When the Helen Hayes Award nominations were announced on February 1, three theatre companies were named as finalists for the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company: Arts on the Horizon, Pallas Theatre Collective, and The Welders. In this month's At Rise, writer Jamila Reddy looks at the origins of each company and their goals for the future.
The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company recognizes companies whose work moves them from “up-and-coming” to “here and staying.” Established in 2008, the award is named for the late John Laurentzen Aniello Jr., a theatre enthusiast lovingly remembered for his multifaceted support of emerging and established theatre arts. With spotlights on interactive theatre for the very young, on the ongoing development of America’s rich tradition of musical theatre, and on new models for collective theatre making, this year’s three Aniello Award nominees offer rich insights into the complex theatrical ecosystem of the Washington area.
Arts on the Horizon
As the first theatre company in the country to focus their work solely for children ages zero to six, Arts on the Horizon is dedicated to exploring the possibilities for engaging children in the theatre even before they develop language skills. Producing Artistic Director and Founder Michelle Kozlak started the company in 2011, after she realized there was no theatre in Alexandria for children in that age group. As a life-long theatre maker and new parent, Kozlak was determined to fill the void. She embarked on an international search for answers to the question of what it meant to create theatre for the “very young.” She offers, “I think children of all ages deserve theatre. That’s where Arts on the Horizon came from—the idea that all children deserve beauty and to be exposed to theatre.” The company’s work seeks to engage children with non-verbal theatre, live music, and intentional “creative play” time following each performance. Kozlak explains, “We want it to be a wonderful experience for them because the hope is that they will always have theatre as a part of their lives. Being able to do and offer that is such a privilege.” Kozlak hopes the Aniello award will help raise awareness and widen access to theatre for this underserved age group. “It’s important for the field of theatre for the very young to be recognized,” Kozlak says. She sees the Aniello nomination as a way to “bring to light the fact that theatre for the very young exists.” She adds, “A lot of people don’t understand what we do. This award helps give the company validity—that the work we’re doing is important, that it is high quality.”
Pallas Theatre Collective
Pallas Theatre Collective exists “to showcase and highlight unique American voices and the multiplicity of their perspectives through the development and production of new theatre works, specifically new musicals.” Founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Tracey Elaine Chessum, Pallas Theatre has made a name for themselves with programming that encourages collaboration between theatre scholars and theatre practitioners. Chessum cites “the love of the American musical theatre tradition” as the driving force of their their work. “First and foremost,” she explains, “that’s how Pallas started. There’s such a rich history there—no other art form is so quintessentially American and tells our story as a nation. I don’t want to lose that. I want so badly for that tradition to remain the touchstone and marker of our cultural history. That’s what drives all of this.” This award would give Pallas what Chessum describes as the “Washington theatre stamp of approval,” proving that their work is no longer on the fringes. “To have your work recognized by the theatre community at large not only helps us in our fundraising and development, it makes more and more people want to get involved. It gives you a bit of legitimacy. Being able to say, ‘Hey we were nominated for this award!’ makes other potential academic partnerships and theatre partnerships that much more easy to facilitate.”
The Welders is a DC-area playwrights collective that describe themselves as a “collectively-run institution built for the 21st century.” Founded in 2010, their mission is to establish an evolving, alternative platform for new play development and production. Over a three year period, each playwright member of The Welders has an opportunity to work as producing Artistic Director, and is given full agency to use the company’s budget for a project of their choosing. Founding member Gwydion Suilebhan says, “We created an organization that will intentionally evolve—so that it doesn't become a heavy bureaucracy, so that it remains responsive to the needs of the community of audiences and citizens and theater makers—so as long as that transformation is still going in five years, we'll consider that a success.” The Aniello Award will not only belong to the current Welders, but also the company’s new cohort who will take over before the end of the year. Suilebhan explains, “In six months, we're going to be giving our entire theater company away to a new generation of artists. Our website, our audience, our email list, our checking account, our brand, our mission: everything. And now, thanks to theatreWashington, we'll also be able to give those artists this important bit of good fortune as well. It's really a tremendous honor to be nominated, and we're super grateful.”
Catch the work of the Aniello Award nominees in upcoming productions! Arts on the Horizon presents Space Bop through February 25 and again from March 5 through 12; the Pallas Theatre Collective premieres Lost in Wonderland in June; and The Welders premieres Transmission April 30 through May 28.