Art, in all its forms, tends to reflect the immediate milieu – sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
At the moment, such reassessments are not necessarily confined to avant garde or experimental performance but rather are being instilled by institutional artistic organizations, specifically the upcoming Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre.
“Recognizing that, Theatre Philadelphia and the Barrymore, the Barrymore being a much longer institution, how are we reflective and responsive to the changing community?” asked Leigh Goldenberg, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia.
Theatre Philadelphia, a regional organization dedicated to connecting theatrical collectives, strived to seize two societal shifts and evince them for the 2017-18 Barrymore season.
This year’s iteration centers upon the categorization of self-identities and the space in which the ceremony will be held – South Philly’s historic Bok Technical School, renamed in the last 10 years or so as the Bok Building.
For the first time since its inception in 1995, the prestigious ceremony, which was taken over by Theatre Philadelphia in 2014, is stripping gender binary titles among its more than two-dozen awards being presented on Nov. 5.
Now, instead of “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” in plays and musical groupings, nominees, which were announced in August, fall into unspecific sex catalogs, like “Outstanding Leading Performance in a Play” or “Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Musical.”
The team behind this year’s Barrymore Awards say the conventional categorization was a topic of discussion stirring in community the past few years.
“The representation in the Barrymores was starting to be questioned by the community,” said Elaina Di Monaco, associate director of the 2018 Barrymore Awards. “And my impression is, in the last several years, there’s been an enormous effort, a volunteer effort from members of the community being like, ‘Our community is more diverse and intricate than this, and we want the Barrymores to represent that.’’’
Throughout this year, Philadelphia was among five major cities across North America to announce moving its main theater awards to a gender-inclusive system, as Philly was the second to to announce nominees in this format alongside theater organizations in Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago.
Tackling this structural adjustment did not solely include editing award titles, but actually having people of all races, genders and sexaulities review nominaited work.
This year, the Barrymore’s 80 nominees, as well as the 12 judges who make the final decisions, were asked to provide demographic information for both existing and potential members, allowing the critiquing process to feel more appropriate for thespians of all walks.
“We recognized that there are performers in our community who – asking them to put themselves into one of those categories is harmful, inaccurate, confusing – not something they want to do,” Goldenberg added.
Even if classic or new roles are written with concrete cisgender characters, Di Monaco says the performers portraying them should not feel attached to those labels.
“We have this incredible community of gender-nonconforming, non-binary, trans artists that are representing these characters, and so, how do you honor their performance? And the answer is, you, don’t put them in a binary,” Di Monaco said. “You open the category.”
Both Di Monaco and Goldenberg say this colossal revision aligns with another re-approach of this year’s Barrymore, as, also for the first time, the ceremony will be held in the auditorium of Bok.
Transplanting this nearly 25-year-old ceremony from a traditional theater setting in Center City to a repurposed public school space in East Passyunk Crossing also echoes a change in the community – the influx of artists flocking to South Philly.
From jewelers to painters, Bok serves as a hub of pulsating creativity — making the building a perfect fit for this year’s Barrymore.
Goldenberg says the Barrymore’s reach is a 35-mile radius from City Hall, so the board must consider how the ceremony is representing all of those regions, including companies, artists and audiences.
The Barrymore, commonly known as Philly’s “Theatre Prom,” will undoubtedly live up to this sobriquet this year, as following the ceremony, after parties will be held in two of Bok’s gyms – one serving as a dance floor, the other as a piano bar.
“It is a school, and it is a repurposed space, but it’s also a repurposed space that a lot of arts performances have happened in,” Di Monaco said. “ So, I think that’s cool. I think it kind of like highlights the beauty of nontraditional venues and repurposing. The arts have been doing that forever and ever.”
Still, several aspects of the ceremony remain, including live performances, the distribution of $75,000 in cash prizes and the presentation of special and grant awards, such as the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist and the Lifetime Achievement Award, which is being given to Paul Meshejian of PlayPenn this year.
But, comprehensively, this year’s Barrymore Awards depict a changing social climate on more than one level. Serving as a top-tier for Philadelphia art, the revised setting is intended to make amendments even past the parameters of performance.
“We’re feeling good that we’re on the leading edge of this,” Goldenberg said. “A thing that I keep saying is that arts are where we make change and lead on change, and if we can say in our awards program this is a value that we hold, then that will trickle back to the organizations that participate with us and their producing and casting decisions and also the audiences who will be able to see themselves on stage.”