Another season of visual and performing arts has come and gone in Champaign-Urbana, and we have once again been the beneficiaries of some outstanding entertainment and inspiration. And, once again, we at Smile Politely submit our thoughts on what moved us and improved us. We can’t be everywhere, of course, and there will be brilliant things overlooked, alas. But here’s what we saw, heard, and loved.

BEST venue promoting local arts

The Art Theater Co-op

This past year, the Art Theater Co-op celebrated its 100th birthday by continuing its tradition of offering up diverse programming that showcased the best of the local arts scene. From October’s Dangerous Docs Festival to the Pens To Lens Gala; from putting on Wes Anderson Week to hosting Deke Weaver’s WOLF, the Art consistently shows great taste and community spirit. And they also just happen to keep showing some of the best local work (The New Art Film Festival), international hits (Blue is the Warmest Color), and cult movies (Big Trouble in Little China as a midnight show) one could hope to see. Cheers to General Manager Austin McCann and his staff for providing a cozy, fun hang. Can’t wait to see what comes in the 101st year.

BEST group you know more about now, and you’re welcome

Champaign Movie Makers

As it states on their website, Champaign Movie Makers is “a network for central Illinois filmmakers, actors and artists wanting to connect.” The group holds monthly meetings, allowing time and space for writers, actors, and directors to meet up and share ideas. That’s the jumping-off point from which a lot of talented local people make some truly interesting and inspiring work. Short films, features, and music videos flow from such meetings, not to mention the sponsorship of local initiatives like Pens To Lens (see below). You can expect more and more great things to come out of this organization. I know I do.

BEST theatrical lighting (or lack thereof)

The two minutes of complete darkness during Wait Until Dark

For anyone who didn’t see it, there was a diabolical moment during the recent Parkland College Theatre production of Wait Until Dark when, at the height of the cat-and-mouse, the lights went out. It was intentional, don’t worry. And when it happened, the audience held its collective breath as a psychopath menaced a resourceful blind woman in her basement apartment. Director J.W. Morrissette and lighting designer Susan Summers reminded audiences what it meant to engage theatre with their whole being, and those of us who saw it (or didn’t) were the better for it.

[Editor's note: We unfortunately listed Ms. Summers as "Susan Sullivan" in this article. We have amended that, and we meant no offense. We are actually very big fans.]

BEST group effort :

“Ariel” in Krannert’s The Tempest

Ariel, the creature of air and water in service to the magician Prospero, is a tricky character for any actor to play. There are issues of interpretation, issues of physicality, not to mention the speaking of the Shakespeare. Now imagine you’re one of six actors playing the same role at the same time and largely in one voice. Ellen Fred, Sidney Germaine, Sally Hamer, Ryan Jenkins, Rebecca Ogwal, and Brian Zielnicki made a lasting, dynamic impression in their uniform, unisex, unison portrayal of this classic character.

BEST Deke Weaver

Deke Weaver

I could have called this category a lot of things, including BEST Storyteller or BEST Multimedia artist, but ultimately I went with BEST Deke Weaver because anyone who has seen Weaver's work knows that it is in a category and class all by itself. Nobody does storytelling like Deke Weaver. A gifted playwright, director, and actor, Weaver has only scratched the surface of his Unreliable Bestiary series of dramatic events, and I can’t wait for more. This past year’s immersive outward-bound experience WOLF entranced not only those who followed its story into the woods but also those who were lucky enough to see it during its all-too-brief residence at the Art Theater Co-op. Anybody can put together a multimedia presentation these days, but Weaver’s combination of script, choreography (courtesy of his partner, Jennifer Allen), audience participation, film, music, and damn good performance is something to behold.

BEST WTF art distraction

That guy who was crawling around the Krannert Center lobby under really bright lights while a woman posed.

I don’t have a photo to accompany this, and I don’t have any better explanation of what I saw than what this title suggests. All I can say is that it arrested my attention—and that of a few dozen other people, all of whom were ever so briefly transfixed by something they could not exactly explain. I don’t know who was involved, and I don’t know why there were there. But whoever you were, Crawling Guy and Posing Lady, and whyever you were there… thanks.

BEST lobby

Station Theatre

A little red box attached to a slightly larger black box, the lobby of the Station Theatre is a portal. Walk in the door to find two old-fashioned church pews on the left and a plan wooden reception desk to the right. Straight ahead is the door to the incredibly small actors’ dressing rooms and all around — adorning every square inch of the red walls — are framed posters of plays spanning the company’s entire 42-year history. And did I mention the neon “Intermission sign?” The room is too small, it’s true, and on crowded nights it can be uncomfortable (especially since the bathrooms are clear on the other side of the building), but that’s all part of the common experience. History, hospitality, and a plate of cookies (for a donation): Welcome to the Station Theatre.

BEST use of half a story

The Thinking Molecules of Titan film team

There were a lot of good original films made in Champaign-Urbana this past season, but only one of them started off as a short story by beloved film critic Roger Ebert. Andrew Stengele and Patrick Wang took Ebert’s unfinished yarn, entitled "The Thinking Molecules of Titan," and developed it, creating a canvas for local actors Lindsey-Gates Markel, Malia Andrus, Joel Higgins, Donna Sant, and Mike Trippiedi to shine.

BEST kids’ program

Pens to Lens

The idea is so simple and so grand at the same time. Local schoolchildren write screenplays which are then made into short films by local filmmakers. Local actors play the roles, local designers make posters, and the local old-school moviehouse presents them at a big-deal red-carpet event. If you’re a creative kid with a love of the big screen, it’s the kind of thing you dream about; in Champaign-Urbana, it’s a reality. Let’s hope it stays that way for a long, long time.

BEST animal art:

The lion outside The Lodge on Hill

There are lots of gorgeous, arresting pieces of art on display on so many of our local street corners. My personal favorite, for this season? The red and yellow lion keeping watch outside The Lodge on Hill. I stopped one day, after picking my daughter up from preschool, so I could snap a picture of this noble beast. And when she asked me why, I told her, “Because it’s art.” She looked out the car window for a second, then nodded her agreement. “And it’s a lion," she said. We were both right.