As expected, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts took the biggest bite out of the 16th Henry Awards on Monday, largely on the strength of its world-premiere musical “Rattlesnake Kate.” But most everything else about the annual gala felt like a new day in the Colorado theater community.
The awards, named after legendary producer Henry Lowenstein, honor outstanding achievement among the Colorado Theatre Guild’s member companies. This year, directors Alicia Young and Jerry McCauley made an intentional programming statement acknowledging rapid changes that are happening within the Colorado theater community by having all 66 awards presenters be members of traditionally underrepresented and often overlooked communities.
“This is what love looks like,” Young said to end the three-hour evening.
The Denver Center, which came into the night with a record-obliterating 47 nominations in the first year of a greatly expanded Henry Awards pool, won in 13 of the 20 categories it was eligible for. “Rattlesnake Kate,” which tells the story of a Colorado frontierswoman who became briefly famous for warding off a rattlesnake migration near Longmont, took home eight awards, including sharing the outstanding musical honor with the Arvada Center’s “Kinky Boots.”
The outstanding play award went to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s “Guadalupe in the Guest Room.” The play, written by Tony Meneses (he also wrote the DCPA Theatre Company’s “twenty50”) tells the story of two people with nothing in common but their shared grief. Elise Santora won her second outstanding actress award in the past three years for her performance as Guadalupe. Also winning for outstanding direction was 24-year-old Denver native James Bruenger-Arreguin, a New York-based graduate of Denver School of the Arts who made his professional stage debut at age 8 on the same Arvada Center stage where he accepted Monday’s award. (He played Gavroche in Les Misérables.)
Because the Colorado Theatre Guild took the extraordinary step this year of splitting nearly every category into two tiers based on the budget size of its member companies, the 2022 Henry Awards gave out prizes in a record 33 categories. (The dividing line between Tier 1 and 2 is an annual budget above and below $500,000.)
That move, intended to spread more love among its smaller companies, also necessarily ballooned the number of nominations available to the Denver Center and the state’s other largest companies.
Despite the changes, the Henry Awards remain what has always seemed, to many, a feast-or-famine affair, with only 11 companies and 14 productions earning an award this year among the 140 plays and musicals that were scored by a pool of 100 statewide adjudicators.
Historically, when the nine Henry Award judges assigned to each eligible production like a show, they tend to really like that show across the board. Case in point: The Performance Now Theatre Company made Henry Awards history on Monday by sweeping all four acting awards for its production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Bernie Cardell and Emma Rebecca Maxfield won for outstanding Tier 2 actor and actress, while Jeffrey Parker and Nancy Evans Begley won for supporting actor and actress.
On a related note: It was just announced that “The Drowsy Chaperone,” directed by Kelly Van Oosbree, will be remounted with almost all of the original cast intact, from Sept. 2-Oct. 9 at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora.
“Rattlesnake Kate,” conceived by former Lumineers cellist Neyla Pekarek and written with Karen Hartman, tells the story of Kate Slaughterback as an attempt to connect the struggles of contemporary American women with those who have preceded them. Pekarek, who grew up as a theater kid in Aurora and studied musical theater at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley before hitting it big with the Lumineers, was essentially a three-time winner on Monday, with “Rattlesnake Kate” also winning for outstanding new play or musical, and Pekarek winning the supporting actress in a musical award for her performance as Brownie, Kate’s cello-playing horse.
Once Pekarek learned about Slaughterback in 2007, “she really became all-consuming to me,” Pekarek said in a previous interview. “I was so enamored by this woman who lived her life exactly as she wanted to. She pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be feminine.” In her acceptance, she pointed out that Monday would have been Slaughterback’s 127th birthday.
“Accolades are amazing, but it was so special just to get to make this show,” Pekarek said after accepting her third award at what was her first time attending a Henry Awards. “Just to be part of a community of so many amazing, talented, creative people has been wonderful. Tonight was filled with love. I met so many cool people. I just love theater people. It’s an awards ceremony but it’s really a celebration of community.”
The DCPA Theatre Company’s 13 Henry Awards included four for its world-premiere play “In the Upper Room.” Next were Performance Now and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College with five each, followed by the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre with three.
The Colorado Theatre Guild gave out two Lifetime Achievement awards: One to Lucy M. Walker, who founded the EDEN Theatrical Workshop in 1963 (the “EDEN” stands for “East Denver”); and the other to the five founders of Denver’s disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company: Teri Westerman Wagner, Gregg Vigil, Kathleen Traylor, Kevin Ahl and Richard Britton.” In its 30-plus years, Traylor said to rousing applause, “Phamaly has broken down physical and emotional barriers to actors with disabilities.”
Monday’s award, Vigil said, proves that “dreams really do come true.”
Accepting the award for Walker and EDEN were incoming Curious Theatre Company Artistic Director Jada Suzanne Dixon and Vintage Theatre board member ShaShauna Staton, daughter of late Shadow Theatre Company founder Jeffrey Nickelson. Speaking for Walker, who is 93 and could not attend Monday’s ceremony, Staton said: “Why now, when I am almost dead, does anyone care when they never did before?” Clearly, Staton commented, “Lucy’s mind and her mouth are still as sharp and as witty as ever.”
Walker operated for decades out of her house at 1570 Gilpin St., building EDEN into one of the longest-running theater companies owned and operated by a Black woman anywhere in the U.S. Operating on a shoestring budget, she performed anywhere she could, from schools to homeless shelters to prisons.
One other bit of Henry Awards history was made when teenager Riley Goossen, who was nominated in both lighting and sound design for his work on Breckenridge Backstage Theatre’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” won in the sound category, making him the youngest winner ever (by far) of a design award.
“I would like to thank Breckenridge Backstage Theatre for letting some random teenager go backstage and touch their equipment,” he said to laughs.
Taking a cue from the Tony Awards, the Henry Awards directors took time to specifically acknowledge the work of live theater’s often unsung heroes: Stage managers, swings, understudies, ushers, volunteers and front-of-house workers.
But of all the many eloquent speeches delivered during the evening, the loudest may have been the message that went essentially unspoken: The decision to have all presenters represent underserved communities, making way for an array of performers, educators, change-makers, social-justice warriors, and even one politician: Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson. Presenters represented the disabled, queer and trans communities, women and a wide array of skin colors and ethnicities.
Among the companies that withdrew from 2021-22 Henry Awards consideration are Curious Theatre Company, Lake Dillon Theatre Company and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Notable companies that did not receive even one nomination include Phamaly Theatre Company, BDT Stage, Su Teatro, Creede Repertory Theatre and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse.
Note: This report will be updated in the coming hours and days with additional details and photos from the Hery Awards.
2021-22 HENRY AWARD WINNERS
“Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
OUTSTANDING MUSICAL (TIE)
“Kinky Boots,” Arvada Center
“Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
DIRECTION OF A PLAY
James Bruenger-Arreguin, “Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL
Chris Coleman, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
Mark G. Meadows, “Choir Boy,” DCPA Theatre Company
OUTSTANDING ACTOR IN A PLAY, TIER 1
Jihad Milhem, “The Crucible,” Miners Alley Playhouse
ACTOR IN A PLAY, TIER 2
Jacob Dresch, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Breckenridge Backstage Theatre
ACTRESS IN A PLAY, TIER 1
Elise Santora, “Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
ACTRESS IN A PLAY, TIER 2
A. Lee Massaro, “Sisters In Law,” Theatre Or
ACTOR IN A MUSICAL, TIER 1
Esteban Suero, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
ACTOR IN A MUSICAL, TIER 2
Bernie Cardell, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Performance Now Theatre Company
ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL, TIER 1
Alyse Alan Louis, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL, TIER 2
Emma Rebecca Maxfield, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Performance Now Theatre Company
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY, TIER 1
Matthew Hancock, “In the Upper Room,” DCPA Theatre Company
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY, TIER 2
Brian Colonna, “<3 Richard,” Buntport Theater
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY, TIER 1
Rebecca Myers, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY, TIER 2
Erin Rollman, “<3 Richard,” Buntport Theater
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL, TIER 1
Matthew Bryan Feld, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL, TIER 2
Jeffrey Parker, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Performance Now Theatre Company
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL, TIER 1
Neyla Pekarek, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL, TIER 2
Nancy Evans Begley, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Performance Now Theatre Company
“Guadalupe in the Guest Room,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
Dominique Kelley, “Rattlesnake Kate,” DCPA Theatre Company
OUTSTANDING NEW PLAY OR MUSICAL
“Rattlesnake Kate,” by Neyla Pekarek and Karen Hartman
COSTUME, DESIGN TIER 1
Nicole Watts, “Kinky Boots,” Arvada Center
COSTUME DESIGN, TIER 2
Rebecca Spafford, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” OpenStage Theatre & Company
LIGHTING DESIGN, TIER 1
Charles R. MacLeod, “In the Upper Room,” DCPA Theatre Company
LIGHTING DESIGN, TIER 2
Brett Maughan, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Performance Now Theatre Company
SCENIC DESIGN, TIER 1
Efren Delgadillo Jr., “In the Upper Room,” DCPA Theatre Company
SCENIC DESIGN, TIER 2
Kelsey Colwell, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Breckenridge Backstage Theatre
SOUND DESIGN, TIER 1
Jeff Gardner, “In the Upper Room,” DCPA Theatre Company
SOUND DESIGN, TIER 2
Riley Goossen, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Breckenridge Backstage
YOUTH PERFORMER (TIE)
Evan Duncan, “Once on This Island,” Town Hall Arts Center
Nathaniel Waite-Lutz, “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” Aurora Fox