ST. PETERSBURG — Theater people tend to be outgoing and sociable, so the first Jeff Norton Theater Awards was a merry affair, though it was also undercut by a certain melancholy, given the circumstances. The awards honor the bay area actor who was the victim of a shocking murder last year.
TV broadcasters Brendan McLaughlin and Jen Holloway — "the Vanna White and Ryan Seacrest" of the occasion, McLaughlin cracked — cohosted the ceremony, which drew about 175 to the Palladium Theater on Monday night.
The Norton Awards are a good idea, but not very meaningful because so many were handed out. Each of the theaters that organized the event — American Stage, Gorilla Theatre, Stageworks Theatre and Jobsite Theater — honored performers, designers, directors and others in various categories, with 36 awards in all.
So, for example, there were four awards for best actor in a leading role: Richard B. Watson in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (American Stage), Christopher Swan in Shipwrecked! An Entertainment (Gorilla), Paul Potenza in The Odd Couple (Jobsite) and Joshua Goff in A Lesson Before Dying (Stageworks). All worthy performances, but they should have constituted the nominees for a single award.
The number of nominees in some categories was grossly inflated. Gorilla nominated eight from its Young Dramatists' Project for best supporting actress. American Stage's best actor in a leading role nominees totaled 19 from seven plays.
And more theaters need to be involved. FreeFall Theatre did not participate in the awards, even though it was responsible for some of this past season's most impressive productions. Artistic director Eric Davis and others from the company did attend.
If the awards are to be truly important, the theater community will have to develop a way to survey all the relevant productions during a season and come up with a strong, short list of nominees. This is no easy task, since nobody — not even critics — can see everything. Perhaps a committee that includes a selection of each year's winners, critics and others involved in the theater could manage the job.
The ceremony included touching tributes to Norton and two other theater figures who died recently: Gorilla founder Aubrey Hampton and USF theater professor Paul Massie.
David O'Hara, a drama teacher, deftly tied together the theatrical lives of Norton and Massie, student and mentor. The two performed together in a memorable production of Equus. "You could tell an actor who was trained by Paul by the depth of caring they possessed," O'Hara said, going on to say that Norton exemplified such an approach.
Rosemary Orlando, an actor and friend of Norton, said that he would "always tell the students he worked with that they have to respect the stage. That is what Jeff would want us all to take away from these awards."
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Tampa Bay community theater has its own awards. Ballots are due this week for the Star Awards (formerly known as the Lary Awards), sponsored by Theatre Grapevine magazine. Winners will be named Sept. 25 at Largo Cultural Center.
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes or (727) 893-8716.