A year on Edmonton stages: the Sterling Award nominations

Bella King, Jocelyn Ahlf, Jillian Aisenstat in Fun Home, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Mat Busby

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A highly unusual coming-of-age coming-out musical in which a cartoonist unravels in flashback frames her mysterious family history proved the top choice of jurors, as the re-vamped 32nd annual Sterling Award nominations were announced Monday at Fringe Theatre headquarters.

That would be Fun Home, a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir of growing up with a father who is, as she comes to realize, gay. And the haunting, funny, heart-wrenching Plain Jane Theatre production directed by Dave Horak, scooped up eight nominations in 24 Sterling categories, including top musical, independent production, and director.

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There were nods as well for Jocelyn Ahlf’s leading performance as the 43-year-old Alison, supporting role performances from Bella King as the college-age Alison and Kate Ryan as Alison’s mother, plus Janice Flower’s musical direction.

The Sterlings, named after a visionary theatre pioneer in these parts (Elizabeth Sterling Haynes), celebrate excellence on Edmonton stages during the past season. In this edition,  for the first time, the performance categories are gender-neutral, an example set recently by Toronto’s Dora Awards. Instead of gender designations, the Sterlings have opted to divide performances, leading and supporting, another way — into comedy and drama, as determined by jurors. 

In the new gender-neutral Sterling nomination landscape, 14 of the 20 nominations for outstanding performances, leading and supporting role, in drama and comedy have gone to women. Vanessa Sabourin accounts for two, leading performances in both drama and comedy, in  Northern Light’s provocative 19 Weeks and Bright Young Things’ Fallen Angels. All five nominees for “outstanding performance in a supporting role – drama” are women; two, Nicole St. Martin and Lora Brovold, were cast-mates in Valerie Planche’s Citadel/ Arts Club production of the blue-collar Lynn Nottage tragedy Sweat. 

Actor Kendra Connor presided over Monday’s announcement, the official prelude to the upcoming June 24 Sterling gala. And the nominations were read by actors Melissa Thingelstad and Bella King.

Umed Amin, Mikaela Davies, Emma Houghton in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Fun Home is the work of a small indie company (part of the Varscona Theatre Ensemble). The three other big nomination draws are productions from Edmonton’s largest playhouse, the Citadel. Nancy McAlear’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a romantic comedy that revisits the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to follow the fortunes of the neglected middle sister (name her if you can), has seven nominations — including outstanding director, as well as Mikaela Davis’s star performance as the bristly misfit Miss Bennet, Mathew Hulshof’s dry and witty supporting performance as Mr. Darcy, Dana Osborne’s set and lavish period costumes, and Jonathan Lewis’s score.

Rachel Bowron, Jesse Lipscombe in The Party. Photo by Ryan Parker

Kat Sandler’s political comedy double-bill, The Party and The Candidate, and Daryl Cloran’s production of Matilda, the hit Broadway musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel (co-produced by the Citadel, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and the Vancouver Arts Club), each received six nominations.

The former was the season’s most adventurous (and aerobic) theatrical experiment, in which Sandler’s two intertwined comedies, one an immersive “party” and one a full-out farce, happened simultaneously every evening (with the same cast dashing dashing back and forth between two Citadel theatres).

This double-barrelled extravaganza has nominations in the outstanding new play category, as well as  for co-directors Sandler and Cloran and for Megan Koshka’s extravagant and giddy costumes. Three actors from those joint productions, Thom Allison, Colleen Wheeler, and Amber Lewis, dominate the “supporting role – comedy” category, along with Mathew Hulshof (Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley) and Jesse Gervais for his very funny performance as the humourless anti-theatrical theatre recruit in The Comedy Company

Matilda the Musical. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

Matilda’s six nominations include outstanding musical, Kimberly Rampersad’s playful precision choreography for kids, Cory Sincennes’ set and costumes, Gerald King’s lighting, and musical direction by veteran Don Horsburgh.

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

After that, with four nominations each, are productions on every scale, small to large. Two are solo shows. Damien Atkins’ We Are Not Alone, a collaboration between  Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, Montreal’s Segal Centre and Halifax’s 2b theatre, played in  the Theatre Network season. The charismatic playwright, an erstwhile Edmontonian, is nominated in the leading performance (drama) category.  Lake of the Strangers, a haunting new memory play by the brother-sister team of Hunter Cardinal and Jacquelyn Cardinal, has four Sterling nods. Three are for the atmospheric production which actually happened in a shallow pool of water in a Tessa Stamp design, lit by Narda McCarroll, and enhanced by Brianna Kolybaba’s projection design.

Kevin Sutley, Bobbi Goddard, Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

At this year’s Sterling Awards, Hunter Cardinal, a co-host of last year’s gala, enters a realm of exclusivity all his own: playwrights also nominated for their star performances in Hamlet (Freewill Shakespeare Festival) are in short supply in the world.  

Vanessa Sabourin and Belinda Cornish in Fallen Angels, Bright Young Things. Photo by Mat Busby.

The Rocking Mayfield production of the Broadway musical Sister Act and Bright Young Things’ sparkling account  of the fizzy Noel Coward comedy Fallen Angels have four nominations each. That tally for the former includes outstanding musical, Christine Bandelow’s witty choreography, Van Wilmott’s musical direction and Leona Brausen’s amusing costumes. The latter includes two of the five leading performance (comedy) nominees, in co-stars Belinda Cornish and Vanessa Sabourin. 

The new play category is particularly lively and competitive this season. Lake of the Strangers is a contender along with Kat Sandler’s Citadel double-header. So is The Finest of Strangers, a strange and moving new Stewart Lemoine comedy about the mysterious gravitational pull of the past. They’re up against two new plays inspired by remarkable true Canadian stories.

The Comedy Company, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

Darrin Hagen’s The Empress & The Prime Minister, which premiered at Theatre Network, chronicles the unexpected rapport between gay-rights pioneer ted northe and a justice minister on the rise (one Pierre Elliot Trudeau). Neil Grahn’s The Comedy Company, which debuted at Shadow Theatre, explores the link between comedy and tragedy in the story of soldiers of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry ordered during the nightmare horrors of World War I to form a musical comedy troupe to boost troop morale.

Nicole St. Martin and Ashley Wright, Sweat. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In all, the Citadel comes away with some 28 Sterling nominations, the most of any theatre company by far. That tally includes four for the company’s very rare incursion into the top new play category with The Party/ The Candidate, and three for outstanding production contenders Made In Italy, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, and Sweat. After that, the nomination spread is wide, touching down on everything from the English indie company Malachite Theatre (Macbeth) to Theatre Yes for their topical installation Viscosity, as well as Edmonton Opera (La Traviata, Count Ory)  and L’UniThéâtre (La Fille du facteur).

Theatre for young audience nominations all go this year to the work of theatre artists in pieces that originated with the company: Concrete Theatre’s CRTL-ALT-DEL and Songs My Mother Never Sung Me, and Alberta Musical Theatre Company’s Pinocchio.

On Sterling gala night (June 24 at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, hosted by Mathew Hulshof and Gina Puntil), the invaluable Adam Mitchell, the Fringe’s executive director, will be going home with the Margaret Mooney Award for Outstanding Achievement in Administration. Alastair Elliot will receive the Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production. To Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman, the inspirational couple (retiring this year from Vic, the performing arts high school) whose dedication as arts educators for more than 4 decades has had such a profound impact on the artistic life of the city, goes the Sterling for outstanding contribution to theatre in Edmonton. Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca.

The 2018-2019 Sterling Award Nominees

Outstanding Production of a Play:Made in Italy (Citadel Theatre); Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel Theatre); We Are Not Alone (Theatre Network); Sweat (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre); 19 Weeks (Northern Light Theatre/ Azimuth Theatre)

Timothy Ryan Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical: Matilda (Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Arts Club Theatre); Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Once (Citadel Theatre); Sister Act (Mayfield Dinner Theatre); La Traviata (Edmonton Opera)

Outstanding New Play (Award to Playwright): The Empress & The Prime Minister by Darrin Hagen (Theatre Network); Lake of the Strangers by Jacquelyn Cardinal & Hunter Cardinal (Naheyawin/Fringe Theatre Adventures); The Comedy Company by Neil Grahn (Shadow Theatre); The Finest of Strangers by Stewart Lemoine (Teatro la Quindicina); The Party/The Candidate by Kat Sandler (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Director: Dave Horak, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Marianne Copithorne, Fallen Angels (Bright Young Things); Nancy McAlear, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel Theatre); Jim Guedo, Small Mouth Sounds (Wild Side Productions); Daryl Cloran & Kat Sandler, The Party/The Candidate (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – Drama: Vanessa Sabourin, 19 Weeks (Northern Light Theatre/Azimuth Theatre); Hunter Cardinal, Hamlet (Freewill Shakespeare Festival); Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone (Theatre Network); Jocelyn Ahlf, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Gianna Vacirca, Blood: A Scientific Romance (The Maggie Tree)

Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role – Comedy: Mikaela Davis, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel Theatre); Vanessa Sabourin, Fallen Angels (Bright Young Things); Farren Timoteo, Made in Italy (Citadel Theatre); Coralie Cairns, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Shadow Theatre); Belinda Cornish, Fallen Angels (Bright Young Things)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – Drama: Bobbi Goddard, What a Young Wife Ought to Know (Theatre Network); Bella King, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Nicole St. Martin, Sweat (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre); Kate Ryan, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Lora Brovold, Sweat (Citadel Theatre/Arts Club Theatre)

Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role – Comedy: Mathew Hulshof, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel Theatre); Jesse Gervais, The Comedy Company (Shadow Theatre); Thom Allison, The Party/The Candidate (Citadel Theatre); Colleen Wheeler, The Party/The Candidate (Citadel Theatre); Amber Lewis, The Party/The Candidate (Citadel Theatre)

Outstanding Independent Production: Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company); Viscosity (Theatre Yes); Fallen Angels (Bright Young Things); Blood: A Scientific Romance (The Maggie Tree); Small Mouth Sounds (Wild Side Productions)

Outstanding Set Design: Daniel van Heyst, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Shadow Theatre); Cory Sincennes, Matilda (Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club Theatre; Tessa Stamp, Lake of the Strangers (Naheyawin/ Fringe Theatre Adventures); Dana Osborne, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel); Drew Facey, The Tempest (Citadel).

Outstanding Costume Design: Cory Vincennes, Matilda (Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club Theatre); Dana Osborne, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel); Megan Koshka, The Party/ The Candidate (Citadel); Deanna Finnman, Count Ory (Edmonton Opera); Leona Brausen, Sister Act (Mayfield Dinner Theatre).

Outstanding Lighting Design: Kimberly Purtell, We Are Not Alone (Crow’s Theatre/ Segal Centre for Performing Arts/ 2b Theatre Company, at Theatre Network); Narda McCarroll, Lake of the Strangers (Naheyawin/ Fringe Theatre Adventures); Bonnie Beecher, The Tempest (Citadel); Gerald King, Matilda (Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club Theatre); Daniela Masellis, Fun Home (Plain Jane Theatre Company)

Outstanding Multi-Media Design: Matt Schuurman, The Comedy Company (Shadow Theatre); Katrina Beatty, The Cardiac Shadow (Northern Light Theatre/ Good Women Dance Collective); T. Erin Gruber, Canada 151 (Mayfield Dinner Theatre); Brianna Kolybaba, Lake of the Strangers (Naheyawin/ Fringe Theatre Adventures); Raphael Freynet, La Fille du facteur (L’UniThéâtre); Barry Steele, Hansel and Gretel (Edmonton Opera).

Outstanding Score of a Play or Musical: Dave Clarke, Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete Theatre); Jonathan Lewis, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Citadel); Danielle La Rose, Macbeth (Malachite Theatre); Matthew Skopyk, Hamlet (Freewill Shakespeare Festival); Thomas Ryder Payne, We Are Not Alone (Crow’s Theatre/ Segal Centre/ 2b Theatre, at Theatre Network)

Outstanding Musical Director: Janice Flower, Fun Home (Plan Jane Theatre); Don Horsburgh, Matilda (Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club Theatre); Steven Greenfield, Once (Citadel); Van Wilmott, Sister Act (Mayfield Dinner Theatre); Erik Mortimer, Shakespeare’s Will (Thou Art Here)

Outstanding Choreography or Fight Direction: Kimberly Rampersad, Matilda (Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club Theatre); Janine Waddell, Macbeth (Malachite Theatre); Good Women Dance Collective, The Cardiac Shadow (Northern Light Theatre; Amber Borotsik, Hamlet (Freewill Shakespeare Festival); Christine Bandelow, Sister Act (Mayfield Dinner Theatre)

Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production: Nicole Deibert, head scenic painter; Brad Fischer, technical director/ operator; Tessa Stamp, production manager; Ivan Siemens, production manager; Ariel Spanier, technical director. 

Outstanding Production for Young Audiences: Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete Theatre); CRTL-ALT-DEL (Concrete); Pinocchio (Alberta Musical Theatre Company)

Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Theatre for Young Audiences: Jana O’Connor, playwright, CTRL-ALT-DEL (Concrete); Mieko Ouchi, director, CTRL-ALT-DEL (Concrete); Farren Timoteo, playwright/director, Pinocchio (Alberta Musical Theatre); Luc Tellier, actor, Songs My Mother Never Sung Me (Concrete); Chariz Faulmino, actor, Pinocchio (Alberta Musical Theatre)

Outstanding Fringe Production: The Zoo Story (Bedlam Theatre Concern), Concord Floral (10 Out Of 12 Productions), Scorch (Bustle & Beast), Harun (In Arms Theatre Collective), Punch-Up (BrainPile).

Outstanding Fringe New Work (award to playwright): Fetch by Cat Walsh; Don’t Frown at the Gown by Darrin Hagen and Trevor Schmidt; Harun by Makram Apache; A Lesson in Brio by Stewart Lemoine; Whiteface by Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona

Outstanding Fringe Director: Mieko Ouchi, Concord Floral; Mark Bellamy, The Real Inspector Hound; Bradley Moss, The Zoo Story; Suzie Martin, Fetch; Brenley Charkow, Scorch.

Outstanding Fringe Performance – Drama: Collin Doyle, The Zoo Story; Julie Ferguson, Scorch; Lora Brovold, Fetch; Andrea House, A Soldier’s Tale; Todd Houseman, Whiteface.

Outstanding Fringe Performance – Comedy: Cody Porter, Tragedy: A Tragedy; Jason Hardwick, Don’t Frown At The Gown; Evan Hall, Punch-Up; Kendra Connor, Everything’s Coming Up Chickens; Louise Lambert, Sirens.

Margaret Mooney Award for Outstanding Achievement in Administration: Adam Mitchell

Ross Hill Award for Career Achievement in Production: Alastair Elliot

Outstanding Contribution to Theatre in Edmonton: Tami and Greg Dowler-Coltman



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