Jeff Awards: winners list and recap from the 2013 Non-Equity Jeffs

  • Photograph: Bob Knuth

    When the Rain Stops Falling at Circle Theatre

  • Photograph: David Zak

    Under a Rainbow Flag at Pride Films & Plays

  • Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux

    City of Dreadful Night at the Den Theatre

  • Photograph: courtesy of Theo Ubique

    Smokey Joe's Cafe at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

  • Photograph: Jonathan L. Green

    Idomeneus at Sideshow Theatre Company

Photograph: Bob Knuth

When the Rain Stops Falling at Circle Theatre

The 40th annual Joseph Jefferson Awards for non-Equity theater were presented tonight at Park West. Though the Den Theatre's City of Dreadful Night and Circle Theatre's Reefer Madness led the nominations with seven each, it's Circle's When the Rain Stops Falling that tied Dreadful Night for the most wins, with three. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's production of the Leiber & Stoller revue Smokey Joe's Café also earned three wins.

The atmosphere was as celebratory and egalitarian as ever, with many recipients paying verbal tribute to the sense of community and supportiveness in the city's non-Equity scene. In consideration of the big round number in front of this year's ceremony, much attention was paid to remembering the rich history of Chicago's non-Equity companies.

An overcome Felisha McNeal, winner of supporting actress in a play for Jar the Floor at eta Creative Arts Foundation, thanked both God and her mother "for giving me life and being patient with me." Brigitte Ditmars, winner for choreography for Circle Theatre's Reefer Madness, got choked up while thanking her director and "artistic soulmate," Matthew Gunnels, alluding to his ongoing battle with cancer.

Host Joe Dempsey, once a non-Equity actor himself, cracked wise to the crowd about the 40-year-old non-union Jeffs, like most in the room at the Park West, being younger than him, and about the glorious future awaiting the non-Equity performers in the house: "You looking at this?" he asked, giving a coy pose. "This is what you're working toward."

Blake Montgomery, the sole nominee in solo performance for Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs A Christmas Carol. Again. at the now-shuttered Building Stage, noted the oddness of accepting an award "for a theater that no longer exists. But that's probably not all that unusual for the Non-Equity Jeffs."

The Goodman Theatre's artistic director Robert Falls, presenting the directing awards, noted that he'd won his first Jeff at the age of 22 for a production of Of Mice and Men at the defunct Wisdom Bridge Theatre. "Now I have the great pleasure of walking into rehearsal rooms every day and working with the people who were winning Jeff Awards with me back then," Falls said. "So look around this room and realize, these will be the people you work with for the next 30, 40 years. Support them, as well as the artists coming up after them."

Actor Laura T. Fisher presented the award for best ensemble as a representative of the defunct Famous Door Theatre, for whom, Fisher said, the ensemble award was the most cherished (Famous Door won it six times).

Two of Chicago theater's eldest statesmen, Mike Nussbaum and Mary Ann Thebus, presented the evening's final awards, for best production of a play and a musical. Nussbaum, he said, has grandchildren older than 40.

Richard Cotovsky, the longtime artistic director of Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, was presented with a special Jeff Award. "Rich has been an enthusiastic contributor to non-Equity theater for four decades," said Jeff Committee chair Diane Hires, introducing Cotovsky. "In the ’90s, Nick Digilio dubbed him 'the Godfather of Storefront Theater.'"

"This is a humbling experience, but I've waited a long time and finally got what I wanted," Cotovsky joked wryly, noting that his mother was with him in the audience. "There's no way of being here without all the people I've worked with and who've supported me and talked me into continuing to do this. Don't worry, I'll get them." Turning more serious, he thanked a long list of collaborators, ending his speech with, "This town is ripe for taking over. Keep at it, everybody."

The complete list of nominees, with tonight's winners in bold, follows. This year's Equity Jeff Awards ceremony is set for November 4.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)