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Center Stage

Critical mass and the Cloris Awards


The best homegrown American theater might be here in the Midwest. Few companies have the impact of Chicago’s Steppenwolf, the birthplace of stars like John Malkovich. Yet when Steppenwolf first won recognition, it was local. It began with the city’s “Jeff Awards.”

The Cloris Awards for Excellence in Theater. Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club. Sun., Aug. 30, 6-9 p.m. $25.

The Cloris Awards for Excellence in Theater. Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club.
Sun., Aug. 30, 6-9 p.m. $25.

The Jeffs (named for a 19th century actor) have done a lot for Chicago, and now Des Moines has launched a similar effort with the Cloris Awards, named for Des Moines Roosevelt graduate Cloris Leachman, a woman with a shelf full of golden statuettes, including an Oscar.

The actress, now in her 80s and living in Los Angeles, is unlikely to attend the first Des Moines ceremony. Otherwise, though, this weekend’s event at the Kum & Go Theater looks to be fun. Champagne and hors-d’oeuvres will be available, two stage-savvy hosts have been chosen, and the three finalists in both Best Play and Best Musical categories will present brief excerpts. One Play finalist, “Cock,” from Stagewest, featured a remarkable touch-free sex scene. With any luck, attendees will get to see it again.

Sunday’s celebration represents the product of a year’s work. Winners will be selected from more than 40 productions involving hundreds of participants since the beginning of last August. Judging was by a committee of three: this writer, John Busbee of radio’s “Culture Buzz,” and Michael Morain of The Des Moines Register. Evaluations ranged over 11 categories for not just Best Play and Musical, but also things like Best Sound. In each, three finalists were chosen, and the names went out two weeks ago.

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Mary Bricker, a finalist for Best Actress, sees the event as a watershed.  “It  reflects how dynamic things in town have gotten with a lot of new venues and new people,” says Bricker.

As for her own nomination, the actress admits to feeling “over the moon,” and doesn’t deny that “show folk can be pretty competitive.” Still, she believes the award process has helped with the city’s “creative collaboration,” helping it to do more for its “ever-growing talent pool.”

Micheal Davenport, a Best Supporting Actor finalist, has a similar take. “Gone are the days when anyone could dabble in theater,” says the longtime local standout. Now Des Moines auditions draw in people with extensive resumes.” At the same time, Davenport adds, the community’s gotten “a lot more eclectic, open to anything.”

Again and again, nominees speak of a scene that’s achieved a kind of critical mass. Todd Buchacker, nominated as Best Director for “Cock,” notes that the list of finalists, in ranging over so many types of shows, “calls attention to the surge in the quality overall.” Buchacker claims that Des Moines theater has become so “diverse,” the latest season has felt like “an explosion.”

Or then there’s how Tom Perrine, from Tallgrass Theater, put it: “Damn, it felt great to see our little company get six nominations!”

Overheard In the Lobby
This year’s Performing Arts Dance Series begins with the international sensation Pilobolus. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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