Rolling out the red carpet for local theater

Minneapolis has tons of theaters, but not a lot of theater awards. Slowly but surely, that’s starting to change. On Sept. 24, hundreds of local thespians and theater lovers will pile into the Historic State Theatre for the third annual Ivey Awards.

Project Director Scott Mayer founded the event in 2004 after realizing there was a lack of recognition for local productions. "We always talk about what a great theater town [Minneapolis is] and we’ve never really done anything to celebrate it," he said. "Most other cities do have something to celebrate theater, and I always thought it was weird that we didn’t."

Unlike other awards ceremonies around the country, the Ivey Awards is grassroots, honoring productions based on public opinion, not judgments from hoity-toity theater critics. "They’ve already had their influence," Mayer said. "Let’s let the general public have their say."

For the past year, 100 volunteer evaluators took in more than 1,000 performances at 69 professional theaters from all over the Twin Cities. Each production is assigned to five or six reviewers on different nights, ideally toward the beginning of the run. The volunteers range from age 12 to 81, says Mayer. Sixty-two percent are female, 41 percent live in Minneapolis and 14 percent are involved in the theater community.

Using a 20-point scale, reviewers rate everything from their overall impression to specific attributes such as lights and choreography. If applicable, evaluators are asked to write in names of exceptionally talented actors, directors, designers and artists. Individuals and productions with the highest ratings overall will end up with the awards.

I trailed evaluator Kathy Tatone and her husband Marc as they took in "Feel Good Hits of the ’70s," a two-man show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St. The play centered on the stagnant, pathetic existences of two 30-something dudes who sit in their shared apartment all day bantering about oral sex, ex-girlfriends and their not-so-quiet desperation. The actors co-wrote the airtight script and delivered their lines with impeccable timing, creating quick-witted, snarky characters. Hang around enough 35-year-old single hipsters and you’ll recognize these guys. Without that experience, however, you might not get the joke.

Such was the problem with the Tatones.  They chuckled at a few of the tamer gags, but clearly, Kathy and Marc don’t frequent Pabst Blue Ribbon watering holes.

"Well, that was interesting," Kathy said, sitting down at a table after the show. As a middle-aged mother and lawyer, she isn’t used to a lot of swearing and genital references.

"There were moments when I could understand the difficulty of moving from 30-year-old men-boys to adulthood," she explained, but "I didn’t connect with it emotionally."

Reviewers are given an evaluation form and packet explaining what to look for in a production. They’re told to avoid reading reviews in the paper and to try to give their honest opinions — not what they think other people would say. Kathy likes being able to turn off the "Minnesota nice thing." As part of the Ivey Awards, she and Marc have been to 30 shows this year.

"To be able to review from [my] perspective makes it interesting. It’s the way theater is reviewed in real life as far as age and income," Kathy said, adding that she usually sees people like herself in audiences. "I’m representative."

The Tatone’s 18-year-old son, Matt, is also an Ivey Awards evaluator. He participates in theater at his high school and likes being able to use his own knowledge of acting to judge professional performances. "He picks totally different productions than I would," Kathy said.

Kathy and Marc plan to attend their first awards ceremony since Kathy became an evaluator in 2006. "It’s kind of like a gala," she explained.

The celebration will kick off with a VIP party at the Chambers Hotel. Tickets cost $125, which will go toward the Ivey’s Lifetime Achievement and Emerging Artist cash awards.

The main event at the Historic State Theatre is $35, open to the public, and packed with performances from local show biz stars. Ordway actors will act out scenes from "Rocky Horror Show," the Children’s Theatre cast members will sing tunes from Disney’s "High School Musical," and local girl-made-good Laura Osnes will perform a song from the Broadway hit "Grease."

According to Mayer, there aren’t set categories for the awards — recognition is based on the compiled evaluations. Last year, individuals and productions won awards for choreography, set design, performance, emotional impact, unique concept and direction, among other
acknowledgements.

"It’s not intended to be like the Tony awards where it’s black tie, stuffy, that kind of thing," said Mayer.

Fancy or not, a red carpet and camera-wheeling paparazzi will lead guests from the Historic State Theatre to a post-party at Mission American Kitchen & Bar in the IDS Center downtown.

Kathy admits that she’ll be disappointed if her favorite productions don’t win any awards. "I feel invested," she said. Some of her favorite plays from the past year include "Kiss of the Spider Woman" by Minneapolis Musical Theater and Walking Shadow Theater Company’s "Fat Pig." She’d also like to see the Jungle Theater recognized, especially for their production of "K2," a play about mountain climbers in which the actors hung onto a wall for the whole show.

"I tend to choose things that are more safe," she admits. "[‘Feel Good Hits of the ’70s’] wasn’t really my style of theater."

Becoming an evaluator for the Ivey Awards — at the advice of a coworker — has opened Kathy’s eyes an entire world of theater she might never have seen. She and Marc have always loved going to plays but didn’t know all of the options the Twin Cities has to offer. Even when she stops reviewing, Kathy plans to continue visiting tiny theaters and taking in local productions because you never know what you’ll get. "It’s the surprise that’s really fun," she said.

Contact Mary O’Regan at moregan@mnpubs.com or 436-5088.