The 2015 Independent Theater Awards found its theme this year through overcoming adversity in ways both big and small. The small adversity came when it was discovered that the two winners of last week’s High School Musical Theatre Awards would be unable to play their backing CDs through the Narrative Loft’s Sonos music system. After a relatively short moment of consternation, both Blake Brundy, of Lompoc, and Kat Monzon, from Ventura, offered to do their numbers a cappella. In front of a packed house full of professional theater people of all stripes — ranging from actors and musicians to artistic directors, casting agents, and professors — the two young performers succeeded in turning what had been a crisis into a triumph, with Brundy offering a swinging rendition of “You Made Me Love You” and Monzon bringing down the house with her award-winning account of “On My Own” from Les Misérables. These high school musical stars became, in front of our eyes, a cappella heroes. They will both be going on to represent the region at the Jerry Herman Awards on June 1 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and they demonstrated the kind of courage that keeps the familiar axiom “the show must go on” from ever growing old.
The other, bigger occasion of adversity that percolated through several of the evening’s beautiful acceptance speeches was the ongoing impact of the tragic shootings in Isla Vista that took place almost exactly one year ago. UCSB professor Irwin Appel, who was honored for his direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Equivocation, was the first to touch on this subject, as he recalled the night of the tragedy, which also happened to be the opening night of Equivocation. When the play was over on that fateful Friday, the house lights did not come up as usual. Instead, the show’s stage manager informed the cast that there had been an incident in I.V., and that as a result, they would be staying on campus at least until it was safe for them to go home. The next night, as thousands of students filed across campus in front of the theater in a silent vigil, the audience and the cast stood and watched before going in to put on the show. It was an unforgettable experience, with life and art combining to create an extraordinary sense of the preciousness of every person and every moment. The show went on, and it was the right decision because, as Appel put it, “this is what we do.”
UCSB professor Tom Whitaker, who was honored for directing Middletown, advanced the story a little further in his remarks when he disclosed the negotiation process that led to obtaining the rights to produce the show. “Will Eno’s play is about community,” said Whitaker, “and about the little moments that bring people together. When we first applied for the rights, we were denied them, but I wrote an email to the playwright explaining what had happened here, and how much the students and the school needed the play to aid in the process of healing from the Isla Vista tragedy. He said he would talk to his agent, and the next day, we had the rights.” Middletown also won an award for Greg Mitchell’s fascinating set.
There were plenty of fun acceptance speeches, as well, like the one staged by Jeff Mills and his Proboscis company to celebrate Mills’s award for La La La Strada. Equipped with the marionette of Federico Fellini that Christina McCarthy created for the show and aided by several of his cast members, Mills thanked everyone involved in both Fellini’s voice and his own while engaging in some classic ventriloquist bickering with the dummy.
Diane Louise Salinger capped a moving tribute to, among others, Olivia Harris, the casting director who chose her to play Tallulah Bankhead in Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Looped, with the following words: “This role changed my life; I hope I’m wilder, more outrageous, and sexier because of her.”
David and Susie Couch received a standing ovation when they went up to accept their career achievement award for running Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre, the long-lived little theater in Gaviota that closed in the fall of 2014. Susie Couch, visibly moved by the tribute, praised all of the many collaborators who “no matter what we asked of them, always said ‘yes.’” Here’s hoping that the duo’s promised second act comes together soon.
Boxtales received the evening’s other career achievement award in recognition of its 20th season. Michael Loring Andrews anchored the group acceptance celebration in an outrageous polka-dot suit.