By Bill Hirschman
The Carbonell Awards program is taking an intermission on judging shows until the fall of 2021, using the time to reinvent itself, including actively soliciting suggestions from the community and committing to increasing diversity on its board and panels.
The board of directors agreed Monday to several initiatives to cope with the elimination of most live theater due to the COVID-19 pandemic and also the criticism from the theater community about processes and diversity, which crested in August but had been building for a few years.
The awards honoring excellence in South Florida theater will resume evaluating eligible shows in October, a news release announced Friday. The board had decided in September to not consider pre-pandemic productions mounted during the first quarter of this year.
The future eligibility period will change from the calendar year to Oct. 1, 2021, through Sept. 30, 2022. The next gala awards ceremony is penciled in for November 2022 or later.
“As we announced in September, the Carbonell Awards is committed to using this pandemic timeout for reflection, re-imagination and re-invigoration of our 44-year bond with South Florida’s professional theaters,” wrote board President Donald R. Walters.
“During this extensive review and revision process, we understand that everything is on the table,” said Walters. “Please remember that we all share the identical goal of quickly reviving and constantly celebrating a strong, proud, talented, diverse, and inclusive theatrical community.”
This year, the gala originally had been scheduled for April 6 in which theater artists, patrons and fans gather annually in their finery for the premier socializing reunion of the theater season, nicknamed Theater Prom. But COVID 19 forced the non-profit board to postpone the event until August when the ceremony was created online and broadcast over You Tube. To view it, click here.
More than a dozen normally eligible productions had opened during the first few months of 2020, such as Thinking Cap Theatre’s Happy Days, Slow Burn Theatre’s Groundhog Day and Zoetic Stage’s American Son. But the mid-March shutdown came just as even more theaters were within weeks, days, even hours of opening new shows.
Further, while many companies have been experimenting with staged readings and productions online that would not be eligible under current guidelines, a few companies currently have penciled in normally eligible live productions mounted inside auditoriums on dates for next month and all the way through next summer – if COVID, audience confidence and local regulations permit. None of those would be considered for the next round of awards under the new guidelines.
The board did not publicly cite it as a factor, but many of the volunteers who initially view and recommend work, as well as some of the ultimate judges who vote, are above the age that places them in added danger of the virus and some have what the CDC considers underlying conditions.
Another significant initiative announced Friday is “launching a systematic review and revision of the current award eligibility requirements, recognition guidelines and organizational rubrics to simplify and make more transparent the entire process,” the news release stated.
The in-house process will run from January through May. The reforms are planned to be fully implemented before the October resumption, the news release stated.
A key element invites local theaters and interested individuals, including current recommendation panelists and judges, “to join in this hands-on revision process” through a series of once-a-month 90-minute Zoom meetings slated for Mondays at 7:30 p.m.
*** January 11 – The Award Process
*** February 8 – Production Eligibility Requirements
*** March 8 – Resident Theater Eligibility Rules & Regulations
*** April 12 – Specific Award Eligibility Requirements
*** May 3 – Recommendation Panel & Judges
Any member of the South Florida theatrical community interested in participating in any or all of the five “input meetings” on Zoom should email Gary Schweikhart at email@example.com and they will be added to the evite list before each session.
The board plans to meet after each month’s online public meetings to evaluate and possibly take action on the topics discussed at the previous Zoom meeting.
The release also cited a commitment “to increase diversity and fairness in structure and community outreach, including more diverse board members, recommendation panelists and judges, while encouraging new and diverse voices, genres, aesthetics and perspectives.”
Further, the board agreed to “supporting local theaters as they actively implement their own strengthened diversity goals, both on-stage and backstage, which will inevitably be reflected in future Carbonell nominations and awards.”
It follows an announcement in September that the board was “actively exploring… training for staff, panelists, judges and board members which encompasses anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-ageist and anti-homophobic practices.” Board member Leslie Fordham, Public Art & Design Administrator for the Broward Cultural Division in Fort Lauderdale, agreed to chair a new Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Committee.
All this occurs against a background of growing discontent among local theater artists who have nurtured a love-hate view of the awards, underscored by five companies withdrawing their work from consideration over the past 14 months: Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Primal Forces in Boca Raton, MNM Theatre Company in West Palm Beach, the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, and City Theatre in Miami withdrawing its Summer Shorts program.
Many local theater artists say they revere the honor and appreciate the acclaim, attention and affirmation. At least two theaters have displayed the egg-shaped awards in glass cases. Many recipients list the award on resumes, grant applications, advertising, newsletters to patrons and cite it in Playbill bios even when they appear on Broadway.
But inherently, many artists loathe the idea of art involved in a competition, especially for a “best” designation among artistically diverse nominees that they feel are literally un-comparable.
Some have claimed the selection of the winners reflect prejudices, grudges, friendships and hidebound mainstream attitudes of nominators and judges. Some say the board has been unresponsive to concerns. Some say the nominators and judges lack sufficient expertise. Some questions have been raised about a potential conflict of interest because at least four houses represented on the board of directors are fiscal co-producers of shows in competition. But board members do not vote on nominations and recipients, only on policies, qualifications and procedures.
Board members and many of the nominator-judges steadfastly have denied such problems exist in reality, only in perceptions. 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.
But while those concerns have simmered for several years, they gained momentum this year in some artists’ reaction to the 2019 winners when Zoetic Stage of Miami swept 12 of the 20 awards.
Then in August, the Carbonells were criticized about perceived diversity problems in a letter sent to the board by the leaders of 12 companies and the South Florida Theatre League, echoing concerns being raised nationwide at the same time about the arts across America.
The letter listed several problems, but many targeted their contention that the Carbonells do not reflect the multi-cultural makeup of the communities being served.
It stated, “In keeping with Carbonell history, the past number of years have produced a clear majority of white, Anglo winners. In non-gendered categories that majority has been overwhelmingly male. Last year the Anglo majority was 100%. Results like these are troubling given that we live and work in one of the most diverse regions in the United States. We acknowledge that, to some degree, the awards are a reflection of the work that is produced, and there is certainly work to be done by us on that front.”
This missive followed the 2019 Carbonell Awards in which nominations went to eight artists of color and 16 nominations in 20 overlapping categories to productions concerning race. African Americans Rita Cole took home an award as best supporting actress in a play for New City Players’ production of A Raisin in the Sun and Justin M. Lewis won for choreography for Hot Shoe Shuffle. The year before, all of the winners in the performance and directing categories were white, as well as nearly every winning designer. The year before, four of the acting winners were African-American, and M Ensemble, the oldest functioning black play company in the state, was also awarded statues for Best Director and Best Production of a Play.
The board also agreed Monday to eliminate the position of Managing Director “at this time due to budgetary considerations,” an administrative post held for several years by critic Mary Damiano.
The awards were created in 1976 by the South Florida Entertainment Writers’ Association, Inc. (later called the South Florida Critics Circle) led by the late Jack Zink of the Sun Sentinel and Bill von Maurer of the Miami News.
The First Annual Theatre Circle Awards held its ceremony November 15, 1976, drawing about 175 people to the Diplomat Hotel Regency Ballroom.
In 1978, the program was renamed, retroactively, the Carbonell Awards in recognition of Manuel Carbonell, the Cuban-born Miami-based sculptor who donated the bronze gold- colored scooped-out eggs to every winner. Other than one year, his family has continued the practice.
A major change occurred in September 2002 when the critics stepped away as the corporate heads of the Carbonells. Critics continued to be involved as judges and administrators, but control of the non-profit corporation was ceded to a board of directors comprising theater champions in the community, and representatives of cultural agencies in all three counties and from all three major presenting houses.
The reason was that the effort had grown too large to be staffed by volunteers and the number of critics had already begun to shrink to a smaller pool. Zink continued as executive director and administrator until his death in 2008. Local producer Jay Harris had been donating heavily, but now the program sought out corporate and private donors.
The awards have not been without controversy. The highest-profile furor occurred in November 2008 when the board contemplated not holding the 2009 ceremony. The reasons given were the high price of gasoline, Zink’s death, the declining number of critics and a falloff in donations due to the recession. The decision was reversed after an outcry from the theatrical community.
(Full disclosure: This reporter has been a Carbonell nominator, assistant administrator and is currently a judge.)