Here comes the judge ... plus one 


Last Monday at the Veranda Bed & Breakfast Inn, trophies were handed out in the Lillie Stoates Awards, the third annual salute to local theatrical excellence. The winners -- including Jim Helsinger, named Best Actor in a Play for his lead role in the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" -- eagerly accepted their Lucite mementos.

Why not? They paid for the privilege. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, theater owners and actors alike were privately expressing dismay that the Stoates judges (20 volunteers in all) require complimentary tickets to the shows they evaluate -- and deep discounts for their dates.

Here's how the Stoates process works: Five judges attend the opening-night performance of a play whose host site has agreed to take part. (Twenty-three such outings were undertaken last year.) If three of them concur that any element of the presentation is worthy of further attention, the remaining 15 are asked to weigh in. According to awards chairman Frank Siano, between 17 and 20 judges end up seeing a typical production.

The judging panel includes actors, directors, college professors and theater technicians. Their admission is totally the venue's to fund; half-price tickets are requested for their guests. (That's Siano's story, anyway; a theater owner I spoke to recalled being hit up for gratis plus-ones.)

Either way, it's a misguided policy. It imposes a substantial financial drain on Orlando's perpetually embattled theatrical concerns, all for the sake of a tribute whose value is far less tangible than cash.

Siano sees nothing outré in the setup. His judges, he notes, review only professional works -- though their definition of that term varies on a case-by-case basis, with the main stipulation that the theater "makes an attempt to pay its performers." The Stoates procedures, he says, are modeled on the operations of awards committees in other cities, including Chicago and New York. But judging the fiscal capacity of local theater by Broadway's yardstick is like comparing an appleseed to an orange grove. (For once, we're not the oranges.)

"The theaters make the choice if they want to participate," Siano says. The choice wasn't so easy for one impresario I consulted, who was tempted by the prospect of earning one of this community's few theatrical accolades, but worried that its "prestige" (Siano's word) might not generate enough business to offset the cost.

Siano and Co. recently announced that the Dr. Phillips Foundation has agreed to match, dollar for dollar, any funds they raise by the end of this year (up to $5,000). The money will go to the Sunshine program, a Stoates initiative that will purchase theater tickets for children. It's a noble goal. Another would be to start paying for judges' seats, which isn't being considered.

"As you can imagine," Siano says, "if we have to go see 23 shows, it can be quite expensive."

It sure can. Just ask a theater owner.

Hate and marriage:

Though the Fox TV/Haxan Films hybrid "Freakylinks" ostensibly takes place in our corner of the map, last Friday's series debut had even less local color than "Making the Band." (Reportedly, the expunging of Orlando-centric details was a Fox decision that didn't mesh with the wishes of co-creator Gregg Hale.) Central Florida sensibilities, however, thrive on the program's official website, www.freakylinks.com, where diary entries by "Derek Barnes," the show's central character, laud the garage-rock chutzpah of The Hate Bombs. There's also a sound file of "Love Theme From Freakylinks," a lyrically altered version of Bombs' staple "Drag Hag."

Writes Barnes: "I've already decided that, if I ever get married, The Hate Bombs are the band I'm going to have play at my reception." In reality, Barnes' words are those of webmaster Brian Cain, whose own nuptials featured a live set by the quartet. All hail the In-Joke of the Week.

Ford parts:

Beverage magnate/patron of the arts Ford Kiene unveiled his eagerly anticipated Gallery at Avalon Island last Saturday -- sort of. Only the downstairs art space in the restored Rogers Building was open to the public, with a handful of paintings hung within its white-walled, air-conditioned parameters. Other works rested on the heart-of-pine floor, next to hammers that bespoke 12th-hour industriousness. Above, a six-monitor video array displayed DVD images of swirling, luminous shapes.

The neighboring Guinevere's coffee shop was still cordoned off, its opening delayed until Oct. 21 or so. (I was allowed to look inside; there's much to be done.)

Avalon Island's upstairs gallery -- formerly an Arthur Murray dance studio -- was also bare, awaiting a premiere that's now set for Nov. 1. The ghosts of the past thus have a few weeks to enjoy their last waltz before we corporeal types tango in.

Kids act up

One of the regular sidelights of the annual Orlando International Fringe Festival will be spun off into its own event Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 21 and 22. Titled the Science Applications Kids-Only Fringe Festival (denoting the sponsorship of Science Applications International Corporation, a research and engineering firm), the event will fill Amelia Street's Studio Theatre and Studio Theatre Courtyard with shows targeted to tots -- some staged by their peers, others by those ever-meddlesome grownups.

Also on tap are storytelling sessions, chalk art, mask-making, a costume contest and a book fair. No beer tent, we take it?

"No," laughs executive producer/artistic director Brook Hanemann. "But The Naked Guy is performing."

Not quite. Asian Sings the Blues -- the latest offering from The Oops Guys, whose full-frontal comedy, "The Naked Guy," caused controversy at last April's adult Fringe -- begins performances this Friday, Oct. 13, at the Studio Theatre and runs through Saturday, Oct. 21. To avoid overlap, the Kids-Only Fringe will end at 6 p.m.

"We wanted to get the children as far away from them as possible," Hanemann says. Oops!


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