Tonys, tech awards, and terpsichore

Lots of behind-the-scenes news in Chicago theater, and some well-deserved plaudits to note as well this week!

At the Tony Awards this past Sunday, longtime Chicago sound designer and composer Mikhail Fiksel took home the top prize for his work on Lucas Hnath’s drama Dana H., which ran locally at the Goodman in fall of 2019. Deirdre O’Connell, who was in the Goodman production, also won best actress in a play for her performance, which required her to lip-synch throughout to recordings of Hnath’s mother recounting her harrowing experience as a victim of kidnapping many years ago. As noted in a post-award interview, Fiksel played a bigger role in the creation process, working closely with Hnath, O’Connell, and director Les Waters, than is usual for a sound designer. The Tony Awards made an ill-advised decision to drop the category in 2014, but reversed themselves and restored the sound design award in 2018 after widespread protests; that situation led in part to the creation of the Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association. Former Chicagoan Lindsay Jones has been one of the artists active in its creation and administration.

In other Chicago-related Tonys news: Six, which made its North American debut at Chicago Shakespeare in 2019, won for best original score and costume design (Chicago Shakes is one of the producers of the Broadway run of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII), and Paradise Square, which had a pre-Broadway run in Chicago last fall, won best actress in a musical for star Joaquina Kalukango. 

And though the regional Tony Award for Court Theatre was not part of the main broadcast, artistic director Charles Newell and executive director Angel Ysaguirre paid tribute to the city, their Hyde Park neighborhood, and the University of Chicago community during their acceptance speech. “We are a unique place, in part because we are located on the south side of Chicago, one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant places in our nation,” Newell said. “We are also on the University of Chicago campus, where the scholars help make our art intellectually rigorous, and therefore more emotional, meaningful.”

More respect for designers: Steppenwolf Theatre hosted the 2022 Michael Merritt Awards for Excellence in Design and Collaboration May 23. Established in 1994 in memory of the late Chicago scenic designer, the Merritt Awards have become prestigious markers of excellence for those who create the worlds we see and hear onstage.

Scenic designer Takeshi Kata won the Michael Merritt Award. Martha Wegener, who has headed Steppenwolf’s sound department for over 30 years, received the Robert Christen Technical Collaborator Award, named for the late Goodman Theatre lighting designer. For the Group, an anti-racist collective of Chicago theater artists “working to break down the barriers to equitable employment for BIMPOC designers, technicians, staging practitioners, and other production professionals,” received the Arts Advocacy award. Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Awards went to costume designer Raquel Adorno and scenic and projections designer Yeaji Kim, while props designer and technical director Rowan Doe received the Emerging Technical Designer Award. Academic Prize recipients included scenic designer Shayna Patel of Columbia College Chicago; sound designer Forrest Gregor of the Theatre School of DePaul University; costume designer Maegan Elizabeth Pate of Loyola University; set and costume designer Nora Marlow Smith of Northwestern University; and sound designer Nathan LaBranche of University of Illinois Chicago.

Last week, the Joyce Foundation announced their annual grants of $75,000 to “pioneering artists of color across disciplines.” Local recipients include Nancy García Loza for the development of her play Pénjamo: A Pocha Road Trip Story in association with the National Museum of Mexican Art (the piece explores “bicultural identity and the myths and realities of ancestral homelands”) and visual and social practice artist Aram Han Sifuentes, who will collaborate with the HANA Center on “Citizenship for All: Storytelling for Immigrant Justice through NongGi Making,” “a workshop series engaging multigenerational and multi-ethnic communities with storytelling and protest banner creation.”

Kristi J. Martens Brett Beiner Photography

New leaders

Last week, Mercury Theater Chicago announced that Kristi J. Martens would be moving into the managing director’s post, where she’ll join artistic director Christopher Chase Carter and executive producers L. Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon. After announcing that they would be closing down in 2020, the Southport corridor venue, including the newly revamped Venus Cabaret space next door, has come roaring back. They’ll be opening Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (which was in rehearsals in 2020 when COVID-19 struck) in previews July 15. Martens, who takes over the managing director role from Shane Murray-Corcoran, has been the production stage manager at Mercury for the past ten years, and has a long resume stretching back 32 years with theaters both local and national. 

Strawdog Theatre Company has also named a new managing director: Paul Cook, who has been the company’s production manager since 2019 and an ensemble member since 2020. Donna “Dante” Gary moves into the production manager role while Cook joins artistic director Kamille Dawkins as Strawdog gears up for its 35th season. That season will include the return of their holiday family show, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, at the Edge Theater Off-Broadway; the Chicago premiere of Dipika Guha’s Yoga Play, a comedy about “cultural appropriation, exploitation, consumerism, fat shaming and yoga pants,” which will be performed at the new Bramble Arts Loft in Andersonville; and a revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, also at Bramble.

Longtime Second City performer and teacher John Hildreth has been named artistic director for the Training Center in Chicago, where he’ll lead the large team of instructors who conduct online and in-person classes in all areas of sketch and improv. Those of us of a certain age who have been hanging around Chicago theater for a while also fondly remember Hildreth as one of the geniuses in Cardiff Giant. The comedy troupe (two members, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, went on to win Tony Awards for creating Urinetown: The Musical) lit up stages in the late 80s and early 90s with shows like LBJFKKK, where Hildreth played the malevolent leader of a neighborhood watch group, and the Hildreth-directed Love Me. Judging by the happy responses to the Training Center announcement I saw on social media, it’s a popular decision.

Call for choreographers

There’s one month left to apply for Joffrey Ballet’s “Winning Works” 2023 choreographic competition. The company has put out a national call for ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American) dance artists to submit applications by July 15. Applicants must be 21+ with two or more years of experience in setting work for classically trained dancers. There is no application fee, and recipients will get a $5,000 stipend and a final performance of the work they’ve developed at the Harris Theater in March 2023. Applications can be submitted through joffrey.org. Streaming performances of the 2022 program can still be viewed online.

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