As awards shows go, the inaugural Orange County Theatre Guild Awards Monday made a fine debut. The 375-person-capacity Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center of the Arts was full; the Michael Serna-directed show sped by in about 90 minutes; the hired gun performers, hosts Deanna Anthony and Chris Chatman, may not have known they were in Orange County let alone any of the nominees, but they sold the hell out of all it; and while two shows dominated (the Chance Theater’s “Fun Home,” winning five musical awards, and the Maverick Theater’s “The Crucible” winning six play awards) 20 of 84 nominees won awards in 16 categories.
But the evening was bigger than that.
Not so big that a slap would have made international news, but big enough for the approximately 400 people in the seats and behind the stage. Monday night was the first night in far too many nights that the Orange County theater community felt whole. It was the largest gathering of that community since the pandemic started — if not the largest in at least 15 years. Representatives of nearly every producing entity in the county attended, many of them presenting, from big dogs like South Coast Repertory’s artistic director David Ivers, to Tucker Boyes, a company member of the 7-year-old Alchemy Theater Company, which is still looking for a permanent home.
And just as important, after nearly two years of few to no shows to be in, or to watch, Monday’s awards ceremony gave theater people the opportunity to do something they do really well: dress up.
But the evening was bigger than that.
Orange County has had recurring theater awards before, from 1997 to 2006. Sponsored by the now-defunct OC Weekly (and hosted by someone with a name uncannily resembling the person typing these words) in its first year about a dozen people huddled on the second floor of a tiny Italian restaurant in Laguna Beach. Ten years later, it had moved to South Coast Repertory’s 507-seat Segerstrom Stage.
Though a hell of a party, the voting process was hardly scientific. A few reviewers would exchange emails and choose the plays and performances they liked the most. But since rarely was one show seen by multiple reviewers, often the winner in a category came down to who argued the most passionately.
The OCTG awards ran laps around the OC Weekly Award, called the OCies (pronounced “Okies”) in its first year. Beginning in 2019, a five-member committee researched regional theater awards from coast to coast. They pulled elements from a few and created their own system, which involves some 50 volunteer voters who are screened and trained by the guild, a rating scale for all submitted productions and nominees, and a process for submitting all votes online. But, as Katie Chidester and Kristin Campbell explained Monday, while they oversee the process, neither has access to the figures until the winner’s name is announced.
Keeping the process secure is important because every member of the 10-person board represents a theater, and a few of them run those theaters. And since a big goal of the guild is to broaden its membership, it needs to avoid any hint of favoritism. That’s why the presenters all represented Guild members and each was given a few minutes to introduce its theater to the audience.
The Guild, being a union of theaters who all contribute and benefit from association with each other, was reinforced near the end of Monday’s ceremony by the president of its board, Amanda DeMaio.
“This is a partnership,” she said. “We want to bring as much focus to Orange County (theater) as possible, because let’s be honest: We spend countless hours doing theater in the dark, practicing for hours missing people that we live with and having no idea what’s going on in their lives. So don’t we deserve to have full seats?”
A nice touch came after DeMaio, when the co-founders of the OCTG, Sharyn Case and Brian Page, presented the Best Musical award. “When we began the OC Theatre Guild journey,” Case said, “we wanted to create a place where theater producers, directors technicians … could share resources, seek and get input and advice and receive mutual support for all their efforts. Tonight is proof that we achieved this goal and the current leadership has expanded and taken OCTG to a new and rewarding place. The journey continues.”
It’s not just continuing; it may have crossed into the fast lane Monday night. While there have been sporadic attempts over the years to form some kind of regional theater group, none went anywhere. Theaters for the most part tended to stay inside their bubbles. Actors rarely strayed from familiar turf; there wasn’t cooperation or steady communication between theaters. That slowly began thawing in the 2000s, but it wasn’t until the OCTG, which was formed in 2015 but kicked into high gear in 2019, that there seemed to be consistent, substantive dialogue on a county-wide level.
And then the pandemic hit. But rather than halting the guild’s momentum, it redirected it and maybe even amplified it, as this article from Voice of OC from January 2021 explains.
And maybe it’s the lack of stepping inside a theater over the past two years, but it was hard to not feel something different in the atmosphere in that space Monday night. That maybe local theaters were thrust into the pandemic thinking one way, but are beginning to walk out of it thinking another. Appreciative of their survival, yes; but also cognizant of their frailty.
As managing director of the Chance Theater Casey Long said Monday night when accepting the outstanding production of a musical award on behalf of the Chance, “Our community needs live theater more than it realizes. While some thrive on divisiveness, theater is playing its part in reminding us that we need each other and we are stronger when we stand together.”
So, yeah, the OCTG inaugural theater awards were a hit. Local theater achievement was recognized. It brought a bunch of local artists together under one roof. More than a few took the opportunity to sport some fancy duds.
But it’s also possible that Monday night was the first night that someone could use the phrase “Orange County theater community,” and it was a real thing.
And if that’s the case, that would be a very big deal.
The winners of the 2022 OC Theatre Guild Awards are:
Outstanding Production of a Play: “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Production of a Musical: “Fun Home,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Direction of a Play: Brian Newell, “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Direction of a Musical: Marya Mazor, “Fun Home,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Ensemble, “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Lead Performance in Play (two recipients): Julanne Chidi Hill (Alma), “Yellowman,” Chance Theater; Nathan Baesel (Proctor), “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Lead Performance in a Musical (two recipients): Deborah Robin (Doris Day), “Day After Day,” P3 Theatre Company; Ron Hastings (Bruce Bechdel), “Fun Home,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Play (two recipients): Jennifer Walquist (Williamina Flemming), “Silent Sky,” Costa Mesa Playhouse; Mark Coyan (Rev. Hale), “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical (two recipients): Laura Leo Kelly (Craig/Space Invader Girl/Lydia/Grandma/Erica/Happy Foley/Drums), “Striking 12,” Chance Theater; Madelyn Velazquez-Heywood (Medium Alison), “Fun Home,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Scenic Design: Steve Endicott, “Silent Sky,” Costa Mesa Playhouse
Outstanding Costume Design: Celestina Hudson, “The Crucible,” Maverick Theater
Outstanding Lighting Design: Andrea Heilman, “Yellowman,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Sound Design: Maddi Deckard, “The Nether,” The Wayward Artist
Outstanding Choreography: Kelsie Blackwell, “All Shook Up,” Curtis Theatre
Outstanding Music Direction: Lex Leigh, “Striking 12,” Chance Theater
Outstanding Notable Achievement: Victoria Serra, video designer, “Silent Sky,” Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.