Carbonell Reboot Meet Favors Celebration Not Competition

By Bill Hirschman

A celebration not a competition.

The prevailing message from arts professionals and supporters Monday sought a seismic change in the prevailing philosophy of the Carbonell Awards that recognize excellence in South Florida theater.

The planned re-examination of the nuts and bolts of the current awards process at a cyber-conference quickly turned into a broader questioning of the overall purpose and whether a need existed to radically rethink the structure and paradigm.

Awards judge David Jobin turned the corner by saying, “I think we’re just trimming around the edges instead of having a bigger conversation about what are the intended outcomes of the Carbonells and how do we best achieve them.”

“I think this was a model that was created years ago for a theater community that was a certain size and a certain scale and a certain scope and I don’t know it really fits what we are now. I think we should start with a larger aerial view of what we want to accomplish,” he said.

By the end of the 75-minute meeting of 41 artistic directors, artists, judges, nominators and most of the board of directors who mostly listened, an unofficial consensus indicated that the board may discuss reimagining the planned series of public meetings on specific facets of the current process.

Instead, the board’s meeting in two weeks and the next public meeting on Feb. 8 may focus more on discussing the group’s goals in a mission statement, indicated organizer Gary Schweikhart and moderator Jeff Kiltie.

The board created the sessions in the wake of growing complaints that crested last August from theater professionals who have always had a love-hate relationship with the awards.

Complaints and perceptions included a flawed process, a lack of diversity among winners and judges, accusations of bias favoring some companies among some judges and nominators, perceptions that the board was unreceptive to concerns and lacked transparency, and the inequitable competition between small companies and large ones, comedies and dramas, and other facets.

Four companies had withdrawn their work from future consideration, another withdrew one production. At least two others are considering pulling out.

While participants praised the 44-year-old program’s desire to recognize and encourage excellence in South Florida theater – some even appreciated the worth of and inherent problems in all competitive awards – the thrust of most comments was that the competition had created more divisiveness than good.

In its place, participants suggested a more in-house celebration absent “best of” the season awards. Among the alternative ideas brainstormed:
* A simple get-together for social and bonding purposes
* Pairing large and small theaters, and each choosing the work of the other to highlight at a gala
* A gala in which companies simply performing work they have been proud of from the past year
* Combining a party with workshops earlier in the day
* An annual program that highlights the work by a single company, especially smaller up-and-coming and diverse companies,

Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder of Slow Burn Theatre Company in Fort Lauderdale, said of the annual awards gala nicknamed theater prom, “We would only see each other in an arena of competition on one night and then everyone we go their own separate ways and everyone would go to the party if you won or you’d go home if you lost. And what we want to do is find what we theater companies can do for our community. …  It can cause more harm than it can good. So I think it’s a good time to look at it and maybe redefine how we can use this award system… to go out in the community and build up.”

Actress and multiple winner Jeni Hacker agreed, but she warned that the division problem lies deeper than who takes home awards. “To lay the division of the community at the feet of the Carbonells is not fair. Even if we were to have a celebration of work, we could continue to be divided in that. The theater makers have to be of one community and not just on one day of the Carbonells.”

But some of the divisiveness is ebbing. Andrew Kato, producing artistic director/ CEO of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, said the pandemic has significantly increased a bonding among theater leaders who have been conferring about challenges such as diversity issues in a group formed by the South Florida Theatre League.

Kato, whose company was the first to drop out of the competition, said the alternative ideas and others would help raise the region’s reputation nationally.

The Carbonells should favor “ideas that promote a stronger community. It’s not an evening of getting together not trusting who the judges are, whether you are seen in the right way,” Kato said. “We’re a community of a lot of diverse and really talented people and I don’t think the country knows that. I think we are viewed in a pejorative way.  People assumed because that we are South Florida that we are a bunch of hicks that don’t have good quality.”

Some attendees repeated a concern underlined in a letter last summer from 12 companies contending that the awards fundamentally do not reflect the multi-cultural community of artists and patrons, in part an outgrowth of a primarily white Anglos panel of nominators and judges – probing the need for a more diverse group.

Nicholas Richberg, managing director of Miami New Drama, said, “I’d argue that part of what needs to change is that we need to redefine what ‘the community’ is (currently seen as primarily white Anglo) because if we are all agreeing that the system is stale and or broken and or not serving a purpose, then maybe adding other voices to the conversation that aren’t already part of the conversation may help to facilitate that conversation.”

Geoffrey Short, actor-director and operations manager at the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts, pushed further: “It may be more noble to pool those our resources to celebrate the diversity in what we do and to help those groups” by addressing “the heart-breaking, soul-ripping need is for equality and inclusion.”

(Full disclosure: This reporter is a Carbonell judge.)

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