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BWW Interviews: TUTS' Geneva Cisneros Talks Tommy Tune Awards

It's almost spring, which means that high school musical theatre season has wrapped and teachers and students are focusing on UIL One Act competitions. However, the people at TUTS are getting ready for their annual high school musical theatre awards show, the extravagant Tommy Tune Awards. I recently chatted with Geneva Cisneros at TUTS about the program, getting some nice inside scoop and history behind the popular event.

Me: People get really excited about the Tommy Tune Awards. What drives up that anticipation of the annual program?

Geneva Cisneros: I think now that we're in our 11th year, a lot of it is just word of mouth or people that have seen it before. It never fails, after the two hour ABC special, I will start to get calls from schools who will say, "I'm just finding out about this, and how do we get involved." And then there are schools that have been doing it since the beginning that say, "No way do we want to miss this!" So, it kind of comes from both spectrums of people who are just hearing about it for the first time and want to be a part of it to schools that have been with us from the beginning and don't want to miss out.

Me: How did TUTS' Tommy Tune Awards get started?

Geneva Cisneros: It started with Frank Young, who is the founder of Theatre Under the Stars. He had seen some other programs like this in Pittsburgh. Casa Mañana [in Fort Worth, Texas] had one. And 5th Avenue [in Seattle, Washington]. And he really wanted to bring that to Houston. He knew that we had a huge musical theatre base in our high schools, and he wanted to make sure that they were being recognized. So it was kind of his vision all those years ago that Houston really needed a program like this.

Me: Now in its 11th year, how has the Tommy Tune Awards grown since 2002?

Geneva Cisneros: Well, our first year we had 19 schools, and we did not even have a scholarship program that year, actually. We started giving away scholarships in 2005, and we started with 5 scholarships. Now, we are a 45 school annual program. We actually limit our schools to 45, so we keep a waitlist after that of interested schools. Last year, we gave away $21,000 in scholarships.

Me: How is the judging panel selected for the Tommy Tune Awards?

Geneva Cisneros: We are looking for active people in the theatre community. A lot of it is word of mouth from judges that we already have that will recommend people to us. A couple years ago, we did send out a Star Mail looking for judges. We're always looking for judges because this program cannot run without them. So, we're just looking for people who are still active in the theatre community-working actors, arts educators at the collegiate level, we have judges that work in the workers union. Anyone who has that kind of theatre background that is willing to give up their time and talent to this program, we welcome them with open arms.

Me: As you noted, 45 schools from the Houston area were selected to participate in the 2013 Tommy Tune Awards. How do schools get chosen to participate?

Geneva Cisneros: It is strictly a first come first serve. We send an invitation to every high school in the Houston area. It's about a little over 150 schools that we mail invitations to, and it is literally just the first 45 that turn in their forms to us.

Me: The Tommy Tune Awards program includes performances by the shows nominated in the best musical category. Is the program modeled after the Tony Awards?

Geneva Cisneros: Absolutely! That was the plan in the beginning. It was to make a Houston High School Tony Awards, and so we definitely modeled it after that. We definitely loved that fact that we're giving away awards in the midst of all of these really showstopping musical numbers. And, then, we added the Best Leading Actor and [Best] Leading Actress medleys just as one more performance opportunity for the kids.

Me: Celebrity presenters are often a draw for award shows. Do any of Houston's favorite actors and actresses join in the fun and present at the Tommy Tune Awards?

Geneva Cisneros: Every now and then. We try as best as we can to get somebody who has a tie to Houston or someone who is willing to come and do this for us. Last year we were really fortunate to have Manuel Santos, who is actually a Houston native who was heavily featured on the NBC show SMASH last year. We had Kalyn Hemphill come once. She is also from Houston. She was the winning model on Project Runway her season. Bailey Hanks from the MTV show Search for the New Elle Woods. We try to find someone who will be relatable to the kids who can come and kind of get them excited about the whole night.

Me: The Tommy Tune Awards carry prestige within our city. How well known are they known outside of the greater Houston area?

Geneva Cisneros: We are actually really fortunate to be on the bottom level of the Jimmy Awards [The National High School Musical Theatre Awards], and so we are actually listed as one of their examples of "if you want to participate in the Jimmy's, does your award show look like the Tommy Tune Awards," which is really awesome and such an honor for them to single us out in that way.

I've been here doing this for maybe the last six years. And, since then, I have helped other programs in other cities get started in high school musical theatre awards like the Tommy Tune Awards. So, we're kind of out there as one of the examples of this is a good way to be, which is really great for us, especially since we modeled ours after some of the ones that have been around even longer.

Me: The Tommy Tune Awards is a founding member of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards that are celebrated annually in NYC. Tell me more about this partnership; for example, are Tommy Tune nominees and/or winners eligible to participate in this ceremony?

Geneva Cisneros: Absolutely! We have been going to the Jimmy's since the first year. We will continue to go as long as they will have us. It is such an amazing opportunity to send our lead actor and lead actress.

We were thrilled to be a part of that on the first year, and we've sent two kids every year. We have had one of our girls be one of the three finalists. We've had one of our girls win the Spirit of the Jimmy Awards, which is voted on by the students as someone who really embodies the entire musical theatre experience. So, yeah, we will participate in the Jimmy's until we can't do it anymore.

Me: The Tommy Tune Awards also offers a scholarship to graduating seniors who will be studying theatre, music, dance, arts administration or theatre/music/dance education in college. Tell me more about these prestigious awards.

Geneva Cisneros: That is actually my favorite part of the Tommy Tune Awards. It's kind of its own separate entity from all the other awards that are given that night. It is open to any student who participated in their high school musical that year. So, they didn't necessarily have to be the lead in their show. They could have been the Costume Designer, or the Lighting Designer, or they could have worked backstage, and they just have to be majoring in the arts when they go to college. So, it's a whole different set of kids that you see who apply for these scholarships, and it's becoming a significant amount of money. We actually give one scholarship called the Ruth Denney Scholarship, she was Tommy Tune's mentor, and it's a $5,000 scholarship in and of itself. So, it's really a great way for us to make sure that these kids are being recognized for the work they've done in high school and are being nurtured to continue on with this profession and hopefully take it to the next level.

Me: With 10 years of past winners, does the Tommy Tune Awards have a brag wall of previous nominees and winners performing professionally in Houston, NYC, or even London?

Geneva Cisneros: We try to keep tabs as best as we can on former winners and former Scholarship recipients, just to kind of see where they're at in their lives. [For] last year's Tenth Annual [Award Show] we were really fortunate to find our first Best Leading Actress and Best Leading Actor winners and to find out that they are still working in the community. Stephanie Gibson was our first Best Leading Actress and she had been on Broadway in THE ADDAM'S FAMILY. She was working on a TV show when she came and presented for us. And Josh Brener [from TBS' Glory Daze], our Best Leading Actor winner, was also working on a TV show. He was unable to make it, but he was really great about filming something to say hello to the kids. So, every once in a while, I go back to the high school teachers because I know the kids who really got into this kind of keep in touch with those teachers, and I ask that they give me updates on anyone that they know of and where they are now. We love to hear from kids later on and see just how much they've continued in theatre.

Tickets for the 2013 Tommy Tune Awards will go on sale on April 2, 2013. This years ceremonies will be held on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 7:30pm at The Hobby Center for Performing Arts. For more information about the Tommy Tune Awards, please visit or follow them on Facebook at

Image courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS).

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From This Author David Clarke