Breaking News: Maltz Theatre Withdraws From Carbonells

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre has long displayed some of its  Carbonell Awards in a glass case in its lobby.

Full disclosure: The reporter on this story has striven to cover this with the same objectivity, fairness and balance that he pursued in his career with newspapers and magazines covering government, crime and fraud. That said, it is crucial to acknowledge that he has been connected to the Carbonell Awards since 1998 as a nominator, judge and briefly as a fill-in administrator. He is currently a judge. This story has been edited and reviewed for fairness by multiple people.

UPDATED 7:22 p.m.

By Bill Hirschman

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre, one of the state’s most artistically and fiscally successful companies, has withdrawn its upcoming shows from consideration for Carbonell Awards for the coming season, Carbonell leaders confirmed.

The Carbonell board of directors agreed by email Wednesday to the written request from the Maltz that was received Tuesday, said Donald R. Walters, board president. The board interpreted from the brief letter that the company did not wish its past productions from calendar year 2019 to be considered.

Walters said, “We reluctantly agreed to do so…. We hope that at some time in the future they come back. But regardless, we hope they have continued artistic and financial success. They are a part of our community.”

The specific reasons for the Maltz’s request were not available Thursday because Walters said the letter did not state them. Extensive repeated attempts to reach several Maltz officials Thursday morning and afternoon were unsuccessful. Producing Artistic Director and CEO Andrew Kato was out of the country on vacation, although he was sent two email requests. Board chairman Scott Seeley, also out of town, did not respond to two messages that his office passed on to him. Spokeswoman Linnea Bailey said she had been told the response would be “no comment.”

But Walters said Kato met with two board members, the Carbonell managing director and others in May or June to outline concerns. Notes from that “very long” meeting indicated “they raised the same issues that many theater companies raised over the last 43 years: lack of transparency, favoritism….,” Walters said.

In recent years Maltz leaders have made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the Carbonells. They have frequently cited the absence of nominations for specific work at the Maltz, awards bestowed to works that Maltz leaders felt were not competitive with the Maltz’s offerings, a bias against the company’s advantage in having big budget productions, and favoritism among the nominators and judges.

Walters said the board has instituted several reforms and programmatic changes in response to theaters’ concerns, such as liberalizing eligibility based on the number of performance and weekends so that some additional productions would be considered.

As far as transparency, Walters pointed to annual town hall meetings the board has held with invitations to every participating theater. Turnout at the event where concerns can be aired has been variable.

Regarding the apparent delay in the board discussing issues in September, months after Kato’s spring meeting, Walters said the board did not meet often during the summer and had to cancel a meeting during that time.

He said that the nominators and judges have great integrity and would not let any personal relationship with potential nominees sway their judgment. But if there has been a serious question of a conflict or perceived conflict, nominators have not been assigned to a specific show and judges recuse themselves from voting if they are deemed to have a conflict.

Does the absence of a major theater dilute the standing of the award? Walters responded, “I think that the awards are not tarnished by any one theater leaving.  I think there are some performances that we weren’t able to honor in the past because their shows did not qualify” such as Spanish-language productions and community theater shows.

Further, the award is focused on recognizing excellence. “We have never said this is the best performance bar none in the region. It’s a subjective program; it’s not science. Is it perfect? Perfection is impossible, and the board has always had an open ear and an open mind to” changes.

Andie Arthur, executive director of the South Florida Theatre League, supports that the Carbonells are a welcome part of the community, “but it’s not the whole community. Like there are great shows that are not eligible like Juggerknot” Theatre Company, which has produced the Miami Motel series on a unique schedule.

Arthur, who noted similar controversies over the Jefferson Awards in Chicago where she previously worked, said part of the situation is that different people see different rationales for the award. One should be simply “a celebration of what happened that year.” But she added that she respects Kato as someone who has proven a reputation for careful and deliberate decision-making

The awards program founded in 1975 presents 20 awards recognizing excellence in South Florida professional theater over a calendar year, gives special awards for service to the community, and funds scholarships to high school students interested in the arts and/or journalism. All are presented at a gala ceremony each spring.

The South Florida theater community has always had a love-hate relationship with the program – similar to the feeling artists have about all competitions including the Tony AwardsOn rare occasions, some theaters have asked that a specific show not be considered for a Carbonell because the company didn’t think it was worthy.

City Theatre asked last spring that that their short play festivals be withdrawn going forward. Artistic Director Margaret Ledford said Thursday, “My feeling is that the lack of diversity of the panelists reflects a lack of diversity in nominations and wins, and not only goes across color and cultural spectrums, but also across genres.”

She cited as an example the lack of nominations for acclaimed costume designer Ellis Tillman over eight seasons.

But the Maltz’s action appears to be the first time a theater has withdrawn its entire season.

Further, the Maltz is one of the most prestigious theater producers in the state, lauded by critics and patrons for reliably delivering lush and polished productions of mostly mainstream titles. Opened in 2004 on the physical site of the defunct Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater, the Maltz has grown steadily through fund-raising, building expansions, children’s conservatory programs and a famously efficient if small staff. It boasts one of the largest subscription bases among non-profit regional theaters in the country at 8,560 accounts and an annual operating budget estimated at between $7.5 and $8 million, according to IRS records. It is currently in the middle of a multi-million capital campaign to expand its conservatory, add a black box theater and other items.

The company’s productions have resulted in numerous Carbonells from 2005 to 2018, according to figures from the program: 206 nominations (sometimes multiple nods in the same category in the same year) and 47 wins for an overall 23 percent win-loss record. It has brought home six awards for best musical, one for best play.

Taken out of consideration by the Maltz request are the upcoming Dracula: A Comedy of Terror, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chicago, Brighton Beach Memoirs and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. But the board’s move takes out of consideration for the 2019 awards shows that have already been produced and seen by the judges: West Side Story, A Doll’s House Part II and Mamma Mia.

Walters noted, “I think the people who suffer are the actors and designers who do such fantastic work at the theater. They do wonderful work and they deserve to be recognized, (but the Maltz leaders) they have their reasons.”

The Relationships

The theater community’s feelings about the awards and the program itself has been complex.

Theaters frequently tout their nominations and wins in news releases, emails to subscribers, advertisements and in grant applications. Actors, even those hired from out of town, cite them in their resumes; some list them in their bios in Playbills when they appear on Broadway. Indeed, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has long displayed some of their statues in a glass case in their lobby.

But many artists decry the very idea of competition in the arts. Among other concerns is that other than the musicals-play division in categories, often radically different companies and productions in style, intent and resources are competing against each other. Most say they do the work for its own sake, not awards.

Another concern is that a theater must give at least one free ticket to the initial panel of six nominators and 10 to 12 judges. That costs a good deal of money from the bottom line and takes up seats in small houses that might otherwise be filled in a popular run.

A look at newspaper articles documents that yin and yang. In 2002, the program’s co-founder and administrator Jack Zink wrote in the Sun-Sentinel, “The Carbonell Awards’ history and evolution from a strictly-critics honor has resulted in a particularly intense love-hate relationship with the professional regional theaters involved. Surveys indicate that performers, designers and other creative individuals are mostly satisfied with the format. But theater managements go through powerful bouts of angst over the recognition (or lack of it) accompanying the annual rites of nomination, winning and losing. Support tends to ebb and flow in direct proportion to each year’s nomination slate.”

In 2008, news accounts noted theater professionals were complaining about a flawed nominating process and the quality of judges.

In the wake of Zink’s death, the board voted in 2008 to cancel the judging for 2009 productions, but an outcry from the theater community persuaded them to rescind their decision.

The History

The Carbonells were founded in 1975 by South Florida Entertainment Writers Association led by Sun-Sentinel critic Zink. Their creation predated local award programs in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.  Only Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles have older theater and arts awards. For 27 years, the awards were decided by local critics, later joining forces with the Theatre League of South Florida. Initially, road shows were given awards, but that practice was phased out.

But when the growing number of theaters spread across a 100-mile stretch became unwieldy and the corporate tasks too difficult for volunteer critics, the organization was turned over in 2002 to a group of theater executives and a few critics. Zink continued to serve as its administrator until his death in 2008. At that point, Karen Caruso, philanthropist Jay Harris and publicist Savannah Whaley reorganized the program including deciphering financial records. Critics continued to serve as nominators and judges, but there has not been a critic or retired theater professional as a voting member of the board in many years. Most members represent a presenting venue, a county cultural department, contribute cash or raise contributions.

Some observers have expressed concern that three of the board members represent the major presenting houses in the region, which in recent years have become co-producers with resident professional companies: the Broward Center with Slow Burn Theatre Company, MNM Theatre Company at the Kravis and Zoetic Stage at  the Arsht Center. But the board has no direct involvement in the recommendation process of nominations nor the voting of the judges.

The Current Process

The current process begins with the board and its managing director Mary Damiano recruiting and appointing two groups. One known variously as panelists, nominators or recommenders are chosen from a group of about 27 unpaid volunteers. Six of them at a time are assigned to about 100 eligible shows a year produced at about 25 professional theaters. Most of those people have extensive experience in the field but are retired, are educators or have been a veteran patron. Anyone with a perceived conflict of interest are not assigned to a production.

They look at each production through the criteria of the 20 award categories. If four of them agree that work is nomination worthy in at least one category, the show is recommended for further judging. If three panelists agree on two categories, the work is recommended. A majority of eligible shows end up being recommended.

Those recommended shows are assigned to the entire judging panel of 10 to 12 volunteers who do not know what categories the nominators favored. The judges are critics, former active artists and longtime arts patrons. Again, none have conflicts of interest, or they recuse themselves. They must see at least 90 percent of the recommended shows.

That group suggests an unlimited number of nominees from the shows they saw. That collated lengthy list is brought into an annual in-person meeting. A lengthy discussion is held on each category and suggested nominees. A public vote is then taken and the five top vote-getters become the finalists for the award. A judge cannot vote on a category if they have not seen all the shows nominated. On rare occasions when a tie cannot be broken there may be six finalists.

Then a secret mail-in ballot is held. The votes are tabulated independently by several people including Damiano and cross-checked. The judges do not know the results until they are announced at the ceremony.

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