My First Jeff Awards Ceremony

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jacob davis2June 8th was this year’s award ceremony for the non-Equity wing of the Joseph Jefferson Awards, and the first such ceremony I’ve attended. My associate, Tom Williams, thought it might be fun for me to write a little about my impressions of the event, which is of great importance to performers in Chicago who are mostly other young people hoping to become full-time professionals someday, but currently work under older people who also have other interests. This article mostly focuses on the productions I wrote reviews for, which are mostly my earliest, and evoked in me a strange mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment. (Tom reviewed almost all the mentioned shows I didn’t.)

I dressed in my flashier formal wear and departed for the bus, glad to have evaded the rain. Tom made fun of me for wearing my tie in a simple knot, instead of a Windsor, like his. After arriving at Park West, we collected our tickets from a Jeff committee member, and entered the concert hall, where everybody else was wearing a simple knot, except for one Jeff committee member who was wearing a Balthus knot. It felt a bit odd to see Jeff committee members, who besides being regarded as powerful figures in the theatre community, are also often lawyers, professors, or business managers, working the box office and handing out programs to a crowd that was overwhelmingly under thirty. It created a feast of fools-like atmosphere, though there was also a strong sense of anticipation, somewhat put at ease by an opening announcement that unlike at most theatre events, use of phones was encouraged.

The award show was directed by Brenda Didier, who also received several awards that night, and was emceed by actors Karl Hamilton and Sarah Hayes. Their opening song, a parody of “There’s No Business like Show Business,” was filled with insider references to the Chicago theatre community. And it is a community; I saw a large number of the actors I’ve reviewed over the past nine months greeting each other–most of them have worked with each other at some point and will again, even if they were technically rivals that night. We critics sat in booths along the uppermost rail on the main floor, while the Jeff committee members sat behind us, and the attendees sat in front or in the balcony.

The first award of the night went to Ginneh Thomas for her supporting role in Pride Films and Plays’s The Submission, by Jeffrey Talbot, which was her first role after moving to Chicago following her completion of an MFA degree at Southern Methodist University. Her very gracious, and a little shocked, acceptance speech praised Chicago’s welcoming attitude toward new artists. The award for actor in a supporting role went to a longer established Chicago actor, Shane Kenyon, who received it for his role in Steep Theatre’s production of If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet. He is a company member of Irish Theatre of Chicago who also appeared this season in that company’s production of Shining City, and received a previous Jeff award as part of the ensemble of The Seafarer.

In between awards, Hamilton and Hayes wryly introduced excerpts from the plays and musicals nominated for best production. The humorous excerpts worked a little better than the dramatic ones. One of the night’s earliest touching moments came when scenic designer Ray Toler received the award for his design of Raven Theatre’s Vieux Carré, because he announced it was also his forty-first wedding anniversary. (Toler also designed Raven’s production of All My Sons from that same season). Rachel Sypniewski took the award for her comic baroque costumes in Trap Door’s La Bête, which she accepted while the musicians played harpsichord-like music. The sound design award went to Sarah Espinoza for Strawdog’s The Arsonists, the lighting design to Brian Hoehne for The Wild Party, artistic specialization to Aaron Benham for his work with Theo Ubique, and new work to Ike Holter for Exit Strategy at Jackelope.

Oracle’s Brechtian-style The Jungle received two awards: new adaptation by Matt Foss and original music by Nicholas Tonozzi and Sam Allyn, some of which we got to hear during an excerpt in which actors slaughtered and then were trampled by paper cows. Tonozzi gave an emotional acceptance speech, as did Donterrio Johnson, when he received the award for supporting actor in a musical for his role as Judas in Theo Ubique’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Shortly after, Brenda Didier accepted her first award of the night for choreographing Bailiwick’s The Wild Party, during which she thanked friends who had died this year. That let into a memorial for four members of the community, including Chicago Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow, who Jeff Committee chair Diane Hires paid tribute to. His former student Anne Filmer recalled how he kept a file of actors to recommend in tight spots, and credited him with convincing Chicago companies to produce new works by local writers. A chorus sang “Morning Glow” from Pippen in honor of Tutterow, Matthew Gunnells, Erin Myers, and PJ Paparelli, and one of Tutterow’s successors mentioned the passing of playwright M. E. H. Lewis.

Kevin Cox, who became one of my favorite actors this past year, received the award for actor in a principle role for playing the clown Valare in La Bête, and delivered a characteristically classy acceptance speech. Lori Meyers received female side of the award for her role in Griffin’s Men Should Weep, and defied the band by naming each of her cast mates. Men Should Weep also received the awards for production and direction of a play, which artistic director William Massolia used as an opportunity to thank his board for allowing him to take a risk on an unknown drama, while Theo Ubique’s Always . . . Patsy Cline picked up awards for musical revue, musical direction, and actress in a supporting musical role for Dani Smith. It was to be her first award of the night. Near the end of the ceremony, Bailiwick’s The Wild Party swept eight awards, including one for Smith as principle actress in a musical. Benham and Didier also got their second awards for the night for The Wild Party. It was an amazing triumph, as Bailiwick artistic director Lili-Anne Brown acknowledged, and well earned, given the strong competition. Besides lighting, actress in a principle role, choreography, direction, and musical direction the show received awards for musical production, ensemble, and Matthew Keffer for actor in a principle role.

Hamilton and Hayes closed with a song, obviously written during the ceremony and unrehearsed, that referenced the night’s recipients, including The Wild Party’s huge number of wins. It was an enjoyable night, and one that, more than most events, we critics observed passively without the ability to influence. My overall impression as the party broke up is that the non-Equity Jeff Awards are a valuable career marker and bonding opportunity. The great thing about Bailiwick, Griffin, and Oracle, among others, receiving such recognition is that these companies are not out of reach for beginning actors who are only a year or two out of school. Travis Delgado’s performance in the principle role of Jurgis in The Jungle was apparently his professional debut. One person who graduated from UIUC two years ahead of me was in three of the nominated musicals. I also know, having worked on grant applications, how much artists rely on outside feedback like the Jeff Awards in presenting their cases. Of course, it’s a subjective judgement, and probably the most controversial aspect of the award process is which shows get recommended, which requires the judgement of the fewest people. The more than six hundred artists in the room were the ones who already were at least associated with a company that had received some degree of recognition. However, I think the overwhelming consensus is that the non-Equity Jeff Awards have a positive impact on the theatre community. The crowd and content of the ceremony confirmed that the significance of the awards is somewhat of an insider event, but one that bolsters a young or part-time artist’s opportunities.

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com