Carbonells Propose Major Overhaul With Audience Voters & Attention To Diversity

By Bill Hirschman

A major overhaul of the Carbonell Awards for excellence in South Florida theater has been unveiled that expands the scope of the program to include a “people’s choice” award and concerted efforts across the board to address diversity.

Virtually every aspect of the program is being at least tweaked and some aspects, like the traditional competitive awards facet, are being significantly reimagined.

A nine-page proposal, created through extensive discussions of a special committee and approved by the Carbonell board of directors, was released Monday to a Zoom meeting with the 2020 roster of judges and nominators. To read the detailed document, click here.

Key items include:

***      A commitment to add diverse people to the judging panels and the board itself. Two diverse candidates already have been invited to join the board. Some artistic directors have claimed that a lack of diverse judges has resulted in an  inequitable dearth of diverse winners, although the Carbonell administration developed figures that challenge that assumption and cite a lack of diverse casting in the region.

***      Add another “special award” like the current George Abbott Award, named for Vinnette Carroll, “to honor an individual, theater or organization for significant achievement in advancing the cause of diversity, equality, and inclusion in South Florida theater.” The African-American actress, playwright and director was major national figure, but she also created her own repertory company in Fort Lauderdale for several years before her death in 2002.

***      End the current two-tier nominating-judging system for the competitive awards. In its place will be a complex structure in which judges in individual counties will assign a ratings number to the work solely seen in their county. At the end of the year, the figures will be calculated to produce a list of finalists in and winners in each category. One hope is that by limiting judges’ geographical area – if they wish—the awards might attract a more economically-challenged group and more diverse group of judges. The authors also believe it will undercut the perception that some judges are biased toward some companies.

***      A new set of awards dubbed “Carbonell Audience Choice Awards” will allow participating theaters to nominate up to five “moments of excellence” from their current season of licensed productions. These would be posted on the Carbonell website and the public would vote on which would “win.” This would be open to most professional companies, including those whose work might not be eligible for the competitive categories.

***      One competitive category has been eliminated: best ensemble, an award that has created endless arguments among the judges and artists themselves about what defines an ensemble work.

***     Added is “Outstanding Achievement of an Artistic Specialty.” For years, judges have complained that the awards did not reflect the growing sophistication of productions, especially projections. The board had hoped to institute this category last year.

***      The titles of the categories themselves will change. For many years, a category would include the word “best.” Some judges and artists argued year after year that the word “best” was misleading. Now, the word will be “outstanding.”

***      The annual Carbonell Awards gala, nicknamed Theater Prom for its opportunity for colleagues to socialize, will still be held, possibly in the fall of 2022. The program will present both nominated musical performances from the just completed theater season, as well as live performances from current or upcoming productions selected by participating theaters, as a way of promoting their work.

Many details are still to be developed, especially for the judging of the competitive awards, but some of the nuts and bolts and rationales are spelled out in the released proposal.

The changes come ahead of what will be the new season in consideration, slated for Oct. 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022.

The Carbonell program came to a halt along with the entire live theater season in March 2020. The intermittent productions since then – live, filmed, online, in person – will not be in the mix for the coming competitions, nor will the produced shows that would have been eligible in the 2019-2020 season.

At the same time as the pandemic exploded, a long-term discontent about the entire structure of the Carbonells went public among many local theater artists who have nurtured a love-hate view of the awards for decades.

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 local artists loathed the idea of art involved in a competition, especially among artistically diverse nominees that they feel are un-comparable.

The concerns — perhaps threatening the survival of the program completely — was underscored by five companies withdrawing their work from consideration over the previous 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.

Complaints and perceptions emerged in a public letter August 6 when the artistic and executive leadership of 11 theaters (City Theatre, Island City Stage, Juggerknot Theatre Company, M Ensemble Company, Miami New Drama, New City Players, Palm Beach Dramaworks, Slow Burn Theatre Company, Theatre LAB, Thinking Cap Theatre, Zoetic Stage) and one related organization (South Florida Theatre League) offered specific suggestions to increase diversity and fairness, while demanding “dialogue and swift, meaningful, sustainable change.”

Gary Schweikhart, board vice-president and co-chair of the committee, told the judges Monday, “One of the points that were made repeatedly among ourselves the last few months was that if we had done nothing, if we had ignored the open letter and if we did not respond to the concerns that were raised about diversity and transparency and so on, not only would we have lost the four theaters, there was a good chance of losing the 11 theaters that signed the open letter.”

Among allegations recurring over the years: a flawed process, accusations of bias favoring some companies among some judges and nominators, and that the board was unreceptive to concerns and lacked transparency.

But the longest-running complaint overarched them all: theater artists and their work should not be in competition, especially when their work is not comparable in scope and genre.

In response, the board of directors held a public listening session in January with the expectation of four other public meetings. Some attendees stressed a concern underlined in the August letter that the awards fundamentally do not reflect the multi-cultural community of artists and patrons, in part an outgrowth of a primarily but not exclusively white Anglo panel of nominators and judges – probing the need for a more diverse group.

Participants praised the 45-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 – but the thrust of most comments was that the competition had created more divisiveness than good.

But the strength of the dissent was so strong and so clear – and some participants were upset that the public discussion was reported on this site – that the board scrapped that rest of the public sessions. Instead, it selected members of a special committee that began an extensive and spirited series of private discussions that reportedly required compromises from almost everyone.

The members of that committee, which included some of the Carbonells’ most outspoken critics, were: co-chairs Schweikhart and board member Jeff Kiltie of  Aventura Arts & Cultural Center; Maria Banda-Rodaz, Area Stage Company; Caryl Fantel, Fantel Music; Patrick Fitzwater, Slow Burn Theatre Company; Jeni Hacker, actress; David Jobin, Carbonell judge; Andrew Kato, Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Jill Kratish, Carbonell panelist; Herman G. Montero, production manager/lighting designer; Nicholas Richberg, Miami New Drama; Geoffrey Short, Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts, and Savannah Whaley, Pierson Grant PR.

The awards were created for the 1975-76 season 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. The 2021 proposal is not the first major change; among the earliest was to separate locally-produced shows competing with tours in the first years.

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. The board expects the practice likely will continue although the Audience awards will likely be a certificate.

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.)

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