This is why Carol Tambor is so surprised to be receiving attention from the other side of the world. She shouldn’t be, because Tambor,

too, has achieved much in terms of promoting international understanding, albeit through cultural rather than political exchange. By instigating The Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award for fringe theatre shows to get a short New York run, Tambor has opened doors for shows that might otherwise disappear.

This year’s winner, Little Gem, written by Elaine Murphy for Dublin-based theatre company Guna Nua and seen in Edinburgh at the Traverse Theatre, follows the trend of left-field choices since the award’s instigation in 2004. Following its January run, Little Gem will transfer to Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey. Which isn’t bad for a shoestring operation which debuted the play in the suburbs during the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival.

Last year’s Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award winner, Eight, played in London’s west end, and recently returned to America to

play at the Ringling International Festival in Sarasota, curated by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Eight’s author, Ella Hickson, meanwhile, has been commissioned by several theatres, including The Traverse, and was recently named as one of the major new voices in British theatre.

These are far from isolated incidents. From the off, Tambor’s idiosyncratic choices have helped build careers. The inaugural winners – a joint choice of Russell Barr’s semi-autobiographical drag bar confessional, Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters, and Mark Jenkins’ homage to Orson Welles, Rosebud – both travelled the world. Barr took his solo show to New York three times, and he is now working on a new piece for the Royal National Theatre. Rosebud too, returned to New York, while Christian McKay, who played Welles, has just portrayed the larger than life actor/director again in Richard Linklater’s film, Me and Orson Welles.

The 2005 winner, Andrew Dawson’s Absence and Presence, which also scooped a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel Award, has travelled to Zimbabwe; Goodness, which won in 2006, has recently returned from Rwanda; while in 2007, the 1927 Company’s Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea has pretty much spent the last two years touring Sri Lanka, Australia, Singapore and Korea. All of which explains the regard that the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award is now held in, but not why Tambor wanted to set it up in the first place.

“I was just so sad,” Tambor says, “that whenever I came to Edinburgh, I saw so many wonderful things, but then, once the Fringe was over, they were gone, never to be seen or heard of again. I thought then that there should be some kind of way of keeping them going. Then when I met Kent (Tambor’s partner, and president of the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation), he’s from a business background in software, and he said, well, why don’t you do something.”

The pair met with Perrier Awards founder Nica Burns, who immediately put them on to then Edinburgh Festival Fringe director Paul

Grudging, and the Carol Tambour Best of Edinburgh Awards were born. “That was in May,” Tambour says, “and the first one was to be in August. That’s how fast it happened. I’d just dreamt this thing up, and it’s been a rollercoaster ever since.”

Tambor’s initiative has picked up such steam that it’s also had an effect on the New York theatre scene as well. Which is partly why Little Gem will play, not at PS 122 as the winning companies have in previous years, but at The Flea Theatre, whose board Tambor and Lawson have recently joined.

“The PS 122 is a great space, but it leans more towards performance art, whereas The Flea mainly puts on new plays, which is more what we’re about,” Tambor points out,

This sits well with Little Gem, a series of interlocking monologues split between three generations of women, and which is chock-full of linguistic richness, poignancy and sheer human warmth. The play started life as a co-production with Dublin’s Civic Theatre, though it originally played on the outskirts of town. To get a gig at The Traverse was success enough for Murphy, a former actress. To transfer to New York followed by The Abbey, then,

is part of what she calls Carol Tambor’s award’s “massive impact” on the play’s fortunes.

“There’s been so much hype about it in the papers,” she says, “and because it came from such humble beginnings, that’s really made a difference. Big time. The great thing about the award is that they don’t go for safe or obvious options, and they’re not afraid to go for stuff that’s a bit out there.”

While there is a seasoned panel of judges on board, the award’s personality comes directly from Tambor’s unbridled passion for a type of theatre that can appear at odds with her infectiously ebullient personality. All the winners may have been different in terms of form, but each piece has some kind of darkness at its core.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “the winner has to be something that reaches out to me.”

Tambor discovered theatre at an early age, during what she describes as a “miserable childhood. I was artistic, and I don’t know where I got the money, but I would go to the theatre on my own, and my parents punished me for that.”

While Tambor’s award has put her in the spotlight, she is primarily a painter of works that, by her ready admission “create a pretty world” that is at odds with her taste for

serious theatre.

“I don’t like theatre that is sweet and frothy,” she says, using two words that sum up her own demeanour.

“There’s something about breathing the same air as actors,” she says, “and this award has brought tremendous joy into my life. All the wonderful friendships that have developed with the winners and everyone we’ve met in Edinburgh has meant that this wonderful family has developed who are far nicer than my own family. I tend to live inside my mind, and theatre is a wonderful way for me to look outside myself.”

Tambor looked a long way outside her mind recently when she visited Rwanda to see performances of Goodness, which looks at the all too recent genocide that happened in that country.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced,” Tambor says. “The Rwandan people were surprised, because they had no idea that anyone else knew what had gone on there.”

This event alone makes Tambor’s award matter. Yet, for all her girlish enthusiasm, she retains the soul of a fan surprised that anyone should be interested in her endeavours.

“I don’t have any credibility in theatre,” she is keen to point out. “I’m not a producer, we don’t hang out with theatre people, and we don’t have any commercial interest in the shows that win the award.

“But every time I sit in the auditorium and the lights go down, it’s like it’s the first time I’m watching a play all over again, and I just want them to show me something different.”

Little Gem runs at The Flea Theatre, New York, from January 5 to 16.