Any time we have to look back over the last year of Arts programming in Champaign-Urbana and try to decide what was "BEST," it's a bit like digging through a giant, Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of gold and saying, "These are the very best pieces of gold." Having said that, we see a lot of art, a lot of theatre, a lot of exhibits and studios over the course of 12 months, and we talk to a lot of artists. And, since we're opinionated people who like to think we know what we're talking about, we feel it behooves us to try to sum things up.

Obviously we won't have the same opinions as everyone else, and we'd feel bad if we worked our asses off to create something great and didn't get any recognition for it (because we never feel like that), so we do this now with some humility. You may agree with us; you may disagree. You may have favorites that you think deserve notice. If so, please comment and let us know. The point of having an Arts department, after all, isn't just to tell you what's going on — it's to get you talking about it.

Anyway, humility. And gratitude. We love watching plays and looking at art installations and reading books. And we love beyond explanation having the chance to hip you to something new. — Mathew Green

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BEST show for kids and their adults

Circus Oz at Krannert Center

Their stay in Champaign-Urbana was "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" short, but the amount of energy they brought with them was undeniable. This past Valentine's Day, I saw Circus Oz present their smart, funny, acrobatically mind-blowing show "But Wait...There's More" in front of a theater packed full of enthusiastic youngsters and their tagalong grown-ups. The effect on all of them — on all of us — was pretty impressive. From ringmistress Candy Bowers' chanting and singing to Kyle Raftery's unicycling, from Olivia Porter's off-kilter juggling to Scott Hone's "big man on a little bike" routine, every act in this show made the audience lean forward in anticipation and cheer wildly with delight. My five-year-old still talks about "the lady with the hula hoops." The lady in question is Lilikoi Kaos, who started with about ten hoops and ended her routine with no fewer than fifty, all spinning around her in a vortex of talent and wonder. I can't wait for them to come back. (MG)

BEST smartass dumbass podcast

You Big Dumb Idiot

There's no denying that the hosts of this locally-produced podcast are funny and engaging. They're Lindsey Gates-Markel and Andrew Schiver (pictured here in a photo flagrantly stolen from their website), for crying out loud. They're smart and witty, and they take not taking themselves seriously very seriously. (Or words to that effect.) But the best thing about You Big Dumb Idiot is its premise: a local expert on something — anything, really — comes on and tells the hosts about stuff they don't know. What better way to throw a spotlight on the people you know and their areas of (perhaps hidden) exptertise? From local politics to gardening, from dentistry to Devo, they have explored a wide array of subjects. And I'd like to think we've all learned a little something. (MG)

BEST tasteful nudity

The BARE Project

Don't get the wrong idea: it's not about pictures of people getting naked. The BARE Project — created by Emily Otnes, Anna Longworth, and Alisa Greene — is an ongoing and powerful way to empower people to love their bodies and take pride in who they are and how they look. Ms. Otnes put it best: "The goal of The BARE Project is healing — healing ourselves from society’s unfair expectations, from our own unkind words, and from the unhealthy idea that we are somehow not acceptable just the way we are. Everyone in our project was on a personal journey. The participants — as well as myself, Alisa, and Anna — were all there to experience kindness towards ourselves and to have a moment to reflect on the reasons we can’t always love what makes us unique." The project was originally displayed at Indi Go artist co-op and has now moved online. Kudos to the artists and subjects, all of whom have contributed beautifully to an important discussion. (MG)

Best tasteful nudity (runner-up)

Tis Pity She’s a Whore

It’s not that unusual for actors to appear naked in a play. And it’s certainly not out of the ordinary for this to happen at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where Illinois Theatre regularly pushes the envelope with its productions. (I seem to recall something with "Bacchanal" in the title not long ago...) It's also not unusual for onstage nudity to be a little hard to pull off (if you'll pardon at least one pun), owing to either the nervousness of the performers or trepidation on the part of the director. In this season’s production of John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, an already audacious rendering of a very old play by a fresh and energetic bunch of actors under the directorial eye of William Brown, David Monahan and Clara Byczkowski made going full Monty look easy. And natural. And like no big deal. Kudos to both, and shame on the adolescent audience members who couldn’t handle it (or who didn’t come back after intermission because they’d already seen the money shot). (MG)

BEST news ever regarding local film

Chaz Ebert and Shatterglass Films announce Emmet Till project

It's nice when people you like and admire make the news in a huge, international, positive way. That's how we felt when it was reported by Variety, Deadline Hollywood, and others that Chaz Ebert would be teaming up with Champaign-based Shatterglass Films to make a film adapted from the book Death Of Innocence: The Story Of The Hate Crime That Changed America. The book, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2004, is based on the life and murder of Emmet Till and was co-written by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and journalist Christopher Benson. The film is being produced for Shatterglass by Luke Boyce, Brett Hays, and Jen Shelby, and it will shoot in Chicago, Central Illinois, and the Mississippi Delta. Ms. Ebert was quoted on deadline.com as saying, "The full Emmett Till story needs to be told now and told well as a narrative for our times, given all that is happening on American streets today, and Shatterglass Films are the people to tell it." Couldn't agree more, and can't wait to see the finished product. (MG)

BEST new place to see art

The Outhaus

Forget that Indi Go is closing. Forget that. It doesn't matter in this. Because even if Indi Go was still going strong, the Outhaus would still be in this spot. The Outhaus is a unique setting to view art, owned and operated by some of the friendliest people associated with the C-U art scene. Located in the heart of an Urbana neighboorhood, the Outhaus is a small backyard structure which, from the street resembles a toolshed. It is quite well-built and accessorized by a large backyard. Art fans are encouraged to attend, view the art, drink the beer, and make new friends. (SL)

BEST building to photograph

Champaign City Building

The City Building has so much character. When you look down Neil, University, or Walnut it sticks out (and up) into the sky. Its green top complements the beige brick well, and it has accent lighting around its rim. You can photograph it from the west and bring focus to the body of the building. Or you can shoot it from the Blind Pig's beer garden and capture the lights, people, and essense of summer in downtown Champaign. Or you can shoot it from the east and get some of the cityscape that supports this beautiful structure. It photographs nicely at all times of day. It is truly my favorite building to shoot. (SL)

BEST book by a local author

The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly

As I hope I made clear in my review of his new book for middle-graders, Ted Sanders has started one hell of a good yarn. The Box and the Dragonfly, Book One of his Keepers trilogy, is clever and exciting and brimming with magical adventure. The characters are relatable, even when doing insanely unnatural things, and the danger never seems less than real. All of this would be laudable in any book, but the fact that Sanders is presenting a complex story to kids in a way that their parents can enjoy, too? That’s awfully impressive. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, do it. (And check out Jaleigh Johnson’s The Mark of the Dragonfly, while you’re at it. If I had thought to include local authors in last year’s BEST Arts list, Johnson would have been there.) (MG)

BEST new place to see a play

Parkland’s SECOND STAGE

It was a long time coming, but it was worth it. If you didn’t see Parkland College Theatre’s The Sparrow this past season, then odds are you haven’t been inside Parkland’s SECOND STAGE theater space yet. For the uninitiated, it’s a black box, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. But that's also what makes it so great. I’m all for big set designs and bells and whistles, but there’s nothing better than filling an empty space with great storytelling. Stripped-down, utilitarian, and very satisfying. I can’t wait to see what comes next. (MG)

BEST one-two punch

Tom Mitchell

Most directors are lucky if they get it right once a season. For that matter, a lot of directors only get to direct one show per season. But, because of the way the local theatre community functions, a director might find him/herself in a position to direct more than once in a 12-month period. In the past year, Tom Mitchell got it really, really right on two different stages for two different theaters. First came Around the World in 80 Days at Parkland College, where his fleet-footed ensemble piece was both literary and engaging. Following that, Mitchell drew on his love and longtime study of Tennessee Williams to produce a fantastic staging of Not About Nightingales. [The runner-up, by the way, for “Best one-two punch” might be Jeremiah Lowry, whose work for Mitchell in both 80 Days and Nightingales was spot-on.]

And by the by, Mitchell will be directing Noel Coward’s Hay Fever for the Station Theatre this summer. Given the material and the cast (including Gary Ambler, Joi Hoffsommer, and Kay Bohannon Holley), you should expect the “one-two punch” metaphor to go the way of the “hat-trick.” (MG)

BEST use of social media by local theatre community

Floyd Collins

The Station Theatre's production of Floyd Collins had a lot going for it. For one thing, director Kyle A. Thomas has proven himself to be a steady hand at the wheel with all sorts of material, from medieval texts to children's musicals. Add to this a great (if lesser-known) story and crowd-pleasing Americana music conducted by Justin M. Brauer and performed by a strong cast. And then there's this:

There are lots of great things about social media, and it's great to see community theatre harnessing technology to raise its profile. At the very least, it's a way to let people know when your show starts or which goofball website posted a review. And sometimes, when you have very good people (like filmmaker Chris Sotelo) doing very good work, it can be a way to create art of another kind. (MG)