The ninth annual Abby Awards, to be held Oct. 14 at Oglethorpe University's Conant Performing Arts Center, will be the last of that award ceremony as we know it.
The fact that the mass of Atlantans don't know what the Abbys are indicates the need for an overhaul. The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's Business Council for the Arts founded the Abbys in 1994 for such noble goals as to promote excellence and encourage relationships between the business and artistic communities.
But the Abbys have fallen conspicuously short of becoming an Atlanta "buzz event." The equivalent honors in other big cities, like the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, are hot-ticket affairs, filling massive theater halls and putting exciting capstones on the arts season.
"The awards show has done great things as far as saluting corporate support and certain individuals, but has never lived up to the promise of what it may be," says Sean Daniels, artistic director of Dad's Garage and producer of the Abbys this year and in 2000.
The Chamber of Commerce not only has hired Daniels to produce the Abbys but to lead a revamp for the 2003 awards. To develop a plan for next year (as well as select this year's winners), he has assembled a panel of judges entirely new to the Abbys, drawing from the artistic, business and critical community, including the Alliance Theatre's Susan V. Booth, the National Black Arts Festival's Stephanie Hughley and (in the interest of full disclosure) me.
As an event, the Abbys currently combines a black-tie testimonial gathering with a Gen-X approach to ironic glitz. This year's Abbys has a Vegas theme and is emceed by Frank Sinatra (looking suspiciously like Atlanta actor David Silverman) and his sidekick puppet Sid Pimento, "the original member of the Rat Pack."
The nine awards of 2002 are the same as in prior years, featuring such vague categories as "Best Artist" and "Best Arts Professional," along with less sexy but equally important honors for volunteers and corporate sponsors. Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta gets the lifetime achievement award for arts leadership, while Ann Cramer of IBM gets the like prize for business leadership. (The full list of Abby nominees can be seen at www.myarts connection.com.)
Already the Abbys have learned from a few past mistakes. Daniels recalls that the 1999 awards announced the winners in advance, and thus few of the other nominees bothered to show up. To encourage attendance among the cash-strapped creative types, this year ticket prices for artists have been cut from $50 to $10.
But the aspirations for future awards are more broad. In addition to changing category names, more disciplines will be included, particularly the visual arts, as a means of expanding the Abbys' audience.
The Abby panel discussions have raised a chicken-and-the-egg question about the purpose of awards shows themselves. Does a smartly selected, slickly produced show generate, on its own merit, excitement about the arts community? Or does it simply reflect the passion that already exists in the city? The Abbys of the past have confirmed that it's much harder to attract new audiences than to play to the choir.
A different Atlanta honor -- albeit not in the form of a fancy statuette that can be placed on the mantle -- is CL's "Best of Atlanta" awards, with the 2002 winners being announced Oct. 16. The Readers' Picks are democratically chosen, inspiring get-out-the-vote drives from ambitious organizations, some of which show considerable ingenuity.
Peachtree Playhouse placed an ad in CL in the spirit of the "For Your Consideration" notices that movie studios use to attract the attention of Academy Awards voters. Dad's Garage applied a similar lobbying effort via e-mail to try and win "Thing You Would Defend Against Sherman's Attack." Have their efforts paid off? Pick up next week's issue to find out.
On the air
"Arts in Atlanta," a new program airing biweekly on the Public Access channel 26 in DeKalb County, considers the local culture scene every other Saturday at 8 p.m. The Oct. 19 program includes a 10-minute segment "Talkin' Atlanta Theatre," featuring yours truly.
I point this out not just in the interest of shameless self-promotion, but as a sign of how rare it is that local television covers theater and fine arts. Apart from public access channels, Atlanta's local TV stations will acknowledge big events, like Elton John's involvement with Elaborate Lives at the Alliance, but generally behave as if theater does not exist.
Certainly theater has a much smaller audience than, for instance, Braves baseball. But if TV news channels will devote time to national films or even Atlantans lined up for the new Harry Potter book or movie, why not pay attention to talented, hard-working artists who actually live here and genuinely enrich our community?
And even a little TV coverage, like an Abby Award or a Best of Atlanta citation, can give credit where credit is due.
Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.