Stagebill’s Blog: A Crossroads for the Carbonell Awards

By Bill Hirschman

It is time for everyone on all sides to put up or shut up. The opportunity is here.

For the past few years, concerns about the Carbonell Awards have grown among many members of the South Florida theater community, which is honored by the 44-year-old award for excellence.

Some complaints nursed internally  have been made public, some aired privately, some made directly to the awards’ officials, some only shared with colleagues over a beer in the Broward Center lobby bar as the awards were being given out in the auditorium a few feet away.

At the same time, Carbonell board members have said they have been reorganizing and improving aspects although only a few changes have been visible and few suggestions from the outside have been implemented.

I have little insight beyond the same tea leaves everyone can read, but obviously the survival of the awards is in jeopardy. Five companies formally have withdrawn their work from consideration, seriously undercutting the weight and credibility of the award. Another company has been teetered on following suit since a year ago last summer. Further, the awards have had some fiscally shaky periods and may well be in one right now.

But with the enforced lull due to the pandemic, an opportunity exists right now – possibly the last opportunity – for both parties to publicly air their concerns, discuss options and reform the paradigm.

Beginning Monday, January 11, the Carbonell board is hosting a monthly series of five Zoom meetings soliciting input from virtually anyone who can spell theater from artists to producers to judges to patrons “to join in this hands-on revision process,” a news release stated.

The meat of those meetings would then be discussed later by the board for consideration of possible action.

It is time for everyone on all sides to publicly – and publicly is a key element — specify concerns and suggest solutions.

Some may posture that the Carbonells and all awards for creative efforts are useless, unimportant and unfair. I disagree: While imperfect, they do recognize, honor and encourage superior work. I do argue that the “best” designation is at best misleading since the competition is among the proverbial apples and oranges. But winners cite them in the Playbill bios here and around the country; theaters note them in websites, donor appeals, curtain speeches and grant applications.

It is understandable that many parties will be reluctant to participate in these 90-minute sessions because, rightly or wrongly, many perceive the private non-profit board as suffering from a lack of transparency, a resistance to change and a general lack of responsiveness. For instance, there was a private cyber-meeting of some artistic directors/producers with some Carbonell officials last summer. But some of the participants described the session as quite one sided and not at all satisfying. Further, two companies met with Carbonell officials a year and a half ago; they never received any response afterward, and when they inquired months later, they perceived that no one remembered what had been said.

But the advantage here is that open meetings force the board to at least acknowledge that they have been made aware of specific individual concerns. Then what they do is basically “on them.” Similarly, if concerned members of the community refuse to participate, they, too, cannot claim to have made the effort to help the good faith board improve the situation.

This column is not endorsing nor refuting any of the concerns. I agree with a few, disagree with several others and have a few of my own.

Full disclosure: I have been involved with the Carbonells since the late 1990s, initially serving as a contributing nominator-judge with Jack Zink, then as an unofficial assistant administrator when Jack took ill, then in my current capacity as a judge. Personally, I have my own concerns about the management of the Carbonells since Jack died despite selfless work by board members and volunteers like Jay Harris and Savannah Whaley. I have made some of them known to the board in the past to little or no response. But most of my concerns differ than the ones made privately and publicly by South Florida theater artists. To wit, I am one of the people in the room where it happens, choosing who receives the awards. I swear that many of the suspicions I’ve heard, especially about bias, simply are wrong. I’ll be happy to talk about it with anyone.

Some of the dissatisfaction is rooted in the problems inherent in any competition assessing creative endeavors, from the Tony Awards to the Nobel Prize. I have judged different competitions for different groups in different states for 40 years. No such endeavor, none, is perfect. By its nature, there is some subjectivity involved, although subjective judgment is not an excuse or cover for bias, favoritism or ignorance.

So here’s my suggestion to the community: If you really care, if you are not just venting to make yourself feel better, then participate in these meetings. Don’t come to berate with emotions; come to reform. Don’t just blather; prepare a list of points on paper before the meeting so you can air them in a time-efficient manner. Note that each of the five sessions (totaling seven and a half hours) is about separate aspects so focus your comments on the topic of the month. If you can’t make a session, email a letter outlining your points.

Here’s my suggestions to the board: Listen, take notes, listen, avoid being defensive, listen. But don’t respond to each meeting with just a perfunctory “Thank you, we’ll take it under advisement” and silence. Engaging in some minimal dialogue shows respect for the people airing concerns. The board has a huge problem with a lack of transparency and responsiveness. So if the board has a good reason why a suggestion might be impractical; these sessions might be an opportunity to reveal that.

The schedule and topics for the 7:30 p.m. Monday sessions are:
*** 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 gary@pr-bs.net and they will be added to the evite list before each session.

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