Contenders large and small for Barrymore Awards

The Arden Theatre Company's production of "Parade" was nominated for a Barrymore (Best Musical) , as were stars Ben Dibble (Best Actor in a Musical) and Jennie Eisenhower (Best Actress in a Musical).
The Arden Theatre Company's production of "Parade" was nominated for a Barrymore (Best Musical) , as were stars Ben Dibble (Best Actor in a Musical) and Jennie Eisenhower (Best Actress in a Musical). (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: August 29, 2014

In a show of strength, Philadelphia's smaller theater companies this year rival the city's usual prize magnets in nominations for the newly revived Barrymore Awards, announced on Thursday.

In no surprise from past years, Arden Theatre had 23 nominations, Wilma Theater tallied 10, and Philadelphia Theatre Company had 11. But Theatre Exile, InterAct Theatre, and Theatre Horizon took nine nominations each, while Simpatico Theatre Project had eight, Bristol Riverside Theatre five, and Inis Nua Theatre Company five.

It's the new Barrymores, whose nominations for excellence in theater are returning in the style to which they haven't been accustomed since 2011, with 26 categories plus a full ceremony Oct. 27 at the Merriam Theater and an after-party at the Kimmel Center. Having been administered by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia since their 1995 founding, the Barrymores threatened to disappear when the alliance dissolved in 2012.

A partially resurrected version of the awards - four, all endowed - was held by Theatre Philadelphia in November. But this year the nominations in 26 categories are culled from the seasons of 31 professional companies that meet criteria including number of performances (minimum 12) and geography (no more than 35 miles from City Hall). One exception to the latter is the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J., which is slightly farther away.

One distinction in the new Barrymores, said Theatre Philadelphia board chairman Kevin Glaccum, is to "strike an interesting balance between recognizing excellence and inclusion in the community. The definition of excellence can be pretty broad . . . so instead of a system of blind votes and tabulations, the nominators met four times [during the season]. So there was a conversation about the work. Judging theater is so subjective."

Also, nominators were cautioned against being overly impressed by, say, a hydraulic set design that could only happen in one of the better-funded theaters, and urged to consider the ingenuity behind whatever appeared onstage, no matter the budget level.

The discussion element is somewhat similar to New York's Drama Desk Awards, though this year's Barrymore panel is much larger, including 60 nominators and 12 judges selected from some 180 applicants.

Unlike Broadway's Tony Awards, the Barrymores cite new work with plays and musicals in a single category, and other categories don't always strictly differentiate between new work and revivals. Thus, "Outstanding Overall Production of Play" includes InterAct Theatre's new Down Past Passyunk by A. Zell Williams as well as Theatre Horizon's I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

Many of the nominations emanated from a single production in a company's season: Exile's Annapurna, Arden's Parade, Bristol Riverside's Little Shop of Horrors, and Philadelphia Theatre Company's Nerds. Three of the four nominations for outstanding supporting actress in a musical came from Parade - the sort of category-loading that the nominating process sought to avoid.

Glaccum attributed that instance to fewer musicals being eligible for nomination. That was in part due to the absence of two of the area's biggest musical producers - Media Theatre, which mounts major productions such as Sunset Boulevard, and the venerable Walnut Street Theatre, whose musical-dominated season has one of the country's largest subscription bases.

The Walnut has a history of intermittent participation in the Barrymores, and chose not to be part of the current season. "We're currently in talks with the Walnut and the leadership there to get them back in the Barrymores," said administrative director Joel Sumner. Media Theatre also chose not to participate, according to Theatre Philadelphia.

Nominations for three endowed awards also were announced. The Virginia Brown Martin Philadelphia Award for productions that lead audiences to a greater sense of global understanding included Exile's Annapurna, Delaware Theatre Company's The Exonerated, Horizon's I Am My Own Wife, Simpatico's In a Dark Dark House, and Flashpoint Theatre Company's The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.

The June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company had five nominations: Azuka, EgoPo, Inis Nua, Quintessence Theatre Group, and Tiny Dynamite. Nominees for the F. Otto Haas Award for an emerging theater artist include actress Liz Filios, who is nominated for outstanding lead actress in a musical for Midsummer [a play with songs]; playwright Aimé Donna Kelly ( The North Plan); actress Bi Jean Ngo (featured in Arden's Water by the Spoonful); Daniel Perelstein (sound designer for Annapurna, among others); and actress/director Mary Tuomanen.

The lifetime achievement award goes to Carla Belver, the actress and teacher who was a founding member of the Philadelphia Theatre Company and has a longtime association with Malvern's People's Light and Theatre company.

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