Some cats have nine lives. The CATS in Canberra have lost one, but might have a new incarnation before the year is over.
After 25 years of celebrating amateur theatre, the CAT Awards - formerly the Canberra Area Theatre - Awards will be wound up in their current form in June.
With no more funding from the NSW government and, as always, no financial support from the ACT government - as well as a lack of shows this year because of coronavirus - the board has decided to wind things up after the 25th season.
This followed the recent announcement of the final group of winners, shown online rather than presented a a gala awards evening as in previous years.
Longtime Canberra publicist Coralie Wood, who co-founded the awards and has been the driving force behind them, says she is "pretty cut up about everything".
She had hoped something - or someone - would turn up to keep the CAT Awards going but, along with the board, finally accepted the inevitable.
The awards started small, she says, with "six judges and six local companies".
By the end, the CAT Awards were an incorporated company with 22 judges who spent a lot of their own time and money - apart from accommodation - travelling to shows. In 2019, there were 90 youth, school and adult companies from Canberra and regional NSW competing in drama, musicals, dance and other fields. A few years earlier, the Canberra Area Theatre Awards had been renamed the CAT Awards as the expansion to places as far away as Orange meant the "Canberra area" no longer not strictly applied.
Looking back, Wood says, "The biggest highlight for me has been seeing a lot of the young children and teenagers become professional performers."
These include Opera Australia singer Lorina Gore and musical theatre performer Billy Bourchier, whose credits include The Book of Mormon.
I've always thought it's an honour to be nominated and an even bigger honour to winMichael Sparks
One of the people trying to reinvent the CAT Awards is multiple award nominee Ian McLean, who won for his musical direction of Carousel in 1997. He was a judge from 2000 onward.
McLean and two other former CAT Awards judges, Jenny Wookey and Ted Briggs, intend to hold a meeting with representatives from each of the Canberra theatre companies when COVID-19 restrictions ease. The idea is to discuss how a future awards system - whether named the CAT Awards or something else - might operate and be funded. Thirteen companies out of the 24 in Canberra had expressed interest to McLean at the time of writing. He hopes to hear from the others by the cut-off date of June 4 to gauge enthusiasm and take suggestions.
"It may work, it may not - it's worth having a try."
McLean acknowledged that getting the theatre companies to work together could be challenging. There's a fair bit of rivalry and competition. But he hoped the spirit of cooperation shown by musical theatre companies in putting on the bushfire fundraising concert earlier in the year would continue.
McLean also hopes the many Canberra companies that stopped taking part in the awards will return. The reasons some have given for departure included being unable to afford the membership costs and the rising number of companies from NSW that took part. While it brought more money and talent into the awards, the latter was a particularly sore point. Local theatre people felt somewhat marginalised and unable to compare productions.
McLean says that among the possibilities to deal with this are to help regional areas develop their own, independent awards shows and to limit the area covered by the Canberra-based awards.
Rep president Michael Sparks won four CAT Awards - for lead actor, supporting actor, set design and Magic Moment of Theatre. He also served as a judge in 2016 (during which time he was not eligible for nominations and could not take part in discussions about Rep). Sparks says he was "always chuffed" by CATS recognition. While it wasn't his motivation for taking part in amateur theatre, he always appreciated "the recognition from the community that I've done good work.
" I've always thought it's an honour to be nominated and an even bigger honour to win."
Rep was with the CATS for most of the awards' life and its productions had many nominations and wins. While not speaking in any official capacity, Sparks says, "The CATS tried to be too many things to too many people over too broad an area."
During his time as a judge, Sparks tried to be selective, avoiding fields like dance in which he had no expertise. He thinks judges should deal only in their fields of expertise and only see local productions to keep things manageable and so people in the ACT and Queanbeyan can see what is being judged. He also thinks the youth and school awards should be completely separate from the rest.
Free-Rain Theatre Company founder Anne Somes - whose company has taken part in the CAT Awards since the beginning - won five awards and was a judge from 2007 to 2016. She says planning should start with "a blank slate" so all ideas can be considered. Somes says, "I think the local focus is very, very important" and she would like to see the inclusion of other performance arts.
What will become of the CAT Awards? We'll have to wait and see.