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Byron Woods 

Just when you'd thought you'd seen it all in regional theater, new companies, presenters and artists brought not only new works but several new series to new (and renewed) spaces across the area.

During 2005, regional theatergoers were presented with more choices in live entertainment than ever before. Our incomplete census tracked over 270 different local and touring productions on regional stages. The high point came when 19 productions ran simultaneously over the week of Sept. 14. Most weeks during the spring and fall, at least 10 shows were running somewhere across the area. We kept busy, to say the least.

We were also forced to make uncomfortable choices about the shows we considered for publication, and the coverage we could ultimately give them. In the final count, we saw 149 productions across the region this year and found room for reviews for 60 percent of them.

We favored local groups over professional bus-and-truck productions with comfortable ad campaigns and national name recognition. We sought out the new and the interesting, in in-depth features on four of at least six new companies that began work in our area this year.

At the same time, we discontinued regular consideration and coverage of a handful of companies whose work, after multiple visits over several years, had never achieved the minimum standards of competency routinely demonstrated in this community of practice.

With so much work so close to home, we didn't cover companies in Garner or Elon this year. We hope to address these shortcomings in 2006.

Did we make the right decisions? You tell us.

Meanwhile, here's the very best of what we saw. Part one appears below, and part two will run next week. Special Achievement in the Humanities EndBlock La Vida Local, Hidden Voices Project, The ArtsCenter, May

EndBlock The Song that Greens the Earth, Community Inclusive Theatre Group, Fletcher Opera House, November

Theater not only speaks to the human condition. It has considerable power to effect critical, positive change as well, to lift up and make visible entire communities that have been eclipsed by politics, poverty, distance or disability, and by our society's habitual responses to these as well.

In May, La Vida Local gave a human face to a beleaguered group of high school children in undocumented alien families. As conservative groups railed against--and defeated, at least for now--a bill granting them a chance at higher education, we actually met the children themselves. Most didn't choose to come here, but found themselves in families stretched across international borders by economic need. They were smart, at times poetic, and they embraced their in-between status with humor. They didn't look like criminals. They looked like bright young kids, most of whom should be applying for college about now.

Our culture's speed has already pushed a number of people well past the vanishing point. Who has time anymore for anyone who can't effectively communicate in sound bites? Through 2004 and 2005, Richard Reho and his associates had the genius to simply stop and really listen to people with autism and cerebral palsy. They found poets, militants and souls with ideas well worth sharing. Their group then put those thoughts and bodies on stage in The Song that Greens the Earth, a work of sudden light and darkness, which spotlit the struggle--and the necessity--of keeping communication lines open with people with disabilities.

Special Assistance to the Theater EndBlock Stoneleaf Festival, N.C. Theater Conference

EndBlock Common Ground Theatre, Durham

What happens when you follow a dream? Over 6,000 people see shows by 25 theater groups from across the state, including six companies from our region. They spend just under $100,000 on tickets--in 10 days. And scores of people who had never been to the Triangle (or a live theater) in their lives finally see what all the fuss is about. For the audacity and the courage of their vision--and for making regional theater a viable export once again--considerable thanks are due Terry Milner and the North Carolina Theater Conference for organizing the first Stoneleaf Festival of North Carolina Theater. (Congratulations in advance are also in order. Stoneleaf returns to Asheville, May 26-June 4, 2006.)

Here's another dream: If you build it, they will come. Fledgling companies including Bare Theater, Blue Monday Productions and the Self-Induced Theater Project--among many others--found a place to come to after Rachel Klem, Michelle Byars and a cadre of committed theater artists opened the appropriately named Common Ground Theatre space in Durham in January.

Best Musical Direction EndBlock Julie Flinchum, Starting Here, Starting Now; The Last Five Years, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, July

EndBlock Cameron Morgan, Eubie!, N.C. Central University Theater, October

After her departure last season from the N.C. Theater, it was refreshing to see Julie Flinchum at the helm of an intimate and appropriately jazzy ensemble for two productions at the new theater festival in town: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. And Cameron Morgan startled ragtime enthusiasts in October when his recombinant arrangements in NCCU's production of Eubie! demonstrated the connections between Blake's music and contemporary rap, hip hop and rhythm and blues.

Best Costume/ Makeup Design EndBlock Jeremy Clos, Sarah Schmitt, Krissina Newcomb, Lydia Wagner and Megan Day, Titus Andronicus, Bare Theatre Rogue Company, Common Ground Theater, July

EndBlock Jan Chambers, The Trojan Women, Duke Theater Studies, November

Chalk up another triumph for Jan Chambers, who saw Hecuba, Helen, Poseidon and Athena as the denizens of a deranged, post-apocalyptic carnival in Ellen Hemphill's November adaptation of The Trojan Women. But make room for the new generation as well: the phalanx of designers, stitchers and makeup artists who ultimately made the forbidding characters in Titus Andronicus anything but bare theater.

Best Original Scripts EndBlock Falling in Like, Jerry Sipp, Temple Theatre, January

EndBlock Out of the Dark, Hannah Blevins, Wordshed Productions, Bingham Hall, April

EndBlock Control-Alt-Delete, Rus Hames, Joe Brack, Anthony Hughes, Stella Duffy, Richard Foreman, Blue Monday Productions, Common Ground Theater, November

EndBlock Piece-meal, Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane, both hands theater, Manbites Dog Theater, December

This year's nominees truly reflect the diversity of work being created in the region. Jerry Sipp's conventional, backstage romantic comedy had heart--and the knocks from a lifelong love affair with theater. Hannah Blevins brought the testimony out of the Earth--and out of the sometimes ruined bodies of Appalachian coal miners--in her moving April valedictory. Blue Monday's contingent went way out there with a Frankensteinian script about the ethics of transferring psychopathology onto artificial intelligences. And once again, the both hands crew used language games to reveal games sometimes much less amusing in human interactions.

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