Last year, Star News’ features editor John Staton successfully created—with a little help from actress Linda Lavin and a host of locals, like Donn Ansell, Lou Criscuolo and others—a ceremony that celebrates the dozens of local theater productions that play throughout the year in Wilmington. The Wilmington Theater Awards is now back in its second year, returning to Thalian Hall to honor and award a whole new season’s worth of titles and players.
Staton has reviewed thousands of plays during his time covering the local scene (which started as editor of encore), overseeing the “Play” section of the StarNews’, as well as its WAE (Wilmington Arts and Entertainment) blog. It was really only a matter of time before Staton found a way to a commemorate Wilmington’s thriving theater scene and everyone involved.
encore spoke to Staton about the program’s line-up, nominees and notable presenters.
encore (e): It feels odd to say, but the inaugural Wilmington Theater Awards show was only just a year ago. Since it was the first-time event, has the program evolved in year two?
John Staton (JS): We felt like things went pretty well last year, so we’ve kept the structure mostly the same: presentation of awards with performance numbers from the “Best Musical” nominees and a few other musical and video presentations. That said, we have a new host, Zach Hanner, representing the Theatre Network of Wilmington, and a new music director, Jonathan Barber, representing the Thalian Association. Last year’s host [Justin Smith] and music director [Chiaki Ito, both of City Stage] were truly awesome, but to make these awards a true community event, we wanted to involve other companies this year. We plan on working with new people next year as well. It’s kinda like a jazz song: We’ve got a basic structure, but there’s a lot of room for playing around within it.
e: You have final say over the nominee list, were there any productions this time around you felt compelled to get on the list?
JS: I did have final say on nominations, which were based largely on “suggested nominees” from the theater companies and my fellow critics. I’d say that instead of being determined to get any productions on the list, I was more disappointed that some shows had to be left off. There were 10 or 20 shows and performances that probably deserved nominations that didn’t get them, because, obviously, not everyone can be nominated.
e: As you mentioned, the Thalian Association’s Jonathan Barber will be providing musical direction for the show. How is that coming along?
JS: Still planning the program, but we will have numbers from “Spring Awakening,” “The Most Happy Fella,” “The Color Purple,” “The Producers” and “9 to 5.” Also, our host, Zach Hanner, has some super-fun songs and videos planned that should probably be left a surprise.
The whole show is being dedicated to Donn Ansell, the longtime local actor and media personality who died earlier this year. Donn was instrumental in getting the first awards show off the ground, and we’ll be talking about Donn a lot as well as presenting his partner [Michael Walton Jones] and family with the Enduring Contribution to Wilmington Theater award, which will be honoring Donn posthumously.
e: It would be an understatement to say that you see a lot of local shows throughout the year. Off the top of your head, which overall productions really stood out to you?
JS: It was often more moments and feelings that stood out than individual productions. The emotion conjured up by “The Color Purple” was incredible. The weirdness and creativity that permeated the staging of “Margo Veil” at UNCW I still think about. “The Full Monty,” which I had some problems with, probably had the best payoff/ending of any show I saw all year. I could go on, but we’d be here all day.
e: Were there any particular acting performances that really awed you this season?
JS: Even though she didn’t get a nomination, Erin Sullivan did an amazing job as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.” Justin Smith mentioned to me, and I agree, that the way she moves onstage, in some ways, cannot be taught. Ron Hasson had a great year and really blew me away with his acting, in very different roles, in both “God’s Favorite” for Big Dawg and “The Importance of Being Earnest” for Browncoat. Tammy Mercer gave an inspired performance in “The Dixie Swim Club.” She played a 40-year age range over the course of the show and did so believably, and hilariously.
e: Last year Linda Lavin presented, as well as Mayor Saffo. Are there any notable presenters you’d like to give a shout out to for this year’s event?
JS: Yes, two very good and notable actors, Peter Jurasik and Joe Gallison, have agreed to present. Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County director Rhonda Bellamy will present again. Justin Smith, last year’s MC, will present, too. We’re waiting to hammer down a couple more.
e: As for the running time, I know your goal last year was not to have the ceremony too bloated; is the duration still around two hours?
JS: Yes it is. Two hours and we out.
Tickets are available on www.WilmingtonTickets.com, at the StarNews (1003 S. 17th St.) and at the Thalian Hall box office (632-2285 or www.ThalianHall.org)