"Some years you're up, some years you're down. Everybody has a turn at the spotlight," Erin Reilly, Theatre Philadelphia board president, said Monday at the Barrymore Awards nomination announcement.
Indeed, the 2016 nominations for excellence in Philadelphia theater showed little preference for genre, audience, or house size: The five top nominated shows (winners will be announced Oct. 24 at the Merriam Theater) are about as diverse as theater can be.
Topping the nominees was The Invisible Hand, a 2012 play by Ayad Akhtar about an American Citibank executive held for ransom in Pakistan. The production was by Theatre Exile, a smaller company. The production's 10 nominations included overall production, direction (Matt Pfeiffer), leading actors (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Ian Merrill Peakes), and original music (Michael Kiley).
Three shows had eight nominations each, including Black Nativity, a 1961 Langston Hughes piece with Christmas music sung gospel-style. Produced by Theatre Horizon, it was nominated for overall production of a musical, direction (Ozzie Jones), and leading actors and actresses (Kingsley Ibeneche, Sanchel Brown, and Angelica Jackson).
Arden Theatre had the two other shows with eight nominations. Its production of the 1991 musical The Secret Garden garnered nominations for best overall musical production and a number of technical awards relating to the production's acclaimed use of video. And The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, based on a 1992 retelling-with-a-twist of traditional fairy tales that was turned into a musical a decade ago, drew nominations that included overall production musical and best direction for Matthew Decker.
At the spirited Monday-morning announcement at the Wilma Theatre, the longest applause went to Sara Garonzik, executive producing director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, who was announced as this year's recipient of the lifetime achievement award. "A miracle of synchronicity" was how director James Christy Sr. described the award's coincidence with Garonzik's recent announcement that she is stepping down from the company after 35 years.
"I feel like I'm almost emblematic of a larger idea," Garonzik said afterward. "I'm accepting it on behalf of an entire generation of people who, like me, have been leading their theater companies, growing them, and sticking with them over the course of three decades with a success that has made Philadelphia one of the dynamite theater cities in the country."
Elsewhere, the nominations had a few wrinkles. Andy: A Popera, a collaboration between the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia, had four nominations, including one for original music by Heath Allen and Dan Visconti. "The Beards" were not such a surprise - and they had special recognition in a nomination for the June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company.
The inclusion of an opera company collaboration was unusual, although Andy: A Popera was an anything-but-typical, free-floating meditation on the world of Andy Warhol. The recognition was very much welcomed by Opera Philadelphia's president and general director, David Devan. "This kind of impact has long been a part of our mission to embrace innovation and advance the art form of opera," he said.
The fine line between opera and musical theater was also explored by 11th Hour Theatre Company, whose production of Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See, a sophisticated riff on the film Rashomon, had five nominations, including for direction and actors.
Another wrinkle was recognition of shows that might normally be described as children's or family entertainment - and not just The Secret Garden and The Stinky Cheese Man. Arden's producing artistic director, Terrance J. Nolen, was particularly pleased with the five nominations for Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, a play with music that Arden developed over several years. It was was nominated for outstanding new play/musical. "Children's theater is as important as anything we do," said Nolen.
Receiving nominations for the first time was Orbiter 3, a company founded in 2014 to present new work. It had seven nominations for its new play by Emma Goidel, A Knee That Can Bend, about the gay nightlife subculture of Senegal.
The three large Philadelphia theater companies, which seemed somewhat neglected in the 2015 nominations, fared better, especially Arden, which has traditionally been a major presence, and which this year had 24 nominations. The Wilma Theater, where the awards were announced, had four nominations (three for An Octoroon and one for Antigone).
Smaller theater companies that did well in the nominations included Theatre Exile (13), Theatre Horizon (10), People's Light (nine), and Inis Nua Theatre Company (seven).
The 103 eligible productions by 35 professional theaters were reviewed between July 1, 2014, and June 20, 2016. Each production was seen by eight Barrymore-appointed nominators. Productions receiving a majority of positive votes were reviewed by a panel of 12 judges who met quarterly to discuss what they had seen.
Two conspicuous absences, both this year and in recent years, are the Walnut Street Theatre and the Media Theatre, which specialize in producing musicals. Both companies have been hesitant to comment on the matter over the years; both declined to comment on Monday.
"We extend an offer and would love to have them be part of this program. They are important theaters in this community," said Nolen, who is also vice president of the Theatre Philadelphia board. "They've chosen at this point . . . not to participate. . . . Hopefully, this will change."