Celebrating Outstanding Theatrical Achievement with the Suzi Bass Awards

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When the average person thinks of theater awards, the Tony Award® most likely comes to mind. Avid theater-goers may be aware of awards such as the Helen Hayes Award or the Drama Desk Award, but for the theater community in Atlanta, the Suzi Bass Awards stand as the upper echelon of achievement. These awards have brought a greater prestige and awareness to Atlanta theater.

Named in honor for famed Atlanta actress Suzi Bass, the awards are held annually and involve a sophisticated, juried critique. Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director and Suzi winner Tom Key comments that the awards are a “serious, legitimate process.”

“I really believe that the mark of a great city is when it evolves from being a consumer of art to being a producer of art. I see that happening in Atlanta Theater,” states Key. “A critical part of that infrastructure is having an award like the Suzi Award. It shows we take the craft seriously.”

Kathleen McManus, an actress and Suzi winner adds, “I come from New Orleans, which has the Big Easy awards for its nascent, growing theater community. And other, more established theater cities across the country have similar awards, like the Helen Hayes awards in D.C. or the Joseph Jefferson awards in Chicago.” She further states, “The Suzi Bass Awards aligns us with those cities where professional theater is taken seriously and helps us say to the greater community, ‘we celebrate our achievements, too.’”

Agreeing with these sentiments, Suzi winner Jessica Phelps West comments, “I am enormously grateful for what Deadra Moore and the whole Suzi organization have done for Atlanta theater. I think it is enormous. It has increased our national recognition to have the awards.”

Honoring the Memory of Suzi Bass

As an actress and a person, Suzi Bass was highly respected. She began acting in a community theater, and after taking classes at the Alliance Theatre, she progressed to acting professionally, eventually earning her equity card. Having acted in many of Atlanta’s theaters, she not only became a leader and advocate for the theater community but also a friend and mentor to those who worked with her. To honor her memory, several in the theater community formed the Suzi Bass Awards to highlight the professional achievement she exemplified.

Throughout her career, Suzi Bass worked with many key players in Atlanta’s theater scene, but many remember most the work she did with Jessica Phelps West. “It is actually very personal to me because I was a friend of Suzi. I was able to be onstage with her, and I was also able to direct her in some of her most memorable roles,” mentions West. “To have won the Suzis that I have won have always been personal and very special because of that.”

Likewise another friend of hers, Glenn Rainey, feels that the award is a great honor to her memory. He states that he is proud that the organization honors “the memory of Suzi, who was a dear friend of mine. Good to keep that memory alive. I am very honored to receive that award.”

The Judging Process

To be considered for nominations, each participating theater must meet specific requirements, but even then, not every show becomes eligible. A committee of recommending judges, who serve for one year, evaluates each show and measures the performance against established criteria. If the show meets the criteria, it is deemed Suzi Recommended and eligible for nominations. Once a show is recommended, another set of judges attend a performance. These judges take notes to help them vote for nominations in the fall.

Anyone wanting to be a judge must apply, and when selected these judges serve for three years on either a judging panel for plays or a judging panel for musicals. After the three year period, a judge must sit out one year before serving again. “Judges are chosen based on their theater background, education, and work experience,” says John Waymire, who oversees the judging process. “Emphasis is given to sitting a diverse panel.”

As a judge, McManus, who served on the recommending panel, feels that it was an honor to serve on the panel. “I went to theaters I hadn’t had the opportunity to check out in a while and saw shows that I might not otherwise have gone to,” she states. “I became familiar with the younger talent pool and felt grateful that actors and theater artists are still moving to Atlanta to ply their crafts.”

The Honor of Winning

Atlanta Theater's Suzi Bass Awards

Suzi Bass Award winners Jessica Phelps West, Kathleen McManus and Nita Hardy pose for a picture at the 2009-2010 ceremony. Photo by Cayce Callaway

As with any award, winning creates a sense of pride, but for many in Atlanta theater, the recognition of a job-well done by peers creates a special honor for both the recipient and the theater.“I love it when the company succeeds by being honored. It’s such a great reflection on the company and the work we are doing,” states Key. He feels that the wins highlight the quality work that a theater produces. “It is important for theaters to participate,” he says.

For Key, winning the award personally is equally satisfying. “I don’t know that there’s a sweeter affirmation than getting that kind of recognition from performing,” he says. “The audience response is great and so are reviews when you can get them, but when peers say it’s a good, that is very heartening, very encouraging.”

Echoing the same sentiments, McManus acknowledges the honor of being recognized for her achievements. “I’ve been honored three times by the Suzis: twice for ensemble work (The God Committee and Big River, both at Theatrical Outfit) and once for outstanding featured actress in a musical (Grey Gardens, Actor’s Express),” she says. “Like most actors, I feel a sense of validation when I’m honored with an award, that all the hard work one has done over the years is recognized and appreciated. And it’s great fun to write an acceptance speech and then actually get to deliver it! I honored my dad and great-grandmother when I picked up my Suzi for Grey Gardens, who bequeathed to me the gift of gab and an uncanny knack for mimicry.”

The Suzi Bass Awards will be awarded in a ceremony on November 7 at the Conant Center for the Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University. For more information about the Suzi Awards, tickets to the awards ceremony, or information on becoming a judge, please visit www.suziawards.org.

By: Kenny Norton