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2018 Michael Merritt Awards and Design Exposition

Stage Directions • Theatre Buzz • April 18, 2018
From the 2017 Michael Merritt Awards

From the 2017 Michael Merritt Awards

The 25th Annual Merritt Awards for Excellence in Design and Collaboration will take place on Monday, May 14th, 2017 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Broadway, film, television, and regional theatre costume designer Toni-Leslie James (Come From Away, August Wilson’s Jitney) will receive the 2018 Merritt Award. Draper Beth Uber, Projections Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson, and Technical Director Becca Venable will also receive major awards in addition to student and exhibition prizes.

The Michael Merritt Awards and Endowment Fund honors the memory of a brilliant designer and inspirational teacher. This national award, unique in its emphasis on excellence in both design and collaboration, has been presented annually since 1994 to outstanding professional theatrical designers. The Endowment Fund recognizes and encourages the work of young professionals and students through a national design exposition and prizes to promising theatrical design students.

The Merritt Awards thanks the theatre community for its ongoing support and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre for hosting. We invite theatre professionals, students and the public to join us for this exciting celebration of our collaborative art form.

Here’s more about the individual awards and biographies of the honorees.

The Michael Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration
The Michael Merritt Award, a national award unique in its emphasis on excellence in both design and collaboration, is presented annually to professional theatrical designers. The award is given to a scenic, costume, lighting, sound, or other media designer.

Toni Leslie James25th Annual Recipient: Toni-Leslie James, Costume Designer
Toni-Leslie James has designed costumes nationally for every entertainment venue; feature film, television, opera, dance, industrials, regional theatre and Broadway. For Broadway, she has designed Come From Away (Hewes Design Award, Drama Desk Nomination), August Wilson’s Jitney (TONY and Drama Desk Nomination), Lucky Guy, The Scottsboro Boys, Finian’s Rainbow, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, King Hedley II, One Mo’ Time, The Wild Party, Marie Christine, Footloose, The Tempest, Twilight Los Angeles 1992, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches & Perestroika, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Jelly’s Last Jam.

Off-Broadway, she has designed multiple productions for the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage, Soho Rep, Lincoln Center Theatre, the New York Theatre Workshop, Classic Stage Co., and over 15 productions for the NY City Center Encores series. Regionally, her work was seen in productions for La Jolla Playhouse, Steppenwolf, Hartford Stage, The Long Wharf, Baltimore Center Stage, The Old Globe, Mark Taper Forum, Arena Stage, Cleveland Playhouse, Cincinnati Playhouse, The Round House Theatre, Seattle Rep, The Shakespeare Theatre, Berkley Rep, The Alliance Theatre, Goodspeed Playhouse, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, ACT, Denver Theater Center, and Crossroads Theatre Co. Internationally, she has designed for the Young Vic, the Royal Court Theater and the Chichester Theater Festival in the UK, the Athens Greek Festival, and Radio Dansmark TV in Denmark. She was the head costume designer for Whoopi on NBC, and the CBS soap opera, As the Word Turns, as well as having designed four specials for WNET/13’s Great Performances series. Her design work has been displayed in nine major museum and college exhibitions including a 2006 retrospective of her career at The American Museum of Natural History Designing Woman: Inside the Life And Career of Costume Designer, Toni-Leslie James, the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library 2008-2009 exhibition Curtain Call: A Century of Designing Women, and More Life! Angels in America at Twenty at The Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco, CA. in 2010-2011.

James has garnered a total of 35 costume design nominations or awards for her contributions to various theatrical productions including two Tony Award nominations, five Drama Desk nominations, two Hewes Design Awards, and three additional Hewes nominations, four Audelco Award nominations, two N.A.A.C.P Image Award nominations, three Lucille Lortel nominations, The Helen Hayes Award nomination, The Denver Theatre Center Ovation Award nomination, The LA Drama-Logue Award, The FANY Award, The Connecticut Critics Circle Award, the Irene Sharaff Young Masters Award For Costume Design Excellence, the 2009 Obie Award for Sustained Costume Design Excellence, and the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival Outstanding Costume Designer of The Year Award, and the 2017 LILY Award for contributions in design for the American Theater. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Sewanee (The University of the South) in January 2018, and selected as a Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year in 2017. In March of 2018, Ms. James was award a citation for her contribution to the arts from the Richmond City Council.

James is an Associate Professor and Head of Design at Virginia Commonwealth University and received her BFA in Theatre from The Ohio State University.

The Robert Christen Award for Excellence in Technical Collaboration
This award recognizes an outstanding technical professional whose career as a collaborator in the realization of theatrical design has been significant and sustained. Sponsored by Chicago Flyhouse.

Beth UberBeth Uber, Draper, Shop Owner
Beth Uber is a freelance draper and owner of ThreadLine Studios and Uber Costume. Graduating with a BFA in Costume Production from the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Uber began her professional career in the Minneapolis and Seattle areas. She moved to Chicago and began working at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2010. Uber draped on more than 25 productions at CST, including Follies, School for Lies, Elizabeth Rex, and Sunday in the Park with George. Having made many professional connections in her five years at CST, Beth left the company to start two businesses: ThreadLine Studios, a shared costume work space available to rent and Uber Costume, an independent shop which creates costumes for theater, opera, and dance. Since its establishment in 2015, Beth and her team at Uber Costume have contributed to more than 65 productions for 23 different companies, locally from Glencoe to Hyde Park and nationally from St. Louis to New York City. Highlights include: Rusalka (The Metropolitan Opera, featured on The Met: Live in HD playing at cinemas internationally); Les Troyens, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Victrola (Lyric Opera Chicago); Trevor, The Importance of Being Ernest (Writers Theatre); A Funny Thing… (The Muny), Treasure Island, Plantation!, Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth (Lookingglass Theater Company), Blues for an Alabama Sky, One Man, Two Guvnors (Court Theatre) Hazel, 42nd Street, South Pacific (Drury Lane). Uber had the fantastic opportunity this winter to work as a guest draper and mentor for The Theatre School at DePaul University’s production of Three Sisters. She and her team recently completed her 14th production for Lookingglass Theatre Company, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award
This award recognizes and supports the work of an outstanding emerging theatrical designer within the Chicago area. A $2,000 honorarium is given annually to an emerging scenic, costume, lighting, sound, or other media designer in acknowledgment of excellence in artistry and collaboration.

Rasean Davonte Johnson Projections Designer, Rasean Davonte Johnson
Rasean Davonte Johnson is a video artist, filmmaker, and theatrical designer whose work has be seen at museums, galleries, and various stages across the country. An Ohio native, in his first foray into moving image he produced The Price of Pride, which was featured in the 2008 Columbus International Film Festival. Upon moving to Chicago, he found himself deeply involved in the video and theatrical community working on various projects at Collaboraction and American Theater Company. Previous theatre work includes collaborations with numerous institutions including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Long Wharf Theatre, ArtsEmerson, the McCarter Theatre Center, Yale Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, The Ningbo Song and Dance Company, Yale Opera, Teatro Vista. Timeline Theatre Company, The Hypocrites, Porchlight Music Theatre, Halcyon Theatre, Redtwist Theatre, and many more. In addition to theatrical work his exploration of installations allowed him to create and work on projects such as Living Sculpture as a part of LUX: Ideas Through Lights and the Beinecke Rare Books Library, A Night of Wonder with Pornchanok Kanchanabanca at the Yale School of Drama, Passenger presented at the Bridgeport Film Festival, The Ballad of Lula Del Ray 2.0 with Manual Cinema for the opening of the Logan Arts Center, and Behind the Whites at the Yale Art Museum. He has earned a degree in theatre from the Ohio State University and an MFA in projection design from the Yale School of Drama. Additionally, he has lectured and led workshops on design at various schools including Yale University, Boston University, Syracuse University, The Theatre School at DePaul, and the Ohio State University.

The Emerging Technical Collaborator Award
This award celebrates a passionate and skillful early career professional who goes about their work in a particularly collaborative manner. We know that it is hard to launch a career in this profession, so we are thrilled that this award comes with a $2000 prize, supported by Chicago Flyhouse.

Becca Venable Becca Venable, Technical Director
Becca Venable is a Texas native living in Chicago where she is the assistant technical director at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the technical director for Chicago Children’s Theatre and Red Theater Chicago, and a company member with Red Theater Chicago and The Comrades. Venable also works as a technical director, lighting designer, and sound designer around the city. Some of Venable’s credits include The Nutcracker (Ballet Lubbock), A Year with Frog and Toad (Chicago Children’s Theatre), Dying City (The Comrades), Beauty and the Beast (Lubbock Moonlight Musicals), American Hero (First Floor Theater), and The Good Fight (Babes with Blades).

Academic Prizes
The Merritt Committee will award four, $2,000 Academic Prizes to students from Columbia College Chicago, The Theatre School at DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, and Northwestern University.

Design Exposition
At the Design Exposition on May 14th a panel of Chicago freelance Directors, Production Managers, and Artistic Directors will adjudicate the following exhibition prizes.

The Michael Philippi Prize for Best Exhibit: Professional Designer
This year the prize has increased to $1,000
Emerging professional designers are encouraged to exhibit.

Prize for Best Exhibit: Student Designer
This year the prize is $500
Student designers are encouraged to apply to exhibit.

The Evening’s Schedule on Monday, May 14th, 2017 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre:
5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Showcasing the works of Chicago-area young professional theatrical designers and graduating design students from Chicago’s best theatrical design programs. Attended by many of Chicago’s artistic directors, production managers, and industry professionals.

7:00 – 8:00 p.m.
A panel discussion featuring the award recipients exploring current issues of interest to theatre professionals and students.

8:15 – 8:45 p.m.
Presentation of prizes for best student and professional exhibits, four academic prizes, The Emerging Technical Collaborator Award, The Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award, The Robert Christen Award for Excellence in Technical Collaboration, and The Michael Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration. 

Food, wine, beer, and fellowship until 10:00 p.m.

Further information from the Michael Merritt Awards:

Further information from the Michael Merritt Awards:

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