If you see me in a theater lobby this season, don’t talk to me.
Wait, that sounds a little severe. I mean, sure, please talk to me, love to chat. But if the conversation turns to questions like “How’d you like the first act?” or “Seen anything good lately?” I’ll either smile blankly or abruptly switch the subject. “How ‘bout them Rays?”
The reason for my rudeness: I’ve become a judge. Not a judge who could, say, fix your traffic ticket, but a Norton judge — one of 10 individuals who will be rating the work of Tampa Bay theater companies in the 2012-2013 season.
The Nortons, named in memory of the beloved actor Jeff Norton, were instituted by the theater community two years ago as a way of recognizing outstanding work. But the initial efforts, while uplifting, were also pretty insular. Theaters essentially voted on their own achievements, rather than submitting the work to an impartial jury, as is the case with regional theater awards in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
This year, an intrepid team has stepped up to orchestrate a change in the voting system and create a new organization, Theatre Tampa Bay, to support the local theater community. Artistic directors from theaters large and small have banded together under the leadership of Michael Murphy, whose Silver Meteor Gallery has provided a home for numerous emerging theater troupes; Bridget Bean, the former managing director of Gorilla Theatre; and Jon Palmer Claridge, a longtime DC arts administrator who ran that city’s Helen Hayes theater awards for a year before moving to the Tampa Bay area. They spearheaded discussions, hammered out guidelines and brought the newborn system to life in time for the 2012-13 season.
Yes, that’s the same Jon Palmer Claridge who reviews restaurants for Creative Loafing. He’s a versatile guy; I knew of him as a theater expert before I even discovered he was an avid and erudite foodie.
But you may well be wondering, wasn’t this new version of the Nortons supposed to guard against insularity? You might ask the same thing when you see the list of judges, which also includes such familiar names as Studio@620’s Bob Devin Jones, Creative Pinellas Director T. Hampton Dohrman, costume designer Kathy Buck and HCC Theatre Manager Keith Arsenault. With so many well-known figures involved, how will possible conflicts be resolved?
Good question, and one that the team behind selecting the judges has painstakingly attempted to address. Kathy Buck will obviously not judge productions for which she designed costumes, and Bob Devin Jones won’t be rating any plays at Studio@620. Every judge signed a pledge that promised, among other things, to approach each production with “complete impartiality” — and if there is a real or perceived inability to do so, we’ll take ourselves out of the judging pool for that particular production.
Another one of the 14 points in the pledge is this: “11. Refrain from reading any/all published reviews until after my ballot has been submitted.” This presents a special challenge for me: I edit a paper which runs theater reviews just about every week. Though our arts and entertainment editor, Julie Garisto, does the first edits on Mark Leib’s reviews, I usually give them a look after the page has been laid out, making adjustments when necessary. But this week, when I was handed the page with Leib’s review of Jobsite’s Fahrenheit 451, I handed it right back to the managing editor — because I have yet to see Fahrenheit 451, and I did not want to break my pledge.
It’s a little dicey, I admit. Frankly, I don’t think my opinion would be changed by reading a review, even one written by a critic I respect like Mark Leib. I’ve been doing theater since I was a kid, have a Master’s in the field and lots of productions under my belt as actor, director and dramaturg, so I have no trouble coming to my own conclusions, no matter what I’ve read in advance. But I appreciate the intention of the pledge, and will not break it.
Letting a page go to print without seeing it first is a little bit more unsettling. But I have so much faith in my fellow editors and in the theater critic we employ that this is one page I think I’m safe letting go. (Although it may mean that I’ll be going to lots more opening nights, so that I can submit my ballot and read my publication’s review before it goes to press.)
It all does come down to trust. This new experiment in Tampa Bay’s theater community will require a lot of it. I, for one, am very excited about the prospect of going to everything (some 40-45 productions, I’m told). It’ll be an education for me, and while I won’t be able to talk about the shows I see, I do hope to share my thoughts on this year-long adventure once it’s done.
Meanwhile, see you in the lobby. And seriously, how about them Rays?
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