News Column

Bring on the Barties -- the Bartell is back

July 7, 2014

By Gayle Worland, The Wisconsin State Journal

July 07--It's a Barties party.

On Saturday the Bartell Theatre Awards ceremony celebrates its fifth year, complete with a red carpet, congratulatory bubbly and an awards show billed as fun for everyone, whether theater-going regulars or not.

Known as "The Barties," it's the Bartell's version of the Tony Awards. It's a night to recognize the big local talents -- who are also unpaid talents -- who commit themselves to creating high quality, nonprofessional theater for love of it.

This year it also will be an affirmation of survival.

"About two years ago the Bartell had a really severe financial scare. When we looked at our projections, we pretty much figured out we had about 18 months left before we'd have to close the Bartell," said Steve Noll, a Madison Area Technical College marketing professor and long-time Bartell volunteer who now heads up the theater's board.

The Bartell is essentially a 108-year-old building, the cooperative performance home of four nonprofit, volunteer-run theater companies: Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players Theatre, StageQ and Strollers Theatre. But it also serves as home base for a creative community, and is a physical reminder of the dedication and respect that Madison holds for grassroots performing arts.

After the Bartell's near-death experience in 2012, "We really pulled an all-hands-on-deck and adjusted how things are done," Noll said. "We put in a new ticketing system that includes a facilities fee. We also started a Friends program" to encourage and recognize donors.

The Bartell has one paid employee; everyone else is a volunteer. In the 2013-14 season, member company shows sold about 9,500 tickets.

"We pulled out of that financial hole that we had fallen into," Noll said. "I can't say things are rosy, but they're stable."

The Barties were created in 2010 by Molly Vanderlin as a fundraiser for the Bartell, but year after year just broke even. In 2013, the theater's board had to take a critical look at whether it wanted to produce the awards show again this year -- and take the risk of actually losing money, Noll said.

In the end, Noll volunteered to be producer of this year's Barties, retooling the show in a way that he hopes will turn a nice profit for the theater.

"My background is business. I always joke that 'show business' has three syllables, two of which are 'business,'" said Noll, who directed two Bartie-nominated shows this year for his OUT!Cast Theatre company.

In this year's Barties, "I'm trying to honor what Molly did with the show, and still make it an entertaining evening. But I'm also trying to do more to get more people to come to the show," he said. "We've always had a crowded house, but never a sell-out evening."

The 2014 Barties will have more award categories (29), pithy speeches by the entertainers who win them, a silent auction, an appearance by Madison Ballet and a post-show party with cash bar in the Bartell lobby. A photographer will be on hand to capture red-carpet arrivals and after-show portraits of the winners wielding their engraved Bartie trophies.

The show has two hosts plus the Vanna White-esque characters "Miss Bartie" and "Ms. Bartie," played by both female and male performers.

"My question is, 'If I've never seen a show at the Bartell, could I still go to this and have an entertaining evening?' I would say yes," Noll said.

The early years of the Barties were kind of a "spoof," with categories such as "Best Save on Stage" and "Best Death Scene." But each year, the show got a little more traditional.

"To Molly's credit, she always kept it a little off-center. But when I looked at it, I saw that people really like the idea of recognition," Noll said. "When you work on a show, depending on your role, it can be a three-month commitment. So you pretty much abandon your social life and family life for three months to do a show."

Bartie nominees show up well-dressed, sometimes with their children in tow. The ceremony is held in the 200-seat Drury Stage theater. The Bartell, a former dance school and movie house located just off Capitol Square, also has a 96-seat black box theater, the Evjue.

"It's such an amazing building and resource. I often wonder if people who work there a lot realize how lucky they have it," said Karen Moeller, one of eight judges for the Barties and artistic associate for Madison's professional theater, Forward Theater Company.

"If you haven't done community theater in another city, where sometimes you're in a shed on the fairgrounds" or in a church basement, "you don't know how good you have it with the Bartell," said Moeller, who has worked in the building in the past.

"Having a dedicated performance space that has good equipment and a black box and a proscenium stage is really just a gift."

Moeller saw 11 shows at the Bartell this year as a judge, and said she was struck by the number of risks the companies took.

"I thought Strollers took a lot of interesting risks. Mercury always does, and continues to do so," she said. "No one played it safe, but they supported those risks with really quality production values, quality acting. Across the board, I was impressed."

Richard Ganoung, a professional actor and also a founder of Forward Theater Company, judged seven shows for the Barties.

"I was very excited by the boldness of a lot of them," he said. "We have a very vibrant and active theater scene here in Madison, so I just think that a lot of the companies like Mercury and Strollers and StageQ have really stepped up their game to be competitive with a lot of the other theaters that are in town."

Simone LaPierre, who moved to Madison from Chicago about four years ago, is a 2014 Bartie nominee in four categories: actress in a comedy, actress in a drama, producer and choreographer. She'll be at Saturday's ceremony for sure -- but not just because it's about awards, she said.

"It's also about community. In Chicago, the theater community is so huge, you might do one show a year," she said.

With the Bartell, those who love theater can jump in and volunteer in many plays and in many roles -- both onstage and off. Someone had just given LaPierre a call to help out with costumes for a show, she said.

"We've built a family here, I'd say," she said, "and everybody is very uplifting, and wanting to help each other and work with each other."


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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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