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Boro actors, companies get nods at Innovative Theatre

The annual New York Innovative Theatre awards, created to recognize and celebrate the achievements of Off Off Broadway productions, will be held Sept. 22 at the Fashion Institute of Technology, with the Blue Man Group scheduled to perform the opening number. The writer was pleased to speak with some of the nominees.

Though of diverse backgrounds, all of the nominees the writer spoke to have several things in common besides saying a sincere and cheerful "Thank you!" when told to "break a leg." They share a passionate love of theater, though very few are paid a living wage from their art, and a deep gratitude at being nominated out of a huge pool of the talent that makes up New York's Off Off Broadway community.

Dan Bianchi is nominated for Outstanding Sound Design and Original Music for Radiotheatre's "The Invisible Man" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau." "Dr. Moreau" was also nominated for Outstanding Performance Art Production

"We first presented it at a festival last October, last Halloween," Bianchi says. "There were four shows, all by H.G. Wells, 'The Invisible Man,' 'The Time Machine,' 'War of the Worlds' and 'The Island of Dr. Moreau." He recorded all the music and sound effects for the show, but a couple of weeks before it opened he came down with a pulmonary embolism. "It took me out for a week and I had four shows opening. At the same time. In spite of that we kept on going."

His company does theater that harkens back to the radio shows of pre-TV days. The actors have microphone stands and the sound person mixes the sounds on stage like a DJ. "We can do it because we're storytellers. We're not really going to do a play with costumes and sets and props," says Bianchi. "That is why we're labeled performance art. My actors think of themselves as a musical group and you come out to play the violin or play your instruments and their instruments are their voices."

Bianchi, who was born and raised in Richmond Hill, has an extensive library where he can access noises like creaking doors, rain, thunder or crowd sounds. He's able to use software and technology so "I can score the play to the exact moment. And it sounds like it's custom-made for this."

"Mill Fire" from Retro Productions has five nominations and is unique in that its producer, Heather Cunningham, hired her parents Jack and Rebecca as set designers — Rebecca is also nominated for costume design for "What I Did Last Summer." "Mill Fire"'s set design was daunting, as there were multiple sets on a tiny stage. Moreover, furniture had to be found to reflect the play's 1970s setting, like dial phones, ghastly harvest-gold and brown decor and linoleum.

"And Heather's producing on half a shoestring," says Jack.

They were able to get a lot of stuff from Material For the Arts, where a company can take what it needs for no charge, and if possible, bring it back when they're finished. Rebecca also gets her costumes from thrift shops, though even this can be challenging. "What I Did Last Summer" is set in the '40s, when people were much smaller than they are now.

"Finding the costumes in the sizes you need and in good enough condition is not going to be cheap anymore," says Rebecca, who was professor of costume design and construction at Brooklyn College for 39 years and whose book "The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design" will have its second edition printed in 2009.

Heather Cunningham, born and raised in Brooklyn and now living in Sunnyside, was interested in the theater "since my fist performance in kindergarten or day care or whatever that was." Her first play was "The Three Little Pigs" and Heather was the big bad wolf. She also used to sing at Christmas services in front of her entire church. Her company, Retro Productions, is concluding its fourth year.

The decision to produce "Mill Fire" was inspired by the coal-mining and industrial disasters that have lately plagued the country. It's the third production Heather has worked on with her parents.

Of future productions she'll only say, "After 'Mill Fire' we want to do a comedy next. We're ready for some lighthearted laughs!"

At least three young Queens-based companies have also been nominated: The Astoria Performing Arts Center, founded in 2001 to serve the Astoria and Long Island City communities, has been nominated for Outstanding Production of a Musical, Outstanding Set Design (Michael Kramer) and Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role (Abby Baum) for "Triumph of Love." Kramer received a second nomination for Oustanding Set Design for APAC's production of "Proof."

"We are incredibly proud," said Taryn Drongowski, APAC's executive director. "This is the third year in a row that we have been recognized by the NY IT Awards. For a Queens-based company, to have our work stand out as being among the best in Off-Off Broadway citywide is a real honor."

The multi-arts Chocolate Factory theater in Long Island City was founded by theater et al in 2003. Its production of "Washing Machine," which it put on in association with Fist In the Pocket Theatre, has been nominated for Outstanding Solo Performance (Dana Berger).

Also, the Astoria-based Hipgnosis Theatre Company's production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" has been nominated for Outstanding Production of a Play.

Hipgnosis began in 2005 with a chance meeting between actors John Castro, Julian Rozzell and David Look on Ditmars Boulevard. The name, according to Managing Director Demetrios Bonaros, "comes from the design company that created album covers for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, among others. John first came upon the name while listening to Zeppelin LPs in his youth ... He thought it was a wonderful play on words and one very appropriate for the kind of endeavor that the nascent theatre company aspired to be.

"For the theatre company, 'Hipgnosis' means the following: gnosis is a spiritual search that defies orthodoxy and relies on an individual's inner sense of truth. To achieve gnosis means to reach a state of enlightenment that grows out of one's own search for illumination. 'Hip' means to be engaged, current, connected, forward-looking."

This year's nominees were selected from a pool of more 3,000 artists. Nominees include 127 individual artists, 47 different productions and 40 theater companies.

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