Where There Are Awards, Come Rewards

Once, a trio of sages came to a community bearing gifts. Their goal was to provide protection and support for an important entity. While they may not possess any gold, frankincense, or myrrh, these theatrical magi are now blessing the Off-Off-Broadway community. Jason Bowcutt, Shay Gines, and Nick Micozzi, three performers who have spent a healthy portion of their lives both on- and backstage, originally united to bring greater recognition to the world of affordable theater and to expand its base of support.

In just three short years, their New York Innovative Theater Awards have amassed a surprising level of support. This year's ceremony, Sept. 24 at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Haft Auditorium, is guaranteed to be a standing-room-only event, with celebrity presenters.

The origins of the IT Awards had less to do with award recognition than with bridging the gaps between the many performers in the Off-Off-Broadway world. "I wanted a way to get the community together and get more coverage for their shows," Gines says. She points out that many actors were so busy focusing on what they were doing that they remained unaware of what other shows were being mounted around them. "I wanted to use the awards to shed light on Off-Off-Broadway, she says.

"I knew that I couldn't do this myself," Gines continues, "and I had no doubt that [Bowcutt] and [Micozzi] were the two people to help." They both agreed with the IT Awards mission statement--"to honor the history of Off-Off-Broadway and the world that surrounds it"--and the three began putting ideas together in 2002.

Bowcutt, Gines and Micozzi are very much a team, communicating all day and meeting at least once a week. According to Gines, "The three of us complement each other, even by arguing, because we find flaws and hone the system." She says much of the first year involved setting tight deadlines and adhering to them. The three constantly listen to feedback from others and continue to work out any kinks in the system, whether it's updating the IT Web site or adding eligible shows. During the second year, for instance, shows in Queens became eligible. "There are constant changes, and they're organic," Micozzi says. "Just like Off-Off-Broadway itself."

Award recipients and nominees come from a judging formula that the three concocted with the help of focus groups made up of friends and other members of the Off-Off-Broadway community. Several appointed judges as well as audience members can vote for every show that registers for consideration. "Including the audience was key," says Gines. "We wanted to get them invested and to have an important role."

After a June 2004 launch party, they started adjudication during the 2004-05 Off-Off-Broadway season for Manhattan shows. The first awards ceremony in 2005 took place at the Lucille Lortel Theater, which seats about 300. As a testament to the growing support for the IT Awards, this year's ceremony location seats 780. As in past years, some will probably be turned away at the door. Furthermore, each year has seen the number of shows submitted for consideration double.

Since the IT Awards are not funded, the organization thrives largely on donations from benefactors, and Micozzi is quick to credit their staff and their "extremely generous volunteers for their help. They are doing it out of support for our idea and goals. I'm still amazed how much they give and how dedicated they are." Gines agrees, adding that one day she hopes to see the IT Awards develop into a foundation, with paid positions for staff.

All three acknowledge that there have been slight bumps along the way. Micozzi says that, much like the New York International Fringe Festival, the IT Awards encounter a kind of snobbery from those who remain dismissive of the Off-Off-Broadway scene. Bowcutt remembered one person who said an awards show was a mistake. "He said it would ruin Off-Off-Broadway. And then he submitted his show the following year."

Nonetheless, Bowcutt, Gines, and Micozzi agree that competition is not what the IT Awards are about, and they point to their three annual honorary awards. The 2007 Artistic Achievement Award, presented to an individual who has made a significant artistic contribution to the Off-Off-Broadway community, will go to Doric Wilson, one of the first resident playwrights at Caffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. According to playwright Robert Patrick, Wilson "established the Cino as a venue for new plays and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off Broadway." Wilson became a pioneer of the alternative-theater movement and later was a founding member of Circle Repertory Theater and the TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) Theater Company and the more recently formed TOSOS II.

There also is a Caffe Cino Fellowship Award, presented to an Off-Off-Broadway company that consistently produces outstanding work. The award includes a fellowship to be used for an Off-Off-Broadway production. This year's recipient is the Rising Phoenix Repertory, founded in 1999 by Artistic Director Daniel Talbott. Rising Phoenix Rep produces an ongoing reading series of new plays, workshops, and festivals. Festivals include Summer Lovin', seven new short plays by members of the MCC Playwrights' Coalition; Detour Days, a week of works in progress; the Brooklyn Plays, nine short plays focused on a single borough; and ClipLight, eight days of workshops, panel discussions, readings, and classes.

Recent productions have included What Happened When at HERE Arts Center; Fall Forward at the Sitelines Festival produced by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; The Telling Trilogy (including The Ride, a 2006 IT Award nominee for Outstanding Original Short Script); Rules of the Universe (a 2007 IT Award Nominee for Outstanding Original Short Script, Director, Actor in a Leading Role, and Production of a Play); Three Sisters, at the Seventh Street Small Stage at Jimmy's No. 43; and Gift, produced as part of the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. Rising Phoenix Rep serves as a home base for a company of theater professionals that encourages an open exchange of work and ideas within the greater theater community.

The third award is the Stewardship Award, for an individual or organization demonstrating a significant contribution to the Off-Off-Broadway community through service. The 2007 winner is Alliance of Resident Theaters/New York, the support organization for over 375 of New York City's not-for-profit theaters. Each year it awards more than $350,000 in cash grants to theaters throughout the city; provides more than 200 technical-assistance workshops, roundtables, and consultations; makes more than $500,000 in cash flow and real estate loans; and provides low-cost office space to 45 companies in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"On behalf of A.R.T./New York's chairman, Peter Cross, our president, Robert LuPone, and the entire staff, board and our 380-plus member theaters, I want to thank the New York Innovative Theater Awards Committee for honoring us with the Stewardship Award, says Virginia P. Louloudes, executive director. "To receive this acknowledgement during our 35th anniversary season, from this inspiring community that we serve, fills me with tremendous pride."

Regardless of the IT Awards's expanding reach, the organizers are not ones to rest on their laurels. As it becomes feasible, they would like to include the other boroughs for consideration, and they still debate additional categories.

"I want to add an Outstanding Stage Manager category, because they're the unsung hero" of any production, Gines says. "But we don't know how to judge that." After a chuckle, she adds, "Maybe we should set a deadline."

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