By Bill Hirschman
Major changes for the Carbonell Awards honoring excellence in South Florida theater will be unveiled Monday at a town hall meeting open to all professional theaters, producers, directors, designers, actors, backstage and on stage participants, judges, publicists, journalists and theater activists.
The session to be held live and online will reveal a new team of judges, a new judging process and criteria, new awards, new members of the board of directors, and a new coordinator – much of which feature increased diversity throughout the program.
The meeting is slated for 7 to 9 p.m. to be held both live at the Broward Center and on Zoom.
The purpose of the annual meeting, cited in a news release, is to:
—roll out the new changes in the organization and judging process for the 2021-2022 theater season
—respond to any questions about the new system
—solicit buy-in and support from theater community
—emphasize the ‘’commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion while celebrating theater excellence.”
The board is seeking RSVPs by email to the meeting at email@example.com. A Zoom link will be returned by email for those not attending in person and citing the location in the Broward Center. Currently 34 people have responded, representing theaters managements, news organizations, judges, Carbonell board members and theater artists.
Many of the changes reflect recommendations developed by a study committee that included artists and the heads of several local theaters. Several recommendations reflect a concern that the awards need to better reflect the varied ethnicity of the community.
The new Carbonell Coordinator is long-time judge R. Kent Chambers-Wilson; new board members are Geoffrey Short, Avery Sommers, William Nix and Herman G, Montero. All five are members of diverse communities.
Additionally, the program is adding 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 a major national figure, but she also created her own repertory company in Fort Lauderdale for several years before her death in 2002.
Other changes include:
*** Ending 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 and winners in each category. One goal is that by limiting judges’ geographical area 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. But other than two judges in each region, the majority of voters will not have seen work in competition in all three counties.
*** Creating a new set of awards dubbed the “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.
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 in 2019-2021: 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, 2020 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.”