Last night CityBeat presented the 12th annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for theater before an enthusiastic crowd at Below Zero Lounge in Over-the-Rhine. John Fox, CityBeat's editor, and I were the emcees in a scaled-back event that was as much about socializing as it was about recognition.
We handed out two rounds of awards: A set of 12 voted on by the public (nearly 3,000 votes were cast, more than in any past year) and then eight decided by a group of Cincinnati-area critics. You can check out the winners on CityBeat's CEA micro-site here, but I will point out that New Stage Collective, in its second season, received seven awards, the most of any theater company. And those were for four different productions: Caroline, or Change (outstanding musical), Take Me Out (outstanding supporting actor), Bug (outstanding actress) and several for Jerry Springer: The Opera (including outstanding premiere).
But the CEAs, in my mind, are not about who picks up the trophies but rather how many nominees are presented — 99 this year, as we expanded the nominees per award from four to five. When I announced the year's outstanding play (Cincinnati Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the outstanding musical (Springer at New Stage), I remarked that I preferred to think about the fact that we were recognizing 10 outstanding productions. The recipients were chosen by a set of critics, and if others had made the choices there might have been different results. What's the "best" is really a matter of taste, not some kind of objective judgment, so everyone should be proud to be part of the process.
That was the spirit that pervaded the crowd of 250 or so who were at Below Zero. Each nominee was loudly applauded, and lots of people told me that they were happy simply to be present with other theater performers and producers to celebrate local work onstage. An email came to me early Monday morning; the writer said, "Thanks for a wonderful event last night. Scaled back or not, it was still really fun … maybe even a more 'genuine' event."
I agree. John and I have talked about the vibe we got — all positive — and we hope others agreed. In fact, we think that maybe this kind of socializing celebration is the right choice for the CEAs. We'd like to hear thoughts from others.
Some of my favorite moments from last night:
• Terry LaBolt's piano accompaniment. His cabaret act has been a regular Sunday night feature at Below Zero, and he graciously agreed to be part of our event — a real enhancement by a professional entertainer. (By the way, LaBolt is headed to Bloomington, Ind., where he'll become part of the musical theater program at Indiana University. Despite the new job, however, he'll return to Cincinnati on the first Sunday of each month for more cabaret tunes at Below Zero.)
• Sara Mackie's acceptance speech. As she finished accepting her award for best supporting actress (she played a mouthy younger sister in ETC's production of Rabbit Hole), she paused for a moment and said, "This is probably the closest I'll ever get to a Tony Award, so I have to say this now: Thank you, Weight Watchers!" That's her whooping it up in the photo above.
• Recognition of CEA Hall of Fame inductees Bill Hartnett and Ellie Shepherd (in photo at the top). They asked another theater couple, Ed Cohen and Dee Anne Bryll, to present them, and their heartfelt remarks were a perfect set-up. They recalled going to dinner with Bill and Ellie shortly after their own marriage and asking advice for working together in the theater. The couple talked less about theater and more about respecting one another. After Hartnett shared some amusing anecdotes about his theater experiences with Shepherd, she took the microphone and said, "I've always told people I wanted to try skydiving. Now I don't have to, because this evening was even better!"
• Talking with two men after the program, when many of the guests had departed. They introduced themselves by saying that they aren't performers, just devoted theatergoers. They've enjoyed Cincinnati Shakespeare for many years and are enthusiastic about Know Theatre, New Stage and ETC (they live in Over-the-Rhine). I so appreciated hearing from the "audience" and how much they appreciated the CEAs and the recognition provided. I wish more fans would come to the CEAs.
• A remark by John Fox, as we started the evening's festivities, reminded me why I do this. He reminisced how we've worked together on theater coverage for 17 years — first at EveryBody's News (where John was the editor in the early 1990s) and since then at CityBeat (which he co-founded in 1994). He said that my love of theater and dedication to promoting and growing the theater scene has been a major component of sustaining the CEAs. I'm grateful for that observation, but all I do is cover what happens onstage. I'm more grateful for the great work that happens in all our local theaters — from the community performers to the visiting professionals at the Cincinnati Playhouse — and I continue to be excited to share that with people in Greater Cincinnati who love theater.
Now it's time to get ready for the 2008-09 season! Look for my thoughts on upcoming theater highlights in this week's Fall Arts Preview in CityBeat (out Wednesday); there will also be photos from last night's CEAs in the same issue.
— Rick Pender
(Photos by Joe Lamb)