Alderney Landing Theatre was packed Monday night with members and supporters of the Nova Scotian theatre scene. The Merritt Awards—named for Dalhousie theatre professor Robert Merritt—celebrate excellence in acting, directing, playwrighting, design and production.Hosted by Marty Burt, the evening was punctuated by slide shows, videos, song and light-hearted banter, often aimed at Atlantic Theatre Festival's artistic director Nigel Bennett.
"Nigel Bennett is six feet tall, has had five Merritt nominations and owns guns," said Burt. "Now there's a triple threat I'm worried about."
Bennett seemed happy to take his lumps, as it turned out to be a very successful evening for ATF's production of Noises Off. Bennett appeared on the podium four times, accepting awards for his absentee cast and crew, including Best Actor in a Leading Role (Graham Percy), Outstanding Costume Design (Patrick Clark), Outstanding Set Design (Neil Peter Jampolie) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Patricia Zentilli). Drawing comparisons to himself and soap star Susan Lucci, perpetually nominated for Emmys for more than a decade before winning, Bennett laughingly said it was "bittersweet" to accept Percy's award—Bennett himself was nominated in the same category for his performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Another big winner was playwright Jennifer Overton, who garnered three nominations—Best Actress in a Lead Role, Outstanding New Play by a Nova Scotian Playwright and Outstanding Production—for her play, God's Middle Name, about living with an autistic child. Though Carolyn Hetherington won the Best Actress category for her performance in Lillibet at Parrsboro's Ship's Company Theatre, Overton triumphed against playwriting heavyweights Daniel MacIvor and Michael Melski for Best Play and ended the evening by receiving the prestigious award for Outstanding Production.
The Merritts have sometimes been criticized for rewarding the work of the same artists year after year, but this year 12 theatre companies received nominations. Shakespeare by the Sea received its first nomination ever—a Best Supporting Actor nod for Mike Macphee's portrayal of Tin Man in The Wizard of Uh-Oz. Though Richard Donat took the award for his portrayal of The Old Man in Fool for Love, it seems that this year's jury spread the wealth of nominations outside the traditional field.
Several non-competitive awards were presented, including the Mayors' Awards for Emerging Theatre Artist (Richie Wilcox) and Achievement in Theatre (Mary Vingoe). Volunteer of the Year Award went to Ian Gilmore, who said, joking, "Normally, I'm the bartender," at the Merritts. "That's theatre in Nova Scotia for you!" The biggest applause of the evening went to Jenny Munday, director of the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre, who received the Merritt Achievement Award.
At the beginning of the evening, Burt told the audience that Nova Scotian actors are a competitive lot, partly because come-from-away actors are often in the running for local roles. The spirit of this friendly competition was highlighted by the relentless ribbing endured by Theatre Nova Scotia's executive director Chris Shore, nominated for his supporting role as Clarence in Corvette Crossing.
Shore says that people love this kind of biting satire, and that the show's attack ads have been particularly popular—this year's included one where Festival Antigonish is renamed "Festival Littler Britain" and another about the much-beleagured ATF, set to the strains of "Rise Once More."
But the Merritts' raison d'etre is both serious and fun. "The Merritts are important for two reasons," says Shore. "There's a promotional aspect that gives focus to the art of theatre locally and nationally, and they provide an opportunity for everyone in the theatre community to get together and celebrate. It's all good."