forward to the exciting times ahead for you!

The Bottom Line: Although "The Electric Baby" is now closed, here are a handful of reviews for you to check out:

Jenn McKee's review: EncoreMichigan.com

Patty Nolan's review: Examiner.com

Daniel Skora's review: It's All Theatre