The Mount Washington Valley was well represented at the 11th annual N.H. Theatre Awards at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H. Saturday, Jan. 26.
M&D Productions of North Conway, N.H. took home best actor in a community production of a drama or comedy for Richard Russo's work in "Halpern and Johnson," and Bob Shea, the artistic director of the Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth, N.H. was honored with a lifetime achievement award.
This is M&D's second year in a row winning in the best actor category, with the award going to Ken Martin last year for his performance in "Talley's Folly." Russo also won an award last year in the directing category for his sure-handed direction of "Talley's Folly."
Of Russo's performance, I wrote in my review of "Halpern and Johnson" that "Russo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. His facial expressions as he listens to the supposedly virtuous relationship his wife had with another man are priceless. He also reveals deep pain during a monologue about his past."
The other essentially element of Russo's performance is that he truly appeared to be present, engaged and listening to his co-star, David H. Bownes, rather than just waiting for his turn to speak.
Although Russo was unable to attend the awards, he did send an acceptance speech that was read on his behalf.
"I am incredibly honored by this award and wish I could be there in person. I would like to thank the director, cast and crew of this show for making it such a memorable experience. I also thank M&D Productions for providing a safe and supportive, creative atmosphere in the wilds of North Conway."
In a video, Shea was honored and lovingly roasted for his tireless efforts as the artistic director of Barnstormers. The video included a fictional school in which students can learn to be an artistic director just like Bob Shea. This was an amusing tribute to Shea, who was reminded that receiving a lifetime achievement award doesn't mean there isn't anything left to achieve.
Shea kept his acceptance speech short and gracious. He fondly discussed his mentor Francis Cleveland, the Barnstormers' founder and artistic director for 64 years. Cleveland cast Shea in his first equity play, which Shea freely admits he was "terrible" in because he was trying too hard. Luckily, Cleveland took Shea "under his wing and straightened me out."
Cleveland shared this advice with Shea: "Be generous in rehearsal with your colleagues, especially be generous with your audience. Have the courage of your convictions, keep an open mind artistically, raise the bar, always raise the bar and challenge yourself. Don't be afraid to fail and venture beyond your comfort zone."
The N.H. Theatre Awards aren't decided by votes, but rather an adjudication process with representatives from each theater company scoring other companies. Each show is scored in various categories by numerous adjudicators. The highest average score is the show that wins the award. The ceremony honors both community and professional productions.
Through this process making it the top three is also an honor. M&D's "Halpern and Johnson" was top three in two other categories: best scenic design for Deborah Jasien and best director for Ken Martin. On the professional side of things Advice to the Players made it to the top three in the best actress category for Angela Smith in "A Merchant of Venice."
As for the award ceremony itself, it was an improvement over past years that too heavily relied on badly scripted banter between the presenters. The evening was still long, clocking in at nearly four hours long, but moved along more briskly than the previous two years I went.
Once again, several companies from across the state performed scenes from nominated productions. The highlight of these performances was the Peacock Players' rousing rendition of "One More Day" from "Les Miserable." The Peacock Players is a youth company, which makes the caliber of the singing all the more remarkable and awe inspiring. Similarly, Actorsingers' version of "Hard Knock Life" from "Annie" showcased some truly talented young singers.
It was an entertaining and worthy evening that shined a spotlight on the arts and the striking amount of quality throughout New Hampshire, including right here in the Mount Washington Valley.