T he lights went down. The house murmur faded to an excited hush just as the spotlight revealed P.L. Travers’ famous Victorian Nanny as played by Memphis actress Lynden Lewis. There was a polite round of applause as she began to sing, “Practically Perfect,” from Playhouse on the Square’s production of Mary Poppins . Then the applause swelled and mixed with loving laughter when the song was used to bring on the Ostrander Awards’ practically perfect coordinator, Lindsey Roberts. It was a late summer Sunday night at the Orpheum Theatre, and the Ostranders — the 32nd installment of this city’s annual theatre awards, sponsored by Arts Memphis and Memphis magazine and named for the late Jim Ostrander, longtime Memphis theatre icon — were officially under way.
It was a big night for Theatre Memphis’ elegantly spooky production of The Addams Family , and for that show’s director, Cecelia Wingate. Not only did the spook-show musical lead the pack in Ostrander Awards, Wingate also picked up an Ossie for best supporting actress for her work in Distance , a Voices of the South world premiere. Other big winners included Circuit Playhouse’s production of Bad Jews and Christopher Durang’s Chekhov send-up, Vanya, and Sonia, and Masha, and Spike , which was performed in rep with a stunning version of The Seagull at Playhouse on the Square.
Winners in the college division included The Physicists and The Wedding Singer at the University of Memphis and Good Woman of Setzuan , and Thebes: Contending with Gods and Contemplating Sphinxes at Rhodes College’s McCoy Theatre. The biggest winner of the night, however, may have been the awards themselves. Even in leaner years the celebration was successful because it doubled as a homecoming party for a large but tightly woven community of professional and volunteer artists who are so busy working day-jobs, rehearsing, and performing that there’s no other real opportunity for them all to be in the same room together. That’s still true today, but now the awards are also a real showcase for the season’s best work, and a rare opportunity for area actors, singers, and hoofers to perform for one another.
We’ve come a long way from 1984, when what are now the Ostranders were first awarded. Back then, it was difficult for local playwrights to find actors interested in performing their work, and almost impossible to find audiences interested in seeing new plays.
Happily, that’s no longer the case, and this culture shift was reflected in special awards this year for the original music in Teri Feigelson’s Mountain View , which also picked up an Ossie for best new play, and Distance , which earned awards for supporting actress and best production of an original script, written by Voices of the South actor/playwright Jerre Dye, who continues to be a Memphis institution in spite of being a Chicago homeowner. Meanwhile, the rise of strong independent companies like New Moon (Best Sound Design: Woman in Black) along with the emergence of new institutions such as the Hattiloo and Voices of the South, combined with growing support for homegrown work, suggests that Memphis’ theater community is coming of age.
“It was a year of growth for all of us,” Roberts announced as she introduced many new theater judges and quickly explained a new judging process designed to make the awards even more inclusive, and to accommodate Memphis’ expanding performance community. “I am so proud of all we have accomplished as a team,” she said, in an uplifting moment that was itself award-worthy.
The Ostranders have come light years since their June 1984 debut, when a restless crowd overfilled The New Daisy to sip wine and meet celebrity host and former Memphian Barbara Carson, a veteran of the Front Street Theatre, who’d found Hollywood success playing featured roles on TV shows like The Waltons and Remington Steele .
Launched by Memphis magazine and what was then the Memphis Arts Council to help raise the theater community’s profile, that first awards evening was a pretty cut-and-dry affair. Drinks were sipped, names were called, plaques were handed out, and people went home. Over the years the event grew and migrated to various locations including the pavilion at St. Jude, Memphis College of Art, Rhodes College, and Memphis Botanic Garden. In 2013 it moved back downtown to the Orpheum, where it seems to have finally found a perfect home where it fits comfortably, with room to grow.
Like a more casual and faster-moving version of Broadway’s Tony Awards, the 2015 Ostranders (which are open to the public) featured costumed, loosely staged musical performances from Mary Poppins , Kiss Me Kate , Assassins , The Addams Family , Once on This Island , and Billy Elliot . It was hosted by Voices of the South company member Steve Swift in the comic guise of his alter ego, Sister Myotis. What began 32 years ago as a nondescript awards ceremony has evolved over the years into a singularly hot ticket, and one of the best shows of the year.
The 2015 Ostrander Award winners!
Sound Design: Gene Elliott — The Woman In Black , New Moon Theatre Company
Lighting: Jeremy Allen Fisher — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Set Design: Jack Yates — The Heiress , Theatre Memphis
Costumes: Paul McCrae — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Props: Bill Short — Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, New Moon
Hair/Wig/Make-Up: Paul McCrae, Buddy Hart, Caiden Britt, Ellen Ingram, and Justin Asher — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Small Ensemble: Bad Jews , The Circuit Playhouse
Large Ensemble: Once on This Island, Hattiloo Theatre
Featured Role/Cameo: Marc Gill — Kiss Me, Kate , Playhouse on the Square
Best Original Script: Mountain View , POTS@TheWorks
Best Production of an Original Script: Distance , Voices of the South
Leading Actress in a Musical: Emily F. Chateau — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Leading Actor in a Musical: Robert Hanford — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Supporting Actress in a Musical: Leah Beth Bolton — Kiss Me, Kate , Playhouse on the Square
Supporting Actor in a Musical: John M. Hemphill and John Maness — Kiss Me, Kate , Playhouse on the Square
Music Direction: Adam Laird — Kiss Me, Kate , Playhouse on the Square
Choreography: Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley — Kiss Me Kate , Playhouse on the Square
Direction of a Musical: Cecelia Wingate — The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Best Musical Production: The Addams Family , Theatre Memphis
Leading Actress in a Drama: Laura Stracko Franks — Bad Jews , The Circuit Playhouse
Leading Actor in a Drama: Devin Altizer — Tribes , The Circuit Playhouse
Supporting Actress in a Drama: Cecelia Wingate — Distance , Voices of the South
Supporting Actor in a Drama: Johnathan Williams — King Hedley II , Hattiloo Theatre
Direction of a Drama: Irene Crist — Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike , Playhouse on the Square
Best Production of a Drama: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike , Playhouse on the Square
The Gypsy Award for dancers migrating from show to show: Kim Sanders
Special Award: Ed Finney, Isaac Middleton, and McCheyne Post — Original Music & Musicians — Mountain View, POTS@TheWorks
Ostrander College Division Winners, 2015
Set Design: Brian Ruggaber — The Physicists, University of Memphis
Costumes: Clara Seigler — Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes , McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College
Lighting: James Vitale — The Tragedy of Macbeth , University of Memphis
Props: Kathy Haaga — The Good Woman of Setzuan , McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College
Hair/Wig/Makeup: Janice Benning Lacek — The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Sound Design: John McFadden — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Featured Role/Cameo: Drake Bailey and Marlon Finnie — T he Tragedy of Macbeth , University of Memphis
Leading Actress in a Musical: Audrey Smith — The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Leading Actor in a Musical: Sterling Church — The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Supporting Actress in a Musical: Casey Greer — The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Supporting Actor in a Musical: Bradley Karel — The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Music Direction: Zach Williams — The Good Woman of Setzuan , McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College
Choreography/Fight Choreography: Jill Guyton Nee —The Wedding Singer , University of Memphis
Leading Actress in a Drama: Sarah Brown — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Leading Actor in a Drama: David Couter — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Supporting Actress in a Drama: Katie Sloan — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Supporting Actor in a Drama: James Kevin Cochran — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Direction: Bob Hetherington — The Physicists , University of Memphis
Large Ensemble: The Good Woman of Setzuan , McCoy Theater, Rhodes College
Best Production: The Physicists , University of Memphis
Special Awards: Construction and Performance of Dragon — Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes, McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College Sean Roulier — Original Music, Thebes: Contending with Gods & Contemplating Sphinxes , McCoy Theatre, Rhodes College The Witch Ensemble — The Tragedy of Macbeth , University of Memphis
Eugart Yerian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Memphis Theatre: Karin Barile
Karin Barile isn’t originally from Memphis. She grew up outside of Washington, D.C., was educated in Georgia, and spent her early professional years working as an actor for the Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
“I’m a transplant, but I have definitely put down roots in Memphis,” says Barile, the long-serving director for Playhouse on the Square’s Theatre Education & Engagement Program.
In 1979, Barile went to the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) auditions in Atlanta looking for work as an actor. While there, she heard from a friend that Playhouse on the Square’s executive director, Jackie Nichols, had launched a theatre for the deaf called Show of Hands. He was looking for one more performer.
“I knew about 50 signs, and I knew the alphabet. And I thought it was such a beautiful language,” says Barile, who was hired on the spot.
Show of Hands was created with the assistance of a government grant, and there was only enough money to sustain the company for two years. Barile figured it wouldn’t be too long before she’d be back at SETC auditioning. She begins her 37th season with Playhouse on the Square in September.
By the time the initial grant money for Show of Hands ran out, the troupe had forged partnerships with the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Memphis Arts Council (now ArtsMemphis). The group was conducting workshops and performing in schools, daycares, correctional facilities, and nursing homes.
“I thought Show of Hands would be a cool experience,” Barile says, remembering when she imagined Memphis to be a stepping stone. “It lasted about 19 years.” She also went from being a performer to running the program.
Around 1985, Memphis actor Jay Kinney approached Nichols about starting an actor training program for kids. Kinney was in graduate school at the U of M, and was inspired following a Playhouse on the Square production of To Kill a Mockingbird .
“I wasn’t being paid for it, but I started performing in shows for Jay,” Barile says. And when Kinney moved on, she took over as director of a program. In 1998, the program was reimagined as Education & Engagement. It has grown to include Summer Youth Conservatories, touring companies, and after-school classes.
“I may not be the visionary, but I am the workhorse,” Barile says modestly.
When asked about the best part of her job, Barile pauses and starts to name actors and educators who came through her programs and are now giving back to the city in various ways. Prominent alumni include actor/director Jordan Nichols, and Carly Crawford who got her start in the company of Peter Pan and who recently launched Q & A, an open and accepting queer youth theatre group.
Barile is so good at creating schedules and making the trains run on time it’s easy to forget what a fantastic performer she is. Favorite roles include the manic dwarf in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz .
Eugart Yerian was executive director of Theatre Memphis from 1932 to 1961. He was a veteran of the historic Pasadena Playhouse and a motorless flight enthusiast.
The Janie McCrary Putting it Together Award: Ekundayo Bandele
Named for former Ostrander Awards Coordinator Janie McCrary, and inspired by her “legacy of volunteerism, hospitality, encouragement, diligence and patience,” the Putting it Together Award is bestowed only when someone in the Memphis theater community shows exemplary vision, and the leadership necessary to make that vision a reality. This year’s recipient, Ekundayo Bandele, exemplifies the honor. He’s a top-notch actor, a tireless entrepreneur, a talented director, a gifted playwright, and a notable set designer. Bandele has run a vintage clothing shop and a theater inside a vintage clothing shop. He’s launched a successful car detailing service, and is exploring the jazz club business. Bandele’s Hattiloo Theatre opened 10 years ago in an Edge district shop-front. The thriving black repertory company left Downtown in 2014 and has just launched its second season in a beautifully imagined, custom-built theatre space in Overton Square in Midtown. Bandele isn’t content to be merely an arts leader. He’s also a community builder. Under his guidance, the Hattiloo has grown into a forum for big ideas and important community conversations.
Behind the Scenes Award: Andrew Clarkson
Former AutoZone CEO Andrew Clarkson has given a perfectly logical reason for committing himself so diligently to the arts after retirement. “I’m a terrible golfer,” he’s been quoted as saying. That’s got to be a tough admission for a man with a lilting Scottish accent and an Anderson plaid kilt that he breaks out for formal occasions. But instead of investing in his swing, Clarkson’s turned his troubles on the links into a sustaining and nurturing force for the Memphis arts community. His generosity has made a difference in the growth and development of ArtsMemphis, the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Hattiloo Theatre, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and Beale Street Caravan. Without Clarkson’s Jeniam Foundation, TheatreWorks — Midtown’s performing arts incubator — wouldn’t exist, and Playhouse on the Square couldn’t have built its new state-of-the-art performance center on the northeast corner of Cooper and Union. A strong case can be made that the development of these impressive, multi-use spaces launched a domino effect leading to the revitalization of Overton Square.
Larry Riley Rising Star Award: Chelsea Robinson
Larry Riley was a native Memphian and U of M graduate best known for his role as C.J. Memphis in the stage and film versions of A Soldier’s Story . His namesake award is usually given to a promising young performer; this year, however, it went to someone who has distinguished herself in one of the theater’s most important, and easily overlooked behind-the-scenes positions: stage management. Chelsea Robinson has worked backstage on grand epics like Phantom of the Opera at the University of Memphis and intimate originals like Mountain View at TheatreWorks. Perhaps not surprisingly, her resume is topped by this telling quote from Royal Shakespeare Company founder, Sir Peter Hall: “Perhaps, therefore, ideal stage managers not only need to be calm and meticulous professionals who know their craft, but masochists who feel pride in rising above impossible odds.”