To judge by the 2016 Independent Theater Awards, the War of the Roses, which pitted the houses of York and Lancaster in a dynastic struggle from 1455-1487, is as lively a subject as any other game of thrones you could name — maybe more so. The UCSB production of Irwin Appel’s The Death of Kings, a two-part, six-hour condensed version of the eight Shakespeare history plays that encompass the conflict between “the white rose and the red” took home six Indys, including awards for original adaptation, costumes, and direction and three for performances.
Other multiple award winners included Ensemble Theatre Company’s productions of I Am My Own Wife and Sweeney Todd, and PCPA’s Man of La Mancha. This year’s judges included Terry Ortega, Maggie Yates, and Barney Brantingham, and the honorees were entertained by three outstanding musical theater performers from area high schools — Hunter Hawkins from Laguna Blanca, Rebekah Mann from San Marcos, and Irving Soto from Santa Barbara High School.
As is often the case at the Indys, the acceptance speeches were remarkably eloquent and thoughtful. John Tufts, the actor who played Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf in Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of I Am My Own Wife, could not make it to the ceremony because he is now opening the show in Chicago, but he passed along this message through his director, Jenny Sullivan: “I would really like to thank this community. To come to a town so deeply connected to cinema and to discover an audience hungry for live theater was thrilling.” Samantha Eve, accepting on behalf of Zachary Allen Thompson for his performance in Heathers: The Musical, noted that Thompson, who was surprised to hear that he had won, spent the second half of the show costumed only in underpants. Now that’s showbiz!
Cabaret star Amanda McBroom was delighted to accept her award in person, citing the positive impact of her director, Rubicon Theatre Company’s Brian McDonald, on her performance in Other Desert Cities. McBroom expressed delight at being recognized for a show in which she did not sing, and in which she had to channel her inner evil Nancy Reagan.
After a stirring rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story by Hawkins, presenter Brantingham took the podium to give awards to Heather Ayers for her performance in Sweeney Todd with Ensemble, Brian Harwell for his turn in The Death of Kings, at UCSB, and Jenny Sullivan, who directed I Am My Own Wife.
Presenter and judge Maggie Yates introduced the double award honoring Westmont’s Christine Nathanson for directing Tar and Feather and for starring in Dido, Queen of Carthage by calling attention to the extraordinary quality and delightful sense of adventure that Westmont’s theater program brings to our city. Yates also praised Westmont’s Paige Tautz for her daring performance in the new play Mad & a Goat. UCSB’s Risa Brainin accepted an award for original playwriting on behalf of Yussef El Guindi, whose play The Talented Ones was featured in the university’s Launch Pad program last season. UCSB senior BFA student Charles Grant received a roar of approval from his college cohort along with his statue, which honored his work as Richard II in The Death of Kings. Jeremy Scharf, another UCSB undergrad, also won for The Death of Kings, in which he played Richard III.
After a beautiful performance of a song from the musical Hair by Soto, the final sequence of six awards included three for The Death of Kings and three for other, smaller productions. Tom Hinshaw, who won for his solo performance in Title and Deed, which was directed by Maurice Lord, encouraged the theatrically inclined audience to dig in to the work of Title and Deed author Will Eno. Ann Bruice, the UCSB professor who designed more than 50 costumes for The Death of Kings, brought her student Maddison Carroll onstage with her to accept an award for that show. Bruice got the biggest laugh of the night with remarks addressed to Kings director Appel that included renaming the time-intensive project “The Death of Us All.”
Both Jim Connolly, whose musical score for The Death of Kings was honored, and Appel, who was recognized for the direction of that show and for writing the original adaptation, mentioned Jeff Mills, the UCSB faculty member who played Henry IV and who will be leaving Santa Barbara in the fall to take a tenure track position at DePaul University in Chicago. Mills, who teaches acting and stage combat at UCSB, has been a vivid presence on and behind our city stages for many years, and he will be missed.
The last award of the evening went to a very patient Rob Grayson for his turn in A Bright New Boise. Elements, the theater collective founded by Sara Rademacher and Emily Jewell, produced Boise, and it continues on its mission of bringing free theater to alternative spaces all over the county. It was a fitting end to an evening that gathered the disparate strands of our theater community into a single happy bunch for this longstanding annual tradition.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to state Jeff Mills is headed for DePaul University.