The Ostrander Awards, Memphis’ answer to the Tonys, are many things. Most obviously, the theatre awards competition sponsored by this magazine and Arts Memphis honors the best and brightest work of the just-past season, and provides an opportunity to remind the community just how vibrant Memphis’ performing-arts scene is. But above all else the Ostrander ceremony has become an annual family reunion for actors, directors, designers, professionals, and volunteers alike.
This 28th annual installment of the Ostranders, held at Memphis Botanic Garden on August 28th, and hosted by ex-pat Memphis actor Mark Chambers, were notable for a few additional reasons. It’s been ten years since the blandly named Memphis Magazine Theatre Awards were renamed in honor of Jim Ostrander, a beloved area performer whose vast talent was dwarfed only by his generosity of spirit. The Ossies this year also bid a fond farewell to area arts booster Janie McCrary, who has coordinated the awards ceremony, wrangled judges, and delivered wickedly funny monologues for most of those past 27 seasons.
The Eugart Yerian award for lifetime achievement — the evening’s biggest honor — went to actor, producer, teacher, and self-styled rebel Ron Gephart.
“I worry that getting an award like this means I can’t be in the bad boy’s club anymore,” muses Gephart, a semi-retired adjunct professor at Southwest Tennessee Community College. He’s never been bad, exactly, but Gephart has always been a hustling independent, doing things his own way, and taking risks in order to make new opportunities for his students and for area performers.
Gephart worked as a roofer in Ohio before he moved to Memphis in 1980 to attend graduate school at the University of Memphis. He hasn’t stopped working on stage or behind the scenes since, helping to shape and maintain a viable theater program at Southwest (formerly Shelby State) no matter which way the administrative winds might blow. Earlier this year Gep-hart started a Facebook page for everyone who has worked on stage at Southwest, posting an avalanche of photographs and programs from plays, musicals, and concerts. Collectively the images, which include shots of jazz performers like Wynton Marsalis and Phineas Newborn mixed in with shots of area actors, make a strong case that this small, all but neglected theater just off the east end of Beale Street has at times been a vital talent-engine for the city.
In 1988 Gephart launched the Beale Street Ensemble Theatre (BSET), a professional summer stock company in residence at Shelby State. During its brief existence BSET employed dozens of actors, directors, and stage crew. It produced a slate of musicals, comedies, and children’s shows, and attracted substantial audiences by featuring Memphis singers such as Ruby Wilson in bluesy revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’, Red, Hot, and Blue, and Blues in the Night.
“The AIDS crisis was just devastating back then,” Gephart says, recalling how his shoestring company lost six of its most dedicated contributors in short order. “We just couldn’t go on.”
Gephart is always working. It’s a condition he blames on his profound fear that he may someday end up on a Memphis roofing crew. “I thought it was tough in Ohio,” he says. In addition to his independent work, the frequent Ostrander nominee (and occasional winner) has performed on virtually every stage in the region. He’s distinguished himself as a sensitive interpreter of the works of Arthur Miller, playing Eddie in A View from a Bridge at Theatre Memphis, and delivering an unforgettable performance as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at TheatreWorks this past season.
“I hate to say that playing Willy [in Death of a Salesman] brings things full circle,” says Gephart, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery but hopes to get back on stage soon in productions of Gem of the Ocean and The Nutcracker. “There’s always King Lear to look forward to,” he says.