Beyond recognition 

The Jeff Norton Awards ceremony is a winner for local theater.

This is an “interim year” for the Jeff Norton Awards, according to Bridget Bean, president of Theatre Tampa Bay (the alliance of Bay area professional theaters). Last year’s confusing model, in which every theater had a best actor, best actress, best director, etc., was distinctly not a hit with participants.

“That’s the feedback we got,” says Bean. “That it was too much like a high school graduation ceremony.”

So next year, there will be a jury that will see all shows, and only one award in each category will be given. This is closer to the way that other regional theater awards operate, like the Carbonells in Miami and Suzi Bass Awards in Atlanta.

But that change, as I said, happens next year.

For 2012, on Monday evening, Aug. 20 at The Palladium in St. Pete, there’ll be separate “bests” for two participating theaters — American Stage and Stageworks — and “special recognition” awards from Hat Trick, freeFall, Jobsite, the Silver Meteor and Gorilla. The “bests” are the product of audience voting (ballots were included in programs), weighted so that the bigger audiences don’t inevitably determine the winners. There’ll also be a Critics’ Choice Award for best play and best musical, decided by yours truly along with Kathy Greenberg of The Tampa Tribune and a critic from the Tampa Bay Times (John Fleming is out having hip surgery). Everyone’s welcome to attend the awards show, but there’s a $25 charge (go to American Stage at 727-823-PLAY) with a discount for artists (contact your favorite theater for the special code). There’ll be a party afterwards where you can congratulate the winners and assure everyone else that they were cheated unspeakably.

As to the presentation itself — named, as many know, in honor of a beloved actor whose 2010 murder devastated the local theater scene — it will be directed by Karla Hartley, and comic actor Matthew McGee will host. This is a change from last year, when there were hosts from TV and so many presenters, there were traffic jams in the wings. (I was one of the presenters, and found the experience nerve-wracking.) McGee is a gifted improviser, so expect a lot of humor, and in addition there’ll be musical numbers from American Stage’s Rocky Horror Show, Stageworks’ Listen to My Heart, St. Pete Opera’s Sweeney Todd, and freeFall’s Cabaret. Talented pianist Stan Collins will be caressing the ivories, and McGee has written and will sing a retrospective medley that promises to be entertaining.

American Stage and Stageworks will present awards for Best Lead Actor and Actress, Best Featured Actor and Actress, Best Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Sound Designer and Costumer. Why didn’t all the local theaters sign up to be considered for these awards? Bean attributes it to the required fee — and the fact that this was a tough year financially for a lot of theaters.

And now, a critic’s view. Last year’s ceremony was pretty much a mess: too many awards and presenters, too many hours, too little sense. The talk last year was all about not fomenting competition, but the result was something like asking a kindly grandmother to name her favorite children. Anyway, what’s so wrong with turning some of our best performers and designers into one-of-a-kind celebrities for a year? Local theater artists already have to labor for little pay and only the general recognition that comes with a rave review in one of the three papers; why not add an annual award? I remember what Harold Clurman said once, when asked whether the U.S. should have a national theater. “Let’s have one,” he said. “And then let’s knock it!”

I’d say the same about the Jeff Norton Awards as projected for next year: Let’s have them, and then let’s enjoy a good 12 months of complaining about their injustice. This year’s (and last year’s) method may be more compassionate; it’s also so diffuse as to mean very little.

One last note: the very best feature of last year’s Jeff Norton gathering was the spectacle of seeing so many of the Bay area’s theater people together in one place. Winners and losers aside, there was a lot of love in The Palladium last year, the love of a dedicated group of artists for their craft and for each other.

What was clear in 2011 should be evident again Monday night: The guild of theater artists in the Bay area is, above all else, a family. For this reason particularly, I’m looking forward to the reunion.

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