Local theater premieres the Jeff Norton Awards

Four professional companies honor their own tonight, Aug. 22.

The gowns, the monkey suits and the hello, dah-lings will be in full effect on Aug. 22, when the history-making Jeff Norton Awards honor Tampa Bay professional theater achievement at the Palladium Theatre.

Attendees are advised to pack hankies at the first-ever event, which not only honors local talent but pays tribute to Norton and other theater professionals who died in the past year.

During the ceremony, four of the linchpins of Hillsborough and Pinellas theater — American Stage, Gorilla Theatre, Jobsite Theater and Stageworks — will each give out 10 awards, honoring their best actors (leading and supporting roles for both male and female) plus directors, designers and tech professionals. The honorees were chosen by audience members filling out ballots during productions at the participating theaters over the past season. According to Bridget Bean, Gorilla Theatre managing director and co-organizer, no overall winners will be named — a conscious decision to promote a cooperative spirit.

Joining Bean in planning the awards are the directors from the four major participating theaters, including David Jenkins (Jobsite), Anna Brennen (Stageworks) and Todd Olson (American Stage). Bean said that the theaters have been meeting about various issues for four years, with the establishment of the Tampa Area Unified Auditions (co-produced with HCC School of Visual and Performing Arts) a key factor in bringing them together.

"Unified unified us," said Bean. "It got all the theaters involved and got all of us in the same room together. It made us aware of one another's needs."

Bean said that the awards idea gained impetus from an article in the non-profit trade magazine American Theatre, which printed a story titled "And the Winner Is," about how major cities honor excellence in their theater communities. Then, last summer, just as Bean and her team were planning the ceremony, beloved actor Jeffrey Norton was stabbed to death at age 55 in his St. Petersburg home.

"The theater scene was blown sideways," said Bean. "It seemed fitting that we name the awards in his honor." The event now pays tribute to Norton's legacy as a critically acclaimed actor, consummate professional and friend to many.

"The Jeff Norton Awards show that Tampa Bay's theater scene has reached a level of maturity," Stageworks' Brennen said with pride.

All of the theater directors have been emphatic in stating that this year's event is only the first and is subject to change. Bean said that they are open to expanding the pool of nominees and perhaps even venturing into outlying areas beyond Hillsborough and Pinellas. As it is now, the nominees encompass only theaters that employ Equity and non-Equity actors for productions that operate above a minimum budget (an amount not disclosed to CL). Relative newcomer freeFall was invited to take part, acknowledges Producing Director Kevin Lane, but declined to participate (or comment further, beyond the statement, "freeFall is delighted to be part of the burgeoning theater scene in Tampa Bay"). Community theaters and smaller-scale professional theaters such as Hat Trick, [email protected] and Silver Meteor Gallery didn't meet the minimum budget requirements, but will take part in the ceremony as presenters.

Bean was incredulous when asked if anyone had been critical of the politics of the theater awards. She said she didn't know of any naysayers, and also dispels the notion that building a consensus among local theater professionals is about as easy as herding cats.

"Short of shacking up, I don't think there's much else we could do to show how well we work together," quipped Bean.

"I think that it is beneficial for the theater community to work together and help bring an increased awareness of the very rich and strong theater arts that exists in the Tampa Bay area for everyone," said Mary Kay Cyrus, artistic director and producer at Venue Ensemble Theatre.

Cyrus pointed out that a similar type of awards ceremony has existed for years within the community theater arena. Each year, The Theatre Grapevine (a monthly subscriber magazine started by Dee Crews) sponsors the Suncoast Theatre Awards, known in previous years as the Larys. Each theater makes nominations for all the categories and the subscriber base votes on their favorites.

The Norton awards ceremony, produced by Packy Boukis of Only You, will feature such presenters as Keith Arsenault, Bob Devin Jones of [email protected]; Michael Murphy of Silver Meteor Gallery; WMNF DJ JoEllen Schilke; and Creative Loafing's editor, David Warner, and theater critic, Mark Leib. In addition, touching tributes to Norton, Paul Massey and Aubrey Hampton are planned, and Jobsite Artistic Director David Jenkins will present a video montage of memorable moments and performances from the past year.

The red carpet rolls out at 7 p.m. for the awards with drinks and a social hour, and the ceremony begins at 8. ABC Action News anchor Brendan McLaughlin emcees. Tickets are surprisingly affordable, only $10 for regular admission; $25 for supporter status. Net proceeds will go to the establishment of a grant for emerging artists and organizations in Norton's name.

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