For three years StarNews has hosted the Wilmington Theater Awards at Thalian Hall to recognize the best shows, performances, direction, and behind-the-scenes work that goes into making our local theatre scene explode with entertainment. With a host of theatre companies and venues in operation, not to mention the multitude of actors and talent that make it all possible, easily over 50 productions went live in 2014. StarNews features editor John Staton—who founded the awards ceremony and is the primary decision-maker on the nominations across two dozen categories—reviewed 43 plays last year alone.
“Nominees came from me and the four or five other critics who reviewed shows, as well as from the companies themselves,” Staton tells. “I had the final say over nominees since I saw the most shows. It’s always hard, because there are people in every category who deserved a nomination who didn’t get one.”
The winners are selected by one-third critic vote, one-third public online vote and one-third theater company vote. Though the process isn’t an easy one, standout moments existed during the year, such as the ending of UNCW’s “We Are Proud to Present…”—which is up for multiple awards, including Best Play, Best Director (Anne Berkeley) and Best Supporting Actor (Rickie Smalls Jr.). “The play’s ending was a bombshell,” Staton says. “People were openly weeping in the audience.”
Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s “Gallery” left the audience abuzz, too, according to the editor. “Gallery” has been nominated in six categories, including Best Play, Best Actor (Phillip Antonino) and Best Supporting Actor (Jacob Keohane).
“As far as singing, Nygel Robinson in ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ just blew me away,” Staton says. Robinson is up for Best Actor, as well. “Mark my words, that guy is going places,” Staton predicts.
All will be celebrated on January 14 at Thalian Hall, with the ceremony touting many performances. Folks who missed spectacular song-and-dance numbers from 2014—like Opera House Theatre Company’s “Moments in the Woods” from “Into the Woods” or True 2 You Productions’ “D.W. Washburn” from “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”—will have a second chance to see them live. Other performances will include “Everybody’s Got the Right” from Cape Fear Theatre Arts’ “Assassins” and the opening number from “Carrie,” the debut show from the newly launched City Stage Co.
“They’ll all be performed by the casts of the shows they’re from,” Staton explains. “Our musical director is Michael Lauricella, who’s worked with several local companies.”
Hosting the fourth event will be Rachael Moser, co-artistic director of City Stage Co. and the first female to lead the theater awards. Last year, Moser approached Staton at the afterparty and suggested a woman take the lead in 2015.
“[She] rattled off several worthy names (none of them hers),” Staton remembers. “My colleague Jeff Hidek and I considered a bunch of names before he was like, ‘Wait, what about Rachael?’ So, really, Rachael only has herself to blame for getting into this.”
The format will be the same as previous years, with a few tweaks included. With the help of stage manager Michele Ponton, folks will see musical numbers dispersed between awards, and Pineapple-Shaped Lamps will return to do comedy routines based on the nominees. As well, Opera House Theatre Company’s founder, Lou Criscuolo, will receive the Lela Thompson Award for Enduring Contribution to Wilmington Theater.
“It’s very sad that it’s going to have to be a posthumous award, but it makes me feel a little better knowing Lou knew he would be getting it,” Staton says. “It’s richly deserved, as well; he impacted local theater in so many ways. Tony Rivenbark probably said it best, in that [Lou] was the rising tide that raised all boats, so without getting too specific, he pretty much just made theater in this town better.”
Staton met Criscuolo 20-something years ago when he began reviewing theatre for encore (Staton was the encore editor until 2000). Staton’s first review was in 1992: “Lysistrata” from the long-defunct Tapestry Theatre Co. As fate would have it, Criscuolo would end up being Staton’s neighbor, too.
“Despite occasionally busting my chops over the years, as he did with everyone, he was really a sweet guy,” Staton tells. “Lou didn’t know how to retire, so I wrote at least two ‘Lou’s retiring’ stories over the years, even though he never did. He was a little Italian guy but still intimidating, so at one point I thought it would be a good idea to refer to him in print as ‘The Godfather of Wilmington Theater,’ which I did a couple of times. He told me to stop. I did.”
With presenting partners Thalian Hall, City Stage Co. and Land Rover Cape Fear, the Wilmington Theater Awards start at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) on Wednesday, January 14. After the evening’s ceremony, folks can attend the after-party at YoSake.
“The theatre community has just gotten better over time,” Staton says. “What impresses me most is the dedication of the community to put on great theater. People don’t realize how much work it takes to put on even a bad show, and I will say, I see very few truly bad shows. No one’s making any money, or much money anyway, so it’s all being done out of love, and that love really shows.”
Wilmington Theater Awards
Wednesday, January 14, 6:30 p.m.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut Street
Tickets: $15 • www.thalianhall.org