So...It’s An Awards Program
I was graciously invited to attend The Second Annual Footlights People’s Choice Awards at the Quadracci Powerhouse last night. Honestly I might have been a little hesitant to go. I don’t generally like the idea of an awards program for all those reasons I don’t like awards, but it was a pleasure to go out and see so many people gathered together to celebrate the local theatre that has been so much a part of my life over the years.
A Well-Dressed Musical Variety Show...with Awards
The ever-charming John McGivern wittily hosted a show featuring performances by a wide variety of different groups. The show opened with a really fun performance from the cast of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s whimsical Svadba Wedding. Beautiful women with beautiful voices mounted the stage with boxing gloves and sang operatic bits while gracefully boxing each other in dramatized slow motion. Easily one of the funnest and funniest moments of the evening.
On the whole, the show was very classy, but it felt a bit strange. I kept wondering if there might not be some better way to celebrate local theatre. There was so much show that the awards were actually kind of in the way of the awards program. The show progressed like this: A charming presenter goes onstage, introduces him or herself, reads a little prepared text. The nominees are read. The winner is announced. The winner (or perhaps just as often a proxy FOR the winner) gets onstage, is handed the translucent little “F” and then politely escorted to the far corner of the stage...then offstage. It’s nice and everything, but politely shoveling the winner into some far corner feels a bit strange as the award itself is the given reason for the show. No words of thanks allowed...let alone any kind of acceptance speech that would have admittedly dragged things out way too long anyway...
So...There Was This...Sneeze...
A formal awards setting IS a kind of a unique atmosphere that can make for some rather interesting moments, though. There was a really stirring performance by the Chant Claire Chamber Choir. It was kind of breathtaking to feel a chorus singing this radiantly moody stuff that cascaded out over the audience...and then right as the performance was about to reach its end, a truly dramatic sneeze echoed through the entire space. It was a comically awkward moment. There was laughter. A few moments later, standing next to Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik to help present the awards for Outstanding Performers, Quasimondo Physical Theatre’s Brian Rott issued an impromptu verbal award for the sneeze. It was a fun moment...quite entirely unlike anything that could have happened in any other format.
Another notable (and notably irrepressible) personality was The Skylight’s Ray Jivoff. He was a high-energy presence both as presenter AND proxy for nearly all the awards The Skylight received this year, prompting my wife to lean-in and ask me, “is the Skylight in rehearsal for something? Is that why he’s going up for everything the Skylight wins?”
A Moment Between Seasons
There’s a genuine appeal to a formal fancy-dressed recognition of work at the end of the standard season and the beginning of the summer season. There is promotion for upcoming shows and a chance for encore performances from shows that had been staged in the past season. I loved seeing Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Svadba-Wedding open the show with is unique twist on a portion of the material they performed at The Best Place not too long ago. One of the best moments of the evening had to be the performance of “Light” by the cast of All-In Productions’ staging of Next to Normal. Such a moving song by such an amazing cast...and all sharing one more moment onstage. THIS is what this sort of show excels at. The fact that, just moments prior to the performance, Tim Backes happened to win the “F” for Outstanding Direction in a Non-Professional Production added to the emotional atmosphere.
The show was not without a couple of glances ahead at the upcoming summer. Shawn Holmes, Ben Tajnai and Rae Elizabeth Pare did an impressive song from their upcoming production of Shrek the Musical with Greendale Community Theatre later on this summer. Tajnai has a deeply powerful voice. I’m really looking forward to covering their show for the print edition of the Shepherd. The very charismatic pairing of Tajnai and Holmes went straight from sining to presenting in a rather quick transition.
There were a couple of presenters who were there in advance of a show opening in just a few days. The best-dressed man in the Quadracci last night might have been director Eric Welch, who co-presented the awards for outstanding costume design with Marcee Doherty-Elst. Welch is directing Doherty-Elst in this weekend’s upcoming production of I’ll Eat You Last. The two of them have been just about everywhere promoting the show this month. It would have been kind of weird not having them there for the awards.
And A Few Legends, Too
The big legends of Milwaukee theatre were a bit too numerous to mention in detail, but many of them were on hand. The highlight of the whole evening had Ruth Schudson receiving a standing ovation for her Lifetime Achievement Award as presented by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s C. Michael Wright. Schudson has had an amazing career and been extremely influential in Milwaukee theatre going way back. If anyone in that room deserved an award for excellence last night, it was her.
A Big Superhero Crossover For Local Milwaukee Theatre
It wasn’t just the legends. Lots of other people were their too. There really were a lot of people there at the Quadracci last night. There really were a lot of local theatre people there from many different ends. People from big, professional theatre companies are there hanging out with people from smaller companies most people in the audience have probably never even heard of. Incredibly talented people toiling away in the shadows of bigger stages stood in the same room as really talented people who can actually make a living doing this sort of thing. If I’m at 100 shows per year I’m only seeing them like...one at a time. It’s kind of cool to see so many people all in the same room at once and remember how big a community it really is.
I don’t think of local performers as celebrities so much as superheroes...each with their own unique powers to do their own unique thing onstage. And so if they’re all assembled in the same room, they must have all been assembled to combat some sort of evil, right? Isn’t this like Marcus’ Avengers: Infinity Show or something like that? Crisis on Infinite Stages perhaps? I found myself glancing around the room trying to anticipate why we had all been assembled:
“What evil have we all been assembled to fight? Is it the Republican Lieutenant Governor? SHE’S here to support her daughter (who won a well-deserved award for “Outstanding Youth Performer in a Non-Professional Production.”) But what nefarious purposes is she REALLY here for?”
My wife pointed out that when First Stage Jeff Frank gave a truly moving acceptance speech to the group’s Community Outreach Award, the Republican Lieutenant Governor did NOT join in the audience’s thunderous applause when he’d mentioned how badly we need change in this world. We’ve got our eyes on you, Lieutenant Governor...(Seriously, though Lieutenant Governor: you have a talented daughter and it’s really nice that you could show-up. Just know that whatever nefarious evil you and Scott Walker have planned for this fair state...we will be there...)
The Award Itself
It’s a cute, little round translucent thing with the ghostly image of the Footlights icon inside it. I don’t know who designed that trademark Footlights icon, but I had plenty of time to appreciate it over the course of the evening and I have to say that I’ve really grown fond of that little stylized “F”-looking guy. He’s cute. Really. With his little back arched and his little arms raised out beyond the little circle of his head, he’s appropriately dramatic. He’s in a hurry to get somewhere, but we don’t know where. So there’s a sense of mystery about him. My compliments to the designer.
With all due respect, though...they’re handing out “F”s all night to really respectable performers. I realize that it’s totally irrational, but on some instinctual level that feels kind of...disrespectful. There’s something that feels kind of weird about that. They ARE really nice “F”s, though If this thing takes off that little”F” will adorn so many shelves all over the city. Kind of weird to think about that...a big formal event to hand out a whole bunch of “F”s. Given enough time I’m sure that little guy will be the most coveted and sought-after “F” in all of southeastern Wisconsin.
Maybe A Whole Bunch of Smaller Performances Instead?
Like any big superhero crossover, you never get enough time with any one hero...there’s always way too many people for the amount of time available onstage. It’s nice that Marcus and Footlights could do this big, glitzy promotional event for local theatre, but given the amount that they charge for advertising, there’s A LOT more that they could be doing. They have the opportunity to really promote those groups that bring in such steady revenue for them and this might not be the best outlet for that promotion.
Chicago theatre has the Jeffs. Does Milwaukee theatre really need the “F”s? It’s a legitimate question. It could be an amazing ongoing addition to local theatre that will help to round-out the community or...it could be kind of misdirected. It seems to me that a series of smaller formal events would be that much more influential (and potentially lucrative for Marcus,) particularly if they could find some way for more non-theatergoers could be exposed to the amazing work that’s being done. I have to say, though...the formal atmosphere WAS really nice and it was cool to see such talent gathered into a single room to promote Milwaukee theatre. I just look around the room and think: “This really is a lot of talent. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with that talent. Shouldn’t we all be somewhere actually doing something right now?”
Anyway...congratulations to all who won and all who were nominated. And thanks to Footlights for inviting me to the show. A full list of winners can be found here.
The Marcus Corporation’s Footlights Magazine has a circulation of 1.04 million. Look for them the next time you’re at a show with a big enough budget for a Footlights program. And say hello to the little “F” guy while you’re at it. He’s kinda cute and easy to overlook.