'The Barrymores are back."
Time and again from the Arden Theatre Company stage Monday night, the return of the regional awards for excellence in theater was proclaimed.
Actor Rob McClure, well known to Philadelphia audiences before starring on Broadway last season in Chaplin, appeared on a video screen used in the Arden's just-closed production of Parade to say that Philadelphia theater is no longer a "best-kept secret" - though it took a few tries.
When he first was seen on screen, the sound was off. "This is not a Chaplin joke," yelled an audience member.
While no one is getting rich making theater in Philadelphia, one major motivator of the Barrymores' resurrection is to continue encouraging expansion of local theater with the message that there are achievements to be recognized and livings to be made.
"We don't need a red carpet. We don't need a TV celebrity host," said Kevin Glaccum, producing artistic director of the Azuka Theatre. "If you put on a good show, people are going to be curious to see it."
The event was the first major public effort by Theatre Philadelphia, founded by 11 theater leaders (including Glaccum, who is president of its board) in the wake of the 2012 dissolution of the awards' original sponsor, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Though the full slate of awards for specific artistic work won't resume until next fall's ceremony, cash awards went to host Arden Theatre Company and the 11th Hour Theatre Company, among others.
About 400 theater artists, administrators, and supporters turned out for Monday's sold-out ceremony and after-party. The evening's credo: Philadelphia may not create stars, but it offers a life. "The kids who come here to school see that there are many working professionals here," said Steve Pacek, co-founder of 11th Hour, "people who have a life and don't work in a restaurant."
"New York is the gold standard," said Glaccum, "but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything like this . . . in the breadth of work being done here, from . . . the Fringe Festival to a Broadway musical at the Walnut Street Theatre and everything else in between."
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Ceal Phelan, long-time stalwart of People's Light and Theatre Company. Phelan died in February at 63, after an 11-year struggle with colon cancer during which she never stopped working. Director, teacher, performer, she had had four Barrymore nominations, including The Breath of Life in 2010 at the Lantern Theater Company, and was a cofounder of the Delaware Theatre Company. The award was accepted by her husband, actor/director Peter DeLaurier.
The Brown Martin Philadelphia Award ($25,000, sponsored by the Virgina Brown Martin Fund) recognizes theater that tackles humanitarian and community issues. The winner was the Arden Theatre Company for its 2012 production of Next to Normal, a musical drama that portrays mental illness.
The other nominees, receiving $2,500, were 1812 Productions for It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project; Simpatico Theatre Project/The Renegade Company for The Amish Project; and the Wilma Theater for Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika.
The 11th Hour Theatre Company, exclusively dedicated to producing musicals, won the new June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theater, a $10,000 prize specifically supporting organizations with budgets of less than $400,000. In past years, 11th Hour has earned 31 Barrymore nominations and seven Barrymores. Other nominees were Azuka Theatre, EgoPo Classic Theatre, Inis Nua Theatre Company, and Quintessence Theatre Group.
The F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theater Artist went to Charlotte Ford, a comedian, actress, and director well-known for such Fringe hits as Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl and Bang, as well as work with Theatre Exile, Pig Iron, Lantern, Arden, and other local companies. The $10,000 award, created by Carole Haas Gravagno, aims to keep talented performers in Philadelphia. Nominees, getting $1,000, were Jacqueline Goldfinger, Adrienne Mackey, Liza Filios, and Alex Torra.
That award in particular lies at the heart of Theatre Philadelphia's current game plan: keeping the city from being seen as a stepping-stone to New York, and continuing to provide a platform for arts philanthropy.
The 2012 demise of the Alliance, a touchy subject in theater circles, came after years of controversy about its role and mission. When it finally shut down after the William Penn Foundation withdrew support, its leadership issued a statement saying the Alliance was no longer needed. (Two of its services were taken up by theaters - the Tessatura ticketing service, now administered by the Wilma Theater, and the annual open audition of young actors, run by the Walnut Street Theatre.)
According to the Cultural Alliance of Philadelphia, the number of theatrical organizations in greater Philadelphia - the city and Pennsylvania suburbs, much of South Jersey, and New Castle County, Del. - grew from 127 in 1998 to 150 in 2003 to 175 in 2013. Though these numbers don't distinguish between amateur and professional, there are an estimated 100 professional theaters in the region, with an overall economic impact in 2012 estimated at $177.4 million.
Recognition by theater peers has always been valued - one reason why the Barrymore adjudication process has been changed to avoid scoring flukes that have had a single show monopolizing the nominating process. Formerly, committee members simply submitted their scores. Now, nominators will meet in person - and talk.