"Miss Bartie," Jessica Jane Witham, added great levity to the proceedings.
Awards shows are notorious for being too lengthy, too self-reverential and too wooden. Despite that less than attractive reputation, the Bartell Community Theatre Foundation decided to try its luck and created the Bartell Theatre Awards, or the Barties. To the organizers' enormous credit, the inaugural ceremony Saturday evening at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., was less a too-serious industry night of back-patting and awkward jokes, and more a lighthearted, fun appreciation of the people who make community theater tick.
The first annual celebration of the six resident companies at the Bartell featured a red carpet entrance complete with paparazzi and adoring fans, plus champagne and hors d'oeuvres for all attendees. Company members, volunteers and theater aficionados alike turned out to support one another and to don their award-night finest. For the 2009-2010 season, the Bartell companies were Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, Laboratory Theatre, Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players Theatre, StageQ and Strollers Theatre.
Ably hosted by George Gonzales and Peter Hunt, the show clipped along at an entirely bearable pace and had the audience laughing and cheering throughout. Several musical numbers broke up the actual award- and thanks-giving, including a hilarious medley from StageQ's The Stops, a comedy that got more than a few nods that night. This years' official "Miss Bartie," Jessica Jane Witham, added some great levity to the proceedings as well, alternating between a vacantly chipper awards girl and a brassy crowd tamer.
In addition to the usual prizes for Best Actor/Actress, Best Comedy and Best Drama, Bartell-specific accolades were also given for categories like Best Portrayal of a Non-Homo Sapiens and Best Save by a Cast Member. They all provided opportunities for some inside-theater jokes to have their moment in the spotlight, which furthered the notion that the Barties are more a community celebration than a publicity-sniffing effort.
There were plenty of jabs at the world of the stage, too, including some pointed commentary about the lack of pay, the small audiences and the backstage drama. What ultimately came across was a decided sense that everyone involved loves what they do. Each company was given the opportunity to express that love by giving out two awards of its own choosing.
Some of these were touching and heartfelt thanks to tireless volunteers and hardworking members, while others were more lighthearted. When Laboratory Theatre gave its award to all of StageQ, it was explained that a six-pack of beer left behind in the backstage refrigerator was the reason for the gratitude.
The Bartell Foundation also recognized four individuals for going above and beyond in supporting the theater: Kirk Stantis (for being a diligent and dedicated tech), Sarah Hafner (for creating the theater's new volunteer program), Steve Noll (for creating and naming the bar in the lobby) and Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan, who was thanked for his "consistent political and social support of theater in Madison."
A complete list of winners is available here.
The night ended with a decent approximation/send-up of a beatnik poetry recital by Gonzales (accompanied on bongos by Hunt) recapping the entire 2009-2010 Bartell Theatre season. The final line of the poem well summed up the dedicated, do-or-die community theater attitude: "See you next year / come high water or hell / we'll be here at the theater / called the Bartell."