By Lynn Venhaus

Clayton Community Theatre was the big winner at this year’s Arts For Life’s fifth annual Theatre Mask Awards, taking the top prizes for both Outstanding Production of a Comedy  – “Biloxi Blues” – and Outstanding Production of a Drama – “A Soldier’s Play.” Combined, the two plays won eight awards.

The 2020 Theatre Mask Awards, honoring excellence in community theatre productions of dramas and comedies during 2019, included winners in 18 non-musical play categories. Nine community theater companies throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan region, including three counties in the metro-east, participate in the TMAs.

This year’s event was a pre-recorded virtual presentation online on Saturday, July 18, instead of the usual brunch because of the coronavirus pandemic. Originally scheduled for April 4, the TMAs were moved to mid-July, then ultimately cancelled because of the public health emergency and the gathering restrictions in St. Louis County.

Melissa Boyer and Tim Naegelin, members of the TMA Steering Committee and the Arts For Life board of directors, were the co-hosts. Brant McCance was the tech and video coordinator.

“We were able to still provide an opportunity for our local arts community to come together online and celebrate the many outstanding achievements of the previous year,” said AFL President Mary McCreight.

Clayton Community Theatre, formed in 1998, also was honored for Outstanding Large Ensemble for “Biloxi Blues,” and Director Sam Hack. It was back-to-back wins for their Eugene Trilogy by Neil Simon. In 2018, they won comedy production and direction for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The second play in Simon’s semi-autobiographical series won five awards overall.

Two “Biloxi Blues” actors were recognized – Michael Bouchard for Lead Actor and Sam Guillemette for Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

“A Soldier’s Play” won three, including Nada Vaughn for Director of a Drama and Nathan Schroeder for Lighting Design of a Play. Schroeder was a previous winner for “Macbeth” in 2015.

Clayton Community Theatre had notched 24 nominations — “Biloxi Blues” (13), “A Soldier’s Play” (10) and “Eurydice” (1). CCT also broke a record for having the most acting nominations from a single show – 8 for “Biloxi Blues.”

Other multiple award winners included Act Two Theatre, two for “Plaza Suite” – Amanda McMichael for Lead Actress in a Comedy and Jean Heckmann for Costume Design of a Play; Monroe Actors Stage Company for “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Sarah Polizzi for Supporting Actress and Randy Manning for Supporting Actor in a Drama; and Theatre Guild of Webster Groves won two – Matthew Linhardt for Lead Actor in Drama as McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Anna Drake as Outstanding Juvenile Performer for ‘The Bad Seed.”

O’Fallon TheatreWorks won two for “The Miracle Worker” – Kaylee Ryan for Lead Actress in a Drama as Helen Keller and Chris and Ellie Lanham for Outstanding Set Design of a Play, which they have won two previous times – in 2016 for “The Diary of Anne Frank” and in 2018 for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Awards went to Alton Little Theater for Outstanding Small Ensemble in a Play – “A Twisted Christmas Carol” and Looking Glass Playhouse for Supporting Actress in a Comedy – Pam Boker in “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves had led all area community theaters with 27 nominations.

Special Achievement Awards went to Alton Little Theater for “Vintage Voices” and Hawthorne Players for “Voices of Valhalla: Hayrides through History,” both unique applications of theater that take place in the fall around Halloween. Each theater troupe presents stories of the people buried in local cemeteries.

The 40-minute awards video is available on the AFL You Tube channel: https://youtu.be/5Peni8T5UA8

AFL had previously announced the switch to virtual for the Best Performance Awards, which honors musical theater and youth productions. That ceremony was streamed Sunday, June 14, at 2 p.m. on the AFL YouTube channel.

TMA winners have an opportunity to send an acceptance speech to AFL, and it will be posted on social media.

For the groups who have not picked up their trophies, please contact Mary McCreight at [email protected]

To see a complete list of the nominees and winners for both TMAs and BPAs, visit the website: www.artsforlife.org

“As our world, our nation and our region face a major health threat, it falls upon us as a community to adopt measures that will both foster the protection of those who work and ‘play’ in Metro St. Louis community theatre and ultimately allow AFL to continue our charitable mission of service and recognition once the threat passes,” McCreight added.

McCreight said AFL appreciates the support shown during these difficult times.

“I am incredibly grateful to all of our constituencies – the board, judges, participating groups, audience members and donors – for their commitment to AFL and their engagement and unwavering support of our local theatre community during these uncertain times,” McCreight said.

AFL was founded in 1994 by Lucinda Gyurci as a local non-profit organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the under-served and the community. The BPAs have honored musical theater since 1999 and the TMAs have honored plays since 2015.

“We hope that you and your loved ones stay safe during this difficult time,” McCreight said. “Because of your commitment to our community and belief in our mission, my optimism is not diminished about AFL being able to move forward once this unprecedented time passes.” 

For more information, contact AFL TRG Secretary Kim Klick at [email protected]

Be sure to subscribe/like to our social media: https://www.facebook.com/artsforlifestlouis, https://twitter.com/arts_for_life and YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnCSL5RPbHTrhbc0mbHcWnA

By Lynn VenhausManaging EditorLooking Glass Playhouse’s “Frost/Nixon,” a political drama based on a series of televised interviews between a disgraced president and a British journalist, was the big winner at the fourth annual Theatre Mask Awards.

The 43-year-old theater in Lebanon, Ill., earned four awards for Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, including outstanding drama production (tie), and for director Glenn Saltamachia, supporting actor Mike Russell (as Reston) and large ensemble.

A sold-out crowd of 265 attended the Arts For Life event on April 6, a brunch celebration in the Atrium Banquet Center at Christian Northeast Hospital. Awards were presented in 18 categories and Kevin Frakes of the Alton Little Theater received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

AFL honored plays produced by St. Louis area community theaters during the 2018 calendar year. The non-profit organization has sponsored awards for musical theater in community and youth productions for 20 years. AFL organized the TMAs in 2015 to recognize dramas and comedies.

Sharing in Outstanding Drama Production was the local premiere of “The Curious Incident with the Dog in the Night-time” by Actors’ Attic in Columbia, Ill. The play is about a gifted math genius with Asperger’s syndrome who begins a journey of self-discovery when he starts investigating the neighbor’s dog’s death. Simon Stephen’s acclaimed 2012 adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel earned seven Olivier Awards and the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play.

Cast of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” at the TMAs. Photo by Kim KlickActors’ Attic’s two leading performers, Dan Haller and Emily Brutton, won outstanding actor and actress. Haller said it was a privilege to play Christopher, who is also the narrator, while Brutton played his primary school teacher Siobhan. Actors’ Attic, lead by MaryBeth Babcock, has produced plays for 10 years and joined the TMAs last year.

Haller said the awards event was inspiring and thanked everyone for working in theater because they love it.

“You do theater for the love of doing theater, and that’s the best reason to do it,” Haller said.

Brutton thanked director Babcock for “always knowing how a story needs to be told.”“People follow their dreams because of her,” she said. 

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” cast at TMAs. Photo by Kim Klick.Clayton Community Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” won three awards, including outstanding comedy production and for actor Patrick Blanner as Eugene and director Sam Hack. CCT, founded in 1998, plans to produce Simon’s entire Eugene trilogy, is working on “Biloxi Blues” now and will present “Broadway Bound” next year.

Clayton’s production of William Inge’s ‘Bus Stop” won for outstanding large ensemble.

Both Outstanding Lead Actors in a Drama and a Comedy were under 20 years old — Haller is 19 and Blanner is 18.

Other multiple winners included O’Fallon TheatreWorks’ play version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which won two — supporting actress for Tori Stukins, who played Daisy’s society friend Jordan Baker, and costume design for Carole Lanham.

The drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” received awards for two different theater groups’ productions. Alton Little Theater’s show won lighting design for Lee Cox and Dennis R. Stephenson and the O’Fallon Theatre Works’ play won set design for Chris and Ellie Lanham.

Chris Lanham said working behind-the-scenes is a “labor of love,” quipping it’s really “mostly labor.”

Alton Little Theater also won outstanding actress in a comedy – Alison Beach as the frustrated daughter dealing with other people in line for her late billionaire father’s fortune in “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” 

Beach said the year before, she had auditioned for many shows and had been turned down. After one tryout at Alton, director Lee Cox took the time to explain to her why she didn’t get a part.“I assured her it mattered. She gave me the strength to keep auditioning,” she said.

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves was honored with three acting awards. Kaylee Ryan won outstanding juvenile performance in “The Children’s Hour” while Will Shaw won supporting actor in a comedy as bar patron Gaston in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”” and Sarah Hirshfield won supporting actress in a comedy as Carol, the only female writer, in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”

Cast of “Frost/Nixon with directors at TMAs. Photo by Kim Klick.Mike Russell, a past AFL nominee, won Outstanding Supporting Actor for his portrayal of James Reston Jr., an American author and government official who served as David Frost’s Watergate advisor for the Nixon interview. In “Frost/Nixon,” he also served as narrator. In his speech, he thanked LGP for taking a risk on the show “in today’s political climate.”

Kevin Frakes, current president of Alton Little Theater and longtime actor, director, set designer and mentor, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He joined the group, founded in 1933, 40 years ago. With his vision and hard work, the theater has grown into a creative center for the performing arts, presenter Lee Cox said.

“(Theater) changed my life and made me face my weaknesses. It made me a stronger, better person because of it,” he said.

Best friends Lee Cox and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Kevin Frakes, who have been doing theater together since she was 17 and he was 19. Photo by Kim Klick.Frakes told how he got into theater, and one of the reasons was to be accepted, for he was from a poor and abusive family.KLOU (103.3 FM) radio personality Vic Porcelli, who also acts in local productions, again served as the master of ceremonies, returning for the fourth time. Grace Boyer and Kailynn Stiff were the trophy presenters.

The TMAs include participation by 10 area theater companies. A judges panel scored 12 dramas and 13 comedies to determine the nominations, which are announced at the annual AFL trivia night, and the eventual winners. A large ensemble is nine or more people in the cast. TMA Chair is Glenn Guillermo and the Steering Committee is 26 people affiliated with the participating theater companies. The Judges Panel includes 42 volunteers. 

“I am proud of the dedication of the TMA Steering Committee and Director Glenn Guillermo,” said AFL President Mary McCreight. “The AFL Board of Directors congratulates all participants/nominees in last year’s shows. I am happy to see the TMAs thriving and creating a niche for yourselves in the theater community.”

The AFL’s 20th annual Best Performance Awards will take place on Sunday, June 9, at 2 p.m. at the Skip Viragh Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd. 

The musical theater awards reflect the work of 25 companies who produced 48 musicals – 21 large ensemble, 7 small ensemble and 20 youth productions. Two special youth awards will be presented to Caroline Santiago Turner for “Violet” (Best Youth Musical Performance) and Sean Harvey as Bobby in “Crazy For You” (Best Youth Featured Dancer), both works by the Gateway Center for the Performing Arts.The Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Joe Paule Sr. Local professional actor Ryan Cooper is the returning master of ceremonies.Reserved tickets will be available for $20 until May 10, then tickets are $25. Formal attire is requested.

For more information, visit www.artsforlife.org