BWW Interview: Audience Choice Awards Prove Delightful Antidote to Maine Winter
On a bitter cold blizzard day in January, the Maine theatre community was deriving some warmth and cheer by celebrating its achievements with the 2017 Broadway World Audience Choice award winners. The sixteen theatre artists voted by Maine theatre-goers as "the best" in each category of performing and technical achievements were selected from a group of 69 finalists, culled from over 9000 nominees rwho epresented less than ¾ % of all those in contention for the accolades, and voting for the winners was close and competitive to the very end of the process.
The entire awards experience speaks to the quality of Maine's theatre landscape and the enthusiastic support it receives from the public across the state. Big and small theatre companies and Equity and non-Equity performers figured in the competition, as did a wide range of repertoire from edgy intense dramas to spectacular musicals. Throughout the voters showed themselves to be discriminating, supportive, and fiercely passionate about live theatre. BWW took the opportunity to speak to some of the winners and to several audience members who voted to get a sense of what makes Maine theatre-going such a vibrant experience.
Good Theater Executive and Artistic Director Brian P. Allen, who won BEST PLAY for his production of The Trip to Bountiful, waxed eloquent about the work and his cast and crew: "I had wanted to do the play for many years and it fit perfectly into our 15th season and made a wonderful finale. I knew the key to the piece was finding the right actress to play Carrie Watts. Louisa Flaningam had auditioned for us several times in the past. I immediately thought of her for this role, and she was perfect. To add amazing local actors to the mix made for an extraordinary cast and a very satisfying directorial experience. When something that I was so proud of is embraced by the general public, it is the icing on the cake. Having the show win Best Play is the candle on top of the cake! Winning the award helps to bring awareness to Good Theater. It validates what we do, and it is important to our future."
Kevin Murray won BEST LOCAL DEBUT for his work in Newsies, as a charismatic member of the ensemble and as understudy for the role of Jack Kelly. Murray stepped in for a handful of performances when Matt Farcher was ill, and he won huge acclaim for his star turns. New to Maine, Murray said, "Winning the award for the Best Local Debut is such an honor and just increases my love for Brunswick and Maine State Music Theatre. Working at MSMT was one of the best summers of my life. Everyone who works there is a gem, and the kindness and professionalism are unparalleled." Talking about the exceptional warmth and loyalty of Maine audiences, Murray continued, " As an understudy, I found the audiences to be beyond amazing, and my walking out to standing ovations was an experience I will never forget. I hope to come back to MSMT and Maine soon."
Another relative newcomer to Maine stages, Shayne Bither won BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY for his work in Boys Next Door at the small Some Theatre Company in Orono. He spoke of what the honor meant to him in personal terms: "I've only been acting in Maine community theatre for two years, so to win this award for what was basically my first principal role in a play was simultaneously ego-boosting and extremely humbling. The award means I have finally found the creative outlet I've spent my life seeking." He expressed his thanks to Some Theatre Company's Artistic Director Elaine Baird: "Every show I do with her teaches me so much. I am especially proud of my work on Boys Next Door for being able to convey the difficulties and delights of people living with mental illnesses." And then, Bither put his finger on one of the reasons he believes Maine theatre to be so unique. Working far upstate in the more remote Bangor-Orono area, he said, "Maine theatre is amazing! For a state that is considered rural we hunger ravenously for the arts. I've found Maine audiences to be both gracious and demanding. You simply cannot get by with a lackluster effort in Maine, whether on stage or in life."
Still another young and talented winner was Maiya Koloski, who was named BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY for her work in the riveting drama The Nether at Mad Horse Theatre. Koloski's youth and the controversially delicate nature of the play made her performance outstanding in its maturity and sensitivity. Asked about the honor, Koloski replied, "This award was such a surprise! I've always loved acting and to know that other people appreciate my performance in The Nether means the world to me. I do not know if I wish to pursue acting as a profession, and I have a ways to go before I decide. But I am confident it will always be part of my life regardless of what I choose to do for my career." Of the play itself which dealt with issues of child pornography and tricky virtual reality, Koloski commented, "The Nether is a complicated play on paper - all in all a difficult play to understand, as it was quite obviously meant for people older than me. But Christine [Louise Marshall}, my amazing director, pushed me to look at each character (not just my own) very deeply, furthering my understanding of everyone's emotional attachment to my own character, Iris. I can't picture doing this play with a different cast or team. We all worked together so well on and off stage. It was exciting to work with a cast of just adults (other than me). I was able to observe the professionalism and maturity they bring to conversations about the show, and their performance techniques and skills that can only be learned from years of experience. The Nether was a life changing experience and one I will never forget." Speaking further about the Maine theatre community which she got to share and in which her parents are active participants, Koloski said, "People tell me the theater community in Maine isn't very big, but it seems as if so many people had to come together to make our show possible. It was great working with Mad Horse. I was already familiar with lots of the company members, but loved the chance to connect with them in a different way, and to meet so many other artists and members of the community. Our audiences were kind, and I still see people in public - people I have a personal connection to, cashiers at a store,for example- who tell me they saw the show and thought I did a good job. That's something maybe unique about making theater in a smaller community like Maine."
Christine Louise Marshall, Artistic Director of Mad Horse Theatre who directed The Nether praised her young star's abilities: "We're certainly thrilled at this award for Maiya Koliski's extraordinary work. That she is being recognised for "Best Actress", with no "young" or "new" modifier, is just wonderful. She is an incredibly mature and thoughtful actress, and it was a true honor to work with her." Marshall, who produced some very provocative plays this past season spoke of Mad Horse's mission and the sophistication of Maine audiences: "Mad Horse takes risks with our play choices every season. We knew The Nether [which dealt with a world of dangerous virtual reality and pedophilia] would push boundaries, but the material was so finely wrought, it was well worth producing. It was, strange to say for such dark material, a truly joyous experience. The response from the public reminded us yet again that the sophistication of Maine audiences cannot be underestimated. Over the years, we have repeatedly heard from audience members who, transplanted from larger cities, have been blown away by the material we've chosen, and our execution of it. The Nether was no exception, and Maiya's work had so much to do with that."
A native Mainer, Travis M. Grant, who won the BEST COSTUME DESIGN category for his Grease creations, found equal satisfaction in being recognized by his home state. " Working with MSMT and a Maine audience is always a wonderful experience. I was born and raised right here, and it is wonderful being able to give back to the community that has given me so much throughout the years." The citation for his colorful, joyful fifties costumes touched Grant because "Grease was my first official foray on the mainstage of MSMT. I, along with all of the wonderful people who built and fit all of the costumes, put a great dral of heart and soul into the clothes, and it was so rewarding to know that people loved them as much as we do!" The Grease production was, Grant attests "a wild ride. It was a massive cast, and everyone had at least four costumes, so it was a deceptively huge undertaking, but I loved every minute of it," and he expressed his gratitude to the entire team. "I am so grateful to [director/choreographer] Mark Martino, Curt Dale Clark and Stephanie Dupal for the opportunity to create something of which I am ultimately so proud!"
In his second Maine season, Matt Farcher was singled out for two accolades - BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL and BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE for his portrayal of Jack Kelly in Newsies. For Farcher it was the ensemble experience he cherished most. "I honestly am proudest to have been a part of that show, part of that company, and part of that family. I am very proud of the work I did in Newsies. Jack Kelly felt like a great fit as a role for me, but, above all, it made me happiest and most proud for MSMT to have the entire production win multiple awards. Newsies, in my mind, is a show that really rides on the shoulders of the newsboys themselves. Never have I watched a more talented, enthusiastic, and dedicated group of individuals give everything they had to every performance." Farcher also praised his understudy Kevin Murray as "an amazing talent and a force with which to be reckoned."
The pleasure of making theatre in Maine was shared by this year's big winner, Maine State Music Theatre, who took home ten wins out of the eleven categories for which the company was nominated - nine of those for its sensational production of Newsies and one for Grease. The Brunswick-based company founded by Victoria Crandall in 1959 is poised to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee Anniversary season in 2018, so the fact that the company has swept the BWW Awards for three years running is especially sweet to Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark. "Being honored by Broadway World and our audience makes a very special springboard into our sixtieth season," Clark said. " MSMT is blessed with an audience who has been loyal to the company for sixty years, and it is my mission to keep them happy and loyal for the next sixty by creating seasons that satisfy and stimulate them." He expressed his thanks to Broadway World for all the publication does to promote live theatre everywhere, adding "Thanks to everyone who has worked at MSMT this year and in the past seasons."
Director/Choreographer Marc Robin, who helmed the production of Newsies that had audiences breaking into standing ovations not only at every final curtain but also following big numbers like "King of New York" each night, has worked all over the country and is Executive Artistic Producer of the Fulton Theatre, but he retains a special affinity for theatre in Maine. "I am thrilled to be a part of the celebration of Newsies and MSMT.It was an enormous collaborative effort from everyone involved. I am so proud to be singled out for this show and honored to be employed at MSMT. Maine audiences are so appreciative of the arts, and it always motivates me and my team to try to exceed expectations. Without question, the artists involved with Newsies all felt the same and as a result, the show became a very special experience."
I asked two long time Maine theatre-goers, John Webster and James Saindon, who had been attending MSMT since its inception, what they each thought made these recent resoundingly winning seasons resonate so powerfully with Maine audiences. Webster opined: "There is really no secret to success. Be the best, engage the best, and produce the best. This is true of every business venture bar none. What Maine State Music Theatre does is to incorporate it all and to make it look easy and seamless. No wonder MSMT took so many People's Choice Awards for 2017. Veteran producer Marc Robin, stellar designer Charles Kading to relative newcomer Travis Grant, this theatre company led by the matchless Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark brings to the State of Maine a stellar cast of performers, dancers and technical staff." And paying a special tribute to the phenomenon that Newsies proved to be, Webster added, "As a long time season subscriber I believe Newsies was the most spectacular show ever produced on the Pickard Stage, and I have vivid memories of so many breakthrough performances. It makes my heart sing to be in an audience of an MSMT production."
Saindon echoed these sentiments, saying, "Led by the brilliance of Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, MSMT has established and sustained a reputation for presenting its audiences with exciting and engaging musical productions! For the past several seasons, production choices, complemented by lead actors/singers/ensembles deliver over-the-top quality performances. The 2017 season was just such an example- each show had the audiences on their feet exclaiming their approval."
And truly this phenomenon of standing ovations which Saindon and others describe, while not unique to Maine, is very much a hallmark of the warmth and total connection Maine theatre seems to make with its audiences. Asked how MSMT has been able to elicit that level of commitment and open outpouring of appreciation and approval, Curt Dale Clark summed up his own "rules of engagement:" "It is always scary to try to put together another winning season to top the previous one that has been successful, but I make it my goal to be better and better each year. I try to get the pulse of our community and understand what they want to see, what they can respond to and connect with. I make my repertoire choices taking this into account, along with the myriad of other factors such as the talent available to me, the balance of the repertoire, the practical considerations of schedule and resources. And once we have a season and a team, I strive to be, and I ask them to be the absolute best that we all possibly can. It takes a huge commitment on everyone's part, but I am so grateful and proud of what we have all accomplished together."
"Together" - it is this bond which carries across the footlights - that makes award-winning memories. It is the magic created on stage by ALL these winners and so many more across the state and embraced by an engaged audience that defines the Maine theatre scene. Let's celebrate yet another year!!