Saturday, June 12, 2010
Trinity Rep to give Pell Awards to Liza Minnelli, Bert Crenca and George Wein
PROVIDENCE — There was a time, not that long ago, when Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus dreaded what he calls “benefity things” — so-called “gala” events where the bland food and even blander speeches combined to put him in a near-catatonic state.
Then, in 2006, Columbus had an epiphany.
Presiding over his first-ever Pell Awards, the annual awards ceremony and Trinity fundraiser that has honored such luminaries as actor Jason Robards, novelist Toni Morrison and opera star Beverly Sills, Columbus realized that gala events didn’t have to be dull, drawn-out affairs. They actually could be entertaining, even fun.
“It was just a great, great night,” he says. “Of course, that’s what you’d expect to hear from someone in my position. But, honestly, it was an amazing party.”
No doubt this year’s Pell Awards will offer more of the same. Headlined by Liza Minnelli, who’s receiving the 2010 Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the annual dinner and awards ceremony takes place Saturday at the historic Foundry complex on Promenade Street.
Minnelli, whose already lengthy list of honors includes an Oscar (for “Cabaret”), an Emmy and three Tony Awards, will be joined by two local arts pioneers: jazz impresario George Wein, who will receive a Pell Award for Outstanding Leadership in the Arts, and AS220 artistic director Bert Crenca, who will receive the 2010 Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts.
“It’s a terrific group,” says Columbus, who’s one of several Trinity staffers and board members who serve on the committee that selects the award winners.
“Bert, of course, is an amazing person — not just for the incredible things he’s done at AS220, but also in his own work as an artist and musician. George, meanwhile, has been hugely influential in the music world, not just as the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival but also as a supporter of younger musicians. And Liza — what can you say that hasn’t already been said?”
At the same time, Columbus readily concedes that this year’s Pell Awards will have hard time matching the emotional intensity of the 2009 ceremony.
Rather than serving up the usual mix of lightweight jokes and anecdotes, last year’s Lifetime Achievement winner — actor Kevin Spacey — used his acceptance speech to offer a rousing defense of the arts and arts education in the 21st century. Columbus says the speech electrified the audience of more than 400.
“By the time Kevin was done speaking, people were literally standing on their chairs and cheering. It was amazing.”
Last year’s ceremony also honored former Senator Claiborne Pell, who died in January 2009. As a tribute to Pell, Trinity moved the event from its longtime home at the Rhode Island Convention Center to Pelican Ledge, Pell’s family estate in Newport.
Columbus says the move presented some unusual logistical challenges — “We never had to worry about rain at the Convention Center,” he quips — but the ceremony eventually went off without a hitch.
Then again, even Mother Nature might think twice before messing with the Pell Awards.
First held in 1997, the awards ceremony has become one of the biggest events on the Ocean State social calendar — a heady mix of star power and artistic achievement that regularly attracts movers and shakers from the worlds of business, politics and arts. The awards’ Lifetime Achievement category, in particular, boasts a glittering array of winners, ranging from theater legends like Arthur Miller and Stephen Sondheim to writers (Morrison, John Updike), actors (Robert Redford) and artists (Maurice Sendak). Local award winners have included painter Bunny Harvey, poet Michael Harper and singer-actress Rose Weaver.
With ticket prices starting at $500 per person, the awards are also a major revenue source for Trinity, which uses the money to support a variety of education and outreach programs. (Last year’s ceremony netted more than $300,000, according to theater officials)
“Obviously, it’s a huge event for us,” says Columbus, who’s presiding over his fourth Pell Awards since arriving from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2006.
“A lot of it goes to Project Discovery [an award-winning program that offers performances and workshops for Rhode Island school children]. Some of it goes toward new work — for example, a new play we’re developing based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe.”
The selection process, meanwhile, is handled by a 10-member committee consisting of Columbus, Trinity executive director Michael Gennaro and members of Trinity’s board of directors.
“Basically, we’re looking at three things — three criteria,” Columbus explains. “One, obviously is artistic excellence. Another is how much someone has contributed to the advancement or betterment of their field. And finally, we look at an individual’s contribution to their community, whether that community is here in Rhode Island or the larger global community.”
Though all three criteria are important, Columbus says he tends to focus more on the last one: contribution to community. For example, while he’s a longtime fan of Minnelli’s stage and screen career, Columbus is equally impressed with her commitment to social and philanthropic causes, including her involvement in the American Foundation for AIDS Research, known as amfAR.
“I don’t think people realize how active she is in areas like AIDS research and children’s health,” says Columbus. “When you look at what she’s done off the stage, it’s just as impressive as what she’s done in her acting and performing career.”
Partly to honor Minnelli — and partly because he can’t resist a good song — Columbus and his staff have been working on a program that includes some song and dance numbers, as well as the usual introductions and acceptance speeches.
“One thing I can say for sure, it won’t be a dull evening,” he says.
The 14th annual Pell Awards Gala takes place Saturday, June 19 at the Foundry in Providence. For more information, call (401) 453-9237 or visit www.trinityrep.com