Behind the Barrymore awards: Meet the army of butts in seats rating every play in town

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At last year’s Barrymore Awards ceremony: actress Bi Jean Ngo receiving the F. Otto Haas Award, with Peter Haas and Akeem Davis (right).

They’re often called “Philadelphia’s Tony Awards.” Since 1994, the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre have recognized the best on local stages.

Generating those awards, though, is an epic drama. Organized and administered by Theatre Philadelphia, it takes an army of people.

Bigger than ever, that army turned out late last month at the Arden Theatre Company‘s Hamilton Family Art Center for an orientation meeting on the 2017-18 theater season, complete with pizza and beer. You got a sense of the numbers – and of the energy and enthusiasm in the corps.

As nominators munched pizza, Peter Danzig, program assistant at Theatre Philadelphia, discussed which plays were eligible (must have a minimum of 12 performances in the run; must have fair pay for the creative team; must be a true Philly production, not a national tour), changes in size and composition of the nominator pool, and good comportment. “We want to make sure we represent Theatre Philadelphia, and all Philly theater, at its best,” he told the group, “not just ourselves.”

Camera icon John Timpane
Barrymore Award nominators at an orientation meeting June 26 at the Hamilton Family Art Center on North Second Street. Leading the discussion are Peter Danzig (left), program assistant; Kevin Glaccum, chair of the oversight committee; and Leigh Goldenberg, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia.

Danzig said later by phone that Theatre Philadelphia expanded the pool of nominators this year from 60 to 70, “to ensure we had all the voices in the room — race, ethnicity, people not on the binary, the LGBTQ community.

“We wanted our nominator pool,” he said, “to reflect what we want to see in our theater audiences.”

Nominators attend the eligible plays this season and report on them. Each nominator will see 10 to 12 plays (eight nominators to each play) and later fill out a survey of the elements in the show (acting, lighting, set design, costumes, directing, best play, musical, etc.) that might be Barrymore-worthy. Their reports filter up to 12 judges, who see about 60 plays apiece (“We ask,” says Danzig, “that judges see every eligible production”), peruse the reports, and make their choices. All is overseen by Drucker & Scaccetti, the Philly CPA firm that plays the PricewaterhouseCoopers role.

The gun has already gone off: The 2017-2018 Philadelphia theater season began July 6 with Around the World in 80 Days, playing through Aug. 13 at the Hedgerow Theater in Rose Valley.

Who are these busy nominators?

Theater-lovers like Kristen Scatton, 32, of Philadelphia, now in her second season as a nominator. A self-described “theater bug,” Scatton sees up to 50 shows a year. “I’d been aware of the Barrymore Awards since I came here in 2008,” she said, “and, to be perfectly blunt, it seemed an ideal way to subsidize my theater habit while seeing what Philly has to offer.”

Her nontheater life is as an admissions coordinator for the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. But she’s also a writer, and after getting her M.F.A. in playwriting at Temple University, she saw the first full production of one of her plays, Jimmy Gorski Is Dead, in March at Plays & Players Theatre.

Christopher Haig, 38, is the props master at the Arden and an in-demand theater-design freelancer. He signed up as a nominator, he said, because “Philly is one of the best cities in the country for theater, and I wanted that to be recognized. And it was a chance to see styles and forms of theater I wasn’t used to seeing. It’s really eye-opening, to see shows I might not have thought of seeing before, or to be blown away by some small company with lower budgets, but doing great work.”

Haig calls the Philly theater scene “close-knit and supportive, not cut-throat at all.” He said,  “It’s a great town to start your career in, to create a theater company. We’re becoming a hub for new work, especially self-produced work, and it’s great to see that happening.”

Both said diversity characterized the scene. Haig mentioned “immersive” shows (theater that brings audience and performers into the same space, without walls or separation) and cross-arts uses of theater. “I love the way arts institutions like the Free Libe, the Barnes, and the Art Museum are starting to use theater as a new way to engage audiences,” he said. “I was delighted to see Gumshoe by New Paradise Labs at the Free Library – brilliant and inventive, and a great way to get people interested.” And he’s a big fan of Philly Fringe, “where you can see 20 shows in two weeks, very rarely from a conventional theater seat.”

“You have so much devised theater here,” Scatton says, meaning theater pieces arising not from one author but from collaborative, often improvisatory work by a group, “multi-arts, and multimedia, right next to the classics and the musicals. And a lot of theater here is on social justice issues, challenging the way our society thinks, exploring how theater can be used for activism and changing minds.”

And then there’s Wawa.

Scatton and a friend went to the Barrymore Awards show last year (“in a Michael Kors dress I found at an outlet for $22”), and after the after-party at the University of the Arts, they were still hungry, “so we went to a Wawa on Broad Street and ordered hoagies. We took the subway home, saying, ‘We’re so fancy. This is Philly style.’ ”