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The Nortons Know Excellence

The 18th annual Elliot Norton Awards honor excellence in Boston theater. logo
Elliot Norton
On June 12, the Ritz-Carlton was the site of the ceremony bestowing the 18th annual Elliot Norton Awards, honoring excellence in Boston theater. On that occasion a dozen-and-a-half winners were applauded for their signal achievements. The current enterprise, however, grew out of a most modest beginning.

In 1982, theater critic Elliot Norton retired after 48 years of writing for Boston newspapers and, concurrently, moderating Elliot Norton Reviews on WGBH-TV for 24 years. He had covered more than 6,000 productions locally and elsewhere, and in 1971 had become the only critic to receive a special Tony Award while still in journalistic harness.

During his heyday, Boston theater consisted mainly of a steady parade of productions that visited seven downtown theaters on their way from New Haven to Broadway. And Norton's views were the ones most eagerly awaited by producers and directors. As it happens, when Norton retired the Boston-tryout system was on the wane, but a fresh phenomenon was just starting with the establishment of two major resident companies: the Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University and the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) at Harvard (imported, with trepidation in some quarters, from rival Yale).

Boston impresario and theater historian William Morris Hunt II had the notion of honoring Norton's lengthy career by soliciting funds to bestow annually an Elliot Norton Medal on "an individual who made a distinguished contribution to the theater of Boston during the past theater season." The recognition took the form of a silver medallion bearing Norton's likeness, along with a check for a thousand dollars. The recipient was chosen by a committee that included Norton himself.

For some years, under Hunt's direction, the Medal was sponsored by the Boston Theatre District Association, and then by the League of Boston Theatres (both now defunct). Starting in 1983, the Medal was first presented to a series of artistic directors--Peter Altman of the Huntington, Robert Brustein of the A.R.T., and Peter Sellars, wunderkind honcho of the incipient Boston Shakespeare Company. They were followed by Gloucester-centered playwright/producer Israel Horovitz. In 1987 a performer was the honoree for the first time when the Medal was hung around the neck of actress Sandra Shipley. The next year actor Sir Ian McKellen was honored for the run of his Acting Shakespeare at the Charles Playhouse.

The 1989 Medal went to a director for the first time when Jacques Cartier won for his staging of Molière's Don Juan at the Huntington. On the same occasion the selection committee first hinted at an expansion of the guidelines by announcing three commendations: to young local actor Michael Goodson, who had recently died after doing distinguished work at the now-disbanded New Ehrlich Theatre; to New York actress Ruth Maleczech, for four separate appearances in Boston during the year; and to Peter Sellars' successor Tina Packer, who had directed a shattering production of Frank McGuinness' award-winning Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Boston College.

In 1990 the committee decided to take the full plunge by supplementing the Medal with formal honors to an outstanding Boston actress and an outstanding Boston actor--in any venue. These were $500 prizes originally named (at Norton's suggestion) for historic Boston-born luminaries, actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-76) and actor Otis Skinner (1858-1942). Thus the enterprise became truly plural: the Elliot Norton Awards, comprising a Norton Medal, a Cushman Prize, and a Skinner Prize. That year the Medal went to actor Robert Morse for his uncanny portrayal of Truman Capote in Tru, a performance that would shortly also bring him a Tony Award. The first Cushman Prize went to Dossy Peabody, and the first Skinner Prize to Jeremiah Kissel--both of whom, fortunately, are still active locally.
At this point the Norton Awards acquired legal non-profit status as a corporation, and for three years enjoyed the energetic presidency of Spring Sirkin, head of Chamber Theatre Productions. It was she who in 1991 started the practice of having a Guest of Honor join the ceremony and receive an Achievement Award. This roster began with the celebrated Helen Hayes, who has since been followed by playwright August Wilson, performers Kitty Carlisle Hart, Stockard Channing, Irene Worth, Uta Hagen, Zoe Caldwell, Richard Thomas, and playwright Paula Vogel. The 1991 Medal went to actress Julie Harris, the Cushman Prize to Christine Estabrook (for six roles at the A.R.T.), and the Skinner Prize to Jonathan Epstein.

The year 1992 marked the tenth year of the enterprise. To mark the occasion, two special awards were added: a Lifetime Achievement Award to actor Jason Robards, and a Tenth Anniversary Award to dancer/director Tommy Tune. The Medal went to A.R.T. resident director David Wheeler, the Cushman Prize to the late Frances West, and the Skinner Prize to A.R.T. senior actor Jeremy Geidt. A new permanent recognition of directing also began that year, named for Henry Jewett (1861-1930), and bestowed on Tina Packer.

The 1993 gala ceremony and banquet doubled as a celebration of Elliot Norton's 90th birthday. His longtime dear friend Kitty Carlisle was Guest of Honor. A Creative Achievement Award went to playwright Terrence McNally, and a Lifetime Achievement Award to actress Claire Bloom. The Medal went to actress Lynn Redgrave in recognition of Shakespeare for My Father, which she performed in Symphony Hall (and which later brought her a Tony nomination). The Cushman Prize went to M. Lynda Robinson, the Skinner Prize to Munson Hicks, and the Jewett Prize to Joann Green. A new honor, named for Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954), was introduced for outstanding design; the first recipients were the team of Helen Pond and Herbert Senn.

A crisis arose early in 1994 when Elliot Norton stated, "I feel we should close the event down. The Awards helped the theater in Boston considerably. But my illness and that of my wife make me feel that now is the time to call it all off." The other members of the committee were stunned, and soon agreed that they were willing to carry on without Norton's personal participation. Norton reconsidered, and expressed his hope that "you will not let the whole thing drop." Norton and the other legal officers of the corporation all resigned, and turned their places over to the selection committee, which was reconstituted as the Boston Theater Critics Association (with myself as president), under whose aegis the Norton Awards would continue.

We introduced several important changes at that time. We decided to supplement the awards in acting, directing, and design with three new awards for overall productions--by a visiting troupe, by a large resident company, and by a small resident company. It was obvious that the increasing local activity by modest organizations with limited finances could yield excellence without having to be judged on the scale of the Huntington and the A.R.T. with their multimillion-dollar budgets. In addition, we agreed that all the awards would be based on achievements made during a 12-month period extending from April 1 through March 31.

With the increase in the number of awards, it was clear that a non-profit organization like ours could no longer afford to give out silver medallions and sizeable checks, which therefore bowed to nicely framed certificates. Furthermore, having restricted the eligibility period, we decided to do just the opposite with the Norton Medal: It would now become the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence. At the same time, I was outvoted in my desire to continue naming awards for historical giants (Cushman, Skinner, Jewett, Jones). So we adopted the practice simply of designating the achievements in the several categories as "outstanding." Unlike some other award-giving bodies, we have always--because many factors go into evaluating achievements--scrupulously avoided using the word "best."

Under the revised 1994 guidelines, the first award for a visiting production went to the Royal National Theatre's mounting of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III. Winning for a large resident company was the A.R.T.'s double-barreled staging of Shakespeare's Henry IV. The small-resident honor went to the Nora Theatre Company's production of Miller's Death of a Salesman, which also won for its director, Eric Engel. The Outstanding Actress was Sandra Shipley (her second win) for roles at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre and the Gloucester Stage Company. The Outstanding Actor was Diego Arciniegas, for two roles at the Merrimack.
The first winner of the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence was actor Thomas Derrah, who had for a dozen years demonstrated astonishingly chameleonic versatility at the A.R.T. (as he has continued to do since). In subsequent years, the Sustained Excellence honor has gone to Cherry Jones, Alvin Epstein, Christopher Plummer, Julie Taymor, and Andrei Serban. Though unable to attend the 1994 ceremony, Norton sent a message to the winners: "You have won your honors by dedicated work and by special skills. In so doing you have brought honor to the Boston theater community, to which we are all devoted."

It would be tedious to list all the winners up to the present (they may be easily found in the back of Otis Guernsey's annual Best Plays volume). But some further comment is warranted. For some years the selection committee consisted of five critics. This gradually increased to a maximum of ten, including representatives from television and radio in addition to those from the regular print media. The committee has taken notice of the welcome proliferation, in recent years, of tiny troupes--tiny, that is, in their budgets, though not in their vitality. According to the latest StageSource Guide, there are more than 60 local theater companies, though not all are active. Thus, borrowing a term from London, we began in 1996 honoring an Outstanding Fringe Production, the first winner being the SpeakEasy Stage Company's mounting of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey.

Unlike the rules-encumbered, commerce-driven Tony Awards and the excessively freewheeling Obie Awards in New York, we have consciously sought to embrace both flexibility and moderation--adding, subtracting, and withholding awards as seems fitting. Several times we have honored a script in its local premiere: Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play, August Wilson's Seven Guitars, Sir Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Anthony Clarvoe's Ambition Facing West, and Don De Lillo's Valparaiso. On occasion we have honored a solo performance: Spalding Gray, Anna Deavere Smith, Melinda Lopez. Last year we presented an award for Outstanding Musical Revival to the North Shore Music Theatre for its production of Hair.

In recent years the number of awards has totaled 16 or 17. But we have no intention of diluting their impact by emulating such counterparts as Chicago's annual Joseph Jefferson Awards, which can make some 50 Equity and 30 non-Equity awards, or New York's Drama League, which has just belaureled 54 actors from the current season. As the Grand Inquisitor sings in Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers, "When every one is somebodee,/Then no one's anybody."

From time to time we have, in addition to the regular awards, presented a Special Citation or two for achievements outside the normal parameters. Recipients have included the Trinidad Theater Workshop, for bringing Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain to Boston; John Langstaff, for 25 years as head of the Revels; the Trinity Repertory Company, for the excellence of its acting ensemble; the Berkshires-sited Shakespeare & Company; the late Paul Schmidt, for his stage translations from several foreign tongues; and two local fringe troupes--the Súgán Theatre Company and Theater Offensive--for the accumulated record in their specialized realms.

Although Elliot Norton attends few shows these days, he stays well informed, and believes that the Norton Awards are a vital factor in "keeping alive the idea of Boston as a theater city of distinction." He says, "I regret more than I can say that I am no longer able to help, but nature is inexorable." Still, he has been able to attend the awards ceremony in recent years, and, at 97, was on hand again this year.

It looks as though the Norton Awards will safely continue to flourish in the company of the Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia, the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, and similar entities elsewhere. As Norton says, our endeavors here "are doing much to remind Bostonians and others that the theater of Boston, while it has changed, is not moribund, but lively and exciting."

Outstanding Visiting Production
Wit, Wilbur Theatre

Outstanding Production by a Large Resident Company
Mary Stuart, Huntington Theatre Company

Outstanding Production by a Small Resident Company
The Old Settler, Lyric Stage Company

Outstanding Production by a Local Fringe Company
St. Nicholas, the Súgán Theater

Outstanding Solo Performance
John Kuntz, Starfuckers


Outstanding Director, Large Company
Robert Woodruff, Full Circle, A.R.T.

Outstanding Director, Small Company
Rick Lombardo, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, New Repertory Theatre

Outstanding Designer
Howard Jones, Cloud Tectonics, Merrimack Rep


Outstanding Actress, Large Company
Judith Light, Wit

Outstanding Actress, Small Company
Jacqui Parker, Old Settler

Outstanding Actor, Large Company
Will Lebow, Full Circle, A.R.T.

Outstanding Actor, Small Company
Richard McElvain, St. Nicholas, the Súgán Theater

Outstanding Musical Performance
Bridget Beirne, Violet, SpeakEasy Theatre


Special Citations
Arts Boston
The Boston Theatre Marathon


Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence
Michael Maso, managing director at Huntington Theatre
Robert J. Orchard, managing director at A.R.T.

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