How are Barrymore finalists chosen?

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If you go to the theater, you may be sitting beside them. They could be there any night, at any of the 51 professional theater companies producing plays and musicals throughout metropolitan Philadelphia. Like you, they sit, they watch, and - like you - by the curtain call have formed an opinion. The difference: They then go home and fill out paperwork assigning points from 1 to 100.

How was the acting? The directing? What about the costumes? The sound and lighting? If this was a cast with several characters, did it work together as an ensemble? Their marching orders from the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia: Consider each production on its own merits. Comparing it to something they saw the week before, or maybe last night, is unacceptable.

They are the 66 judges of the Barrymore Awards, the region's professional-theater honors, which will be awarded Monday night for the past season's work in a region where homegrown theater has become a hot commodity. Never, until now, have there been so many professional stages, and the number keeps growing as small amateur companies turn pro, paying their actors, and become eligible for Barrymore Awards.

This year, the Barrymore judges favored the Wilma Theater's In the Next Room, or the vibrator play with 12 nominations, including best production of a play. The Wilma's staging of the offbeat play about the early history of vibrators was one of the first after the play ended its Broadway run last season.

The judges also gave 12 nominations to The Flea and the Professor, a world-premiere musical at the Arden, based on tales by Hans Christian Andersen. Among its nominations is best musical production.

Those shows were the most nominated among an estimable field of stage work: 147 shows in all in the 2010-2011 season. Because the judges vote by a point system, the top five point-getters (or, if it's close or a tie, the top six) become the nominees in each category. The highest-numbered of these in each category will be announced Monday night at the Walnut Street Theatre as the winner of a Barrymore medallion. A reception follows at the nearby Benjamin Franklin House.

The judges also ranked the Walnut's Miss Saigon and Delaware Theatre Company's dramatic version of Around the World in 80 Days high on their lists; the professional stage in Wilmington is a member of the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, an umbrella group serving stage companies in the region and also the originator and organizer of the awards.

A big part of the alliance's organizing is building the awards' corps of judges, who ply the region's theaters all year, looking not just for art, but also for excellence. The majority are theater artists and administrators, or theater academics, with a few audience members in the mix; the Barrymores, like the Tonys on Broadway or the Oscars in Hollywood, are recognition from peers.

The alliance's how-to manual for judges defines standards of excellence - as well as standards below that - and "includes rubrics developed by Barrymore Award-winning artists that give some qualifiers on what excellence looks like," says Margie Salvante, the alliance's executive director. "Those are just a guide because this is so subjective - but [in the manual] we try to be as objective as we can in articulating an industry standard."

Salvante, who says the Barrymores provide a bar for the region's theater community and "reinforce the level of artistry we have in this town," does not have trouble recruiting judges. People who love theater and get to "see a broad spectrum of work," they get two complimentary tickets to each show they judge. "Plus, they participate in defining the standard of excellence."

They are unpaid; each sees between 15 and 25 shows a season. The only people in the city at more shows than that are theater critics, who may see 20 in a month - but they're being paid to go.

"It's a great privilege to be somebody who helps create theater and to be part of the process," says David Stradley, who has just become artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival and is in his eighth (nonconsecutive) year as a voter. "I treat being a voter very seriously."

As Stradley tells it, he gets an e-mail saying he has been assigned a show as one of eight judges; he doesn't know who the others are. He acknowledges theater artists he knows at the theater, but doesn't say he's there to judge. He goes home, scores each category, and sends in his assessment. Each eligible show gets the same treatment, with eight judges coming during the run.

For the first eight of the awards' 17 years, the voting process was more cumbersome, with two groups of judges, one group seeing every eligible show.

"Now, with about 150 shows, there's no way we could sustain that model," says Karen DiLossi, a former alliance administrator, who for many years was in charge of the Barrymores. "Before, we were asking judges to compare shows - apples and oranges. Now, they judge each show on its own merit."

The current system "has a lot of integrity because you go to a play and ask, 'Is there excellence here as I define excellence?' " says Jay Berkowitz, a retired chairman of West Chester University's theater and dance department. "I'm thinking about what's right in front of me."

Berkowitz has been doing that for 10 seasons of Barrymores. "I really love theater," he says. "And the opportunity to see more theater is great."

 


Tweeting Winners

Follow the action at the Barrymore Awards on Monday at #philastage. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro will tweet each award as the envelopes are opened at Walnut Street Theatre. The ceremony begins at 7 p.m.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com,

or #philastage on Twitter.

 

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.