John Rutherford can look back in time and pinpoint the moment – or at least the year – his future began to take shape: an arts exploration class required in seventh grade.
“I was bit, and that was it,” said Rutherford, 54, of his first theater experience all those years ago. “I found something I was good at and something I enjoyed doing, so I just started doing it and haven’t stopped.”
Next Friday, Oct. 14, the Birmingham Groves High School teacher and director of Theater will receive the 2022 Birmingham Bloomfield Cultural Arts Award. Now in its 27th year, the annual accolade honors individuals selected by a jury of local arts enthusiasts for having had an extraordinary impact on the cultural life of the community.
He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the GUVVY Arts Educator Award, Alumni Awards at Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan Universities, Michigan Speech Coaches Teacher of the Year award, induction into the Michigan Educational Theater Association Hall of Fame and more, Rutherford said he loves the Storytelling aspect of theater, and he especially enjoys historical drama.
“There’s empathy in every theatrical performance,” he said, noting when he was 16 he would drive to the public library, check out cast recording albums of Broadway musicals, listen over and over and imagine what the show looked like. “You can’t help but feel when you’re watching theater. It could be Joy or happiness. Or, sometimes you’re taken to a journey of pain or discovery. Theater combines your intellectual savvy with emotional sensibilities.”
During the day – and many evenings – Rutherford works with students, whether teaching or directing. Currently, his cast and crew are working on a high school production of “Chicago,” which hits the Groves stage Nov. 4-6 and 11-13.
The key to his teaching style, he said, is a requirement for self-reflection.
“Do we make Mistakes in live theatre? Absolutely,” they said. “Do we make mistakes in life? Everyday. It’s not just the Mistakes we should be just focusing on. It’s the whole story. It’s the big picture. That’s how I approach teaching and that’s how I approach theatre.”
Rutherford’s Theatrical aspirations aren’t contained to the high school. He also runs his own company, Barebones Theater Productions, and enjoys working with an adult cast. Some day, he’d like the experience of directing in the professional arena.
Currently, I do everything,” he said. “I’m in charge of costumes and props and lights and sounds and hair and makeup and programs. That all falls on me. So, in between all that, I try to direct.
“When you do professional theater, you have a creative team who all take those responsibilities on and the director really just gets to go to town on getting the story and finding what I call the sweet spots. There’s nothing more satisfying to the director than when you direct and the audience responds.”
During the first summer of the pandemic, Rutherford used digital rehearsals and performances, virtual competition platforms, produced plays written by professional playwrights with adult actors, created a Zoom playwriting/acting workshop that helped develop original scripts for production, and found ways to entertain the community audiences with socially distanced and outdoor theater opportunities.
Rutherford was nominated for the Birmingham Bloomfield Cultural Arts Award by Cathleen Badalamenti, Village Youth Theater president, and Ashley Wickett Lane of Bloomfield Hills.
“Mr. Rutherford is an exceptional teacher and his artistic achievements and accomplishments are remarkable. He brings an unparalleled combination of scholarship, talent, compassion, enthusiasm, and commitment to our students, schools, and community. His dedication to individual growth is reflected in his daily classroom and extracurricular practices. His teaching is inspirational; he believes participation in the performing arts fosters confidence, discipline, respect, tolerance, and cooperation,” wrote Badalamenti.
Wickett Lane is a former student who worked with Rutherford during her time at Groves in the early 2000s. After graduation, she pursued a BFA and MFA in acting, and has been acting professionally ever since – including collaborations with Rutherford.
“Working with John as a director is every actor’s dream,” she wrote. “He has a strong vision but trusts his actors to find their way. He gives terrific notes but is also extremely collaborative. Many of his former students have worked with him in this summer capacity over the years and I think that is a true testament to what a terrific director, mentor and artist he is. People flock to him and flock back to him time and time again.”
Wickett Lane also experienced Rutherford’s outdoor productions during COVID.
“I remember audience members weeping, they were so overjoyed that there was a way to experience the arts during COVID,” she wrote. “A way to connect amidst so much disconnect. John made that happen. His innovation and determination to create art in a time of such uncertainty is something I will never forget.”
Entertainment lawyer Howard Hurtz honored
Rutherford is not the only 2022 honoree for the 2022 Birmingham Bloomfield Cultural Arts Award
Howard Hertz, an entertainment lawyer whose client list reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in Celebrity America, will receive a Special Lifetime Achievement Award as a Champion for artistic freedom, honoring the huge impact his Volunteer work has had in Michigan and beyond.
As a longstanding board member of the Sphinx Organization, Hertz encourages, mentors, and creates opportunities for underserved young populations in the world of Classical music. His pro-bono work with up-and-coming musicians, writers and artists helps protect intellectual freedom at a time when books and all forms of art have come under political scrutiny.
Additionally, his efforts to support the growing film industry in Michigan, and his long-term presidency of the Detroit Music Awards Foundation — recently awarded an Emmy for its 30th year broadcast — are just some examples of his huge impact on the arts community and artists .
Hertz was nominated by his wife, Wendy Hertz, and by journalist Gary Graff.
“As an attorney, mentor and activist, Howard has been at the Forefront of “taking care of the kids,” as it were — in other words, serving as an Ambassador and Enhancing the health and global notoriety or the music and entertainment scene in the Detroit metro area,” Graff wrote.
The Village Players, which is celebrating its Centennial in Birmingham this year will receive the Partners with the Arts Award for “One hundred years of vibrant community theater.” The award is given directly by the Cultural Council to honor a business, non-profit or organization in our community that supports the arts in a distinguished manner.
This year’s honorees will be celebrated at a limited in-person event. The ceremony will be broadcast on local cable and be available following the event at culturalcouncilbirminghambloomfield.org.
Contact Reporter Laura Colvin at [email protected] or 248-221-8143.