Carbonells Agree To Diversity Overhaul; Cancels Eligibility Of Shows Through Year’s End


By Bill Hirschman

Strong wide-ranging criticism from the theater community stretching back years has prompted the Carbonell Awards to begin major systemic changes connected to diversity, the board of directors announced Friday.

At the same time, the board of the program honoring excellence in South Florida theater revealed it will not consider upcoming productions through early 2021 due to the pandemic. The board has not determined whether productions that opened before the pandemic shut down local theaters would be rolled into consideration of the 2021 openings, a spokesman wrote in an email.

Among pledges responding to a perceived lack of diversity in the organization and its awards, the board is asking theater leaders and artists to suggest diverse candidates for nominators, judges and three members to be added to the board of directors. It also seeks their input for a reexamination of “current award eligibility requirements, recognition guidelines and organizational rubrics,” according to a news release and other documents.

The moves follow four events: an August 6 “Open Letter” from 11 companies and the South Florida Theatre League listing concerns; the Carbonell board’s written response August 21; the board’s online town hall meeting Monday with about 40 theater company leaders, and the subsequent withdrawal Wednesday of another three Palm Beach County companies.

Primal Forces in Boca Raton, MNM Theatre Company in West Palm Beach and the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, in a separate but coordinated effort, emailed that they no longer wished to be considered for future involvement effective immediately, said Keith Garsson, Primal Forces’ artistic director, and Marilynn Wick, executive managing producer of the Wick Theater.

Carbonell Board President Donald R. Walters wrote, “While it is always regrettable when a theater decides to withdraw from Carbonell consideration for whatever reason—personal, political, structural —we are always open for future reconciliation. In fact, we are committed to using this pandemic timeout for reflection, reimagination and reinvigoration of our 44-year bond with South Florida’s professional theaters”

“Please remember that we all share the identical goal of quickly reviving and constantly celebrating a strong, proud, talented, diverse, and inclusive theatrical community,” he wrote.

The Friday news release, referencing specific words from August 6 letter, indicated that the board acknowledged “some clear challenges facing the community, particularly in terms of diversity and fairness, and emphasizing a commitment to emboldening new and diverse voices, genres, aesthetics and perspectives to fill the stages of South Florida.”

In its news release and its August 21 response to the concerns specified in the Open Letter, the board listed actions “to reinforce its commitment to increased diversity and swift, meaningful, sustainable change.

—-Seeking to add three new board members—one from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and asked the signers of the Open Letter and town hall attendees to recommend candidates.

—-Encouraged theater leaders and artists to suggest qualified candidates to increase the diversity of the nominators and judges panels.

—-Tasked the Governance Committee “to review and potentially revise all current award eligibility requirements, recognition guidelines and organizational rubrics and invited interested town hall attendees to actively participate in this process.”

—-Announced it is “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, has agreed to chair a new Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Committee.

The board’s response asks the leaders to help suggest measures that would address many of their concerns including, “Provide transparency in the recommending, scoring, and judging processes, to eliminate the perception of racial, ethnic, gender, aesthetic, or other forms of bias.”

The Open Letter was signed by 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, Theatre League of South Florida, Thinking Cap Theatre and Zoetic Stage.

The letter listed several problems, but many targeted their contention that the awards 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.”

The board’s response acknowledged the concern, but echoing the last sentence, it wrote, “If local theaters and producing companies actively adopted these diversity goals, both on-stage and backstage, this will be reflected in future nominations and awards.”

But some artistic directors counter there are diverse offerings that are not being considered as eligible under the Carbonell guidelines, among them Juggerknot’s Miami Motel Stories, a collection of short interactive plays running simultaneously.

The signatories of the August 6 letter offered a conciliatory olive branch: “We acknowledge that we have our own work to do within our organizations, none of us claims perfection. It is from that place that we encourage you to acknowledge your organization’s room for growth and join us on the path of improvement. We want to continue to support the Carbonell Awards and hold them up as a measure of excellence in our community, the whole community. Dialog and swift, meaningful, sustainable change are what is needed to ensure that can happen….We … come (to the town hall meeting) ready to work with you on what we hope will be the beginning of a collaborative and productive journey toward building a better future for our South Florida theatre community.”

The response letter and the town hall were welcomed by some of the letter’s signatories, but some were cautious in their appreciation, wanting to see how proactive the Carbonell organization will be. They also solidly put the bulk of the reform on the organization rather than the Carbonell organization looking to the theater community to be an active participant.

“All of these conversations, all of these evaluations of our industry require us to set aside pre-conceived notions; they require is to embrace fully a collegiate constructive way to discuss paths forward,” said Matt Stabile, artistic director of Theatre Lab who is hoping for a longer town hall or at least a follow-up meeting.

Asked about the Carbonell leaders’ seeking hands-on input and advice, Stabile noted that several leaders have given detailed lists of suggested reforms over the years.

Still, some theater leaders openly appreciate the program in some form. “I know the benefits. I want the Carbonells to be here; I just want them to be here in a fair and equitable way. I want them to be open to everybody.”

Bowing Out

The three theaters that pulled out Wednesday were not signatories to the Open Letter but they had concerns beyond the diversity issues.

Marilynn Wick, executive managing producer of the Wick Theater, said she had been considering withdrawing for about three years for several reasons. Among them she felt that her catering to an audience that wants light musical comedies did not impress nominators and judges seeking more challenging and thought-provoking fare. “I’m not sure that it (judges) fairly what my mission is,” she said.

Her casts dominated by young evolving artists “wind up crying when the Carbonells are announced. They are so upset.”

She also noted the expense in giving away tickets to nominators and judges, as well as questioning the qualifications of nominators and judges.

“It’s not what I set forth to do when I made a commitment to live in the theater world.”

The exact reasons cited by the Primal Forces board of directors for its withdrawal were confidential to their closed meetings, Garsson said. His one-sentence email to the Carbonell managing director did not explain the rationale. But the decision came after a discussion spread over weeks. “We don’t do something like this lightly,” he said Thursday night.

He did allow, “It’s, what do they say on Wall Street, what is the return on the investment? Is it profitable to stay in? I don’t mean in terms of money but as a whole.”

Still, multiple theaters over the years have complained that they lose a great deal of money with a popular show and limited seating when they have to give free tickets to Carbonell nominators, judges and their companions.

Marcie Gorman, co-founder and producing artistic director of MNM, said she had various reasons that have been mounting for a couple of years. Among them she is looking for a new venue and isn’t sure if she will still be eligible when she moves. She doesn’t know if she will be able to afford the free tickets for nominators and judges.

“And there’s politics I don’t even want to get into.  I think Palm Beach County is becoming woefully under-represented. I’m just not happy with what they’ve been doing. I’m not mad about anything. I just got to a place where it’s all blowing up. I think there are changes that have to be made.”
The withdrawals pose yet another serious blow to the 44-year-old program which just held its annual awards ceremony online this month. Last September, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre producing artistic director Andrew Kato asked that the theater not be considered going forward. Its productions up to that date in the season were not considered in competition. Kato has said since then that he did had not expected that the Carbonell board would interpret his message to exclude shows already produced in that season to date.

City Theatre in Miami withdrew its annual Summer Shorts production about the same time, but not its other productions.

Further, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ leaders William Hayes and Sue Ellen Beryl said Thursday that they were not pulling out at this point because they did not want to deprive their artists of honors. But they said they have been deeply disappointed by what they characterized as a lack of response to issues that they raised with along with Kato in a meeting a year ago in June.

Including the three troupes that pulled out Tuesday, 25 companies are listed as eligible on the Carbonell website. The only other eligible active Palm Beach County theaters now are West Boca Theatre Company and Stabile’s Theatre Lab, the resident professional company at Florida Atlantic University. Also listed as eligible on the Carbonell website are Evening Star and Parade Productions, neither of which has produced an eligible show recently.

Primal Forces has specialized since 2014 in small-cast thought-provoking plays. It had worked out of various venues in Broward and Palm Beach counties, but has settled down in the storefront space operated by Evening Star / Sol Children’s Theater in Boca. MNM was co-founded by Gorman in 2015 and has produced mostly large scale musicals and revues in the Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center. The Wick Theatre, operating alongside its Costume Museum, opened in 2013 in the space of the former Caldwell Theatre, and specializes in musicals and revues. All have earned nominations and some have taken home Carbonell Awards.

Like nearly every other awards program for the arts, the Carbonells have been greeted with both genuine gratitude and acerbic scorn through much of its recent history. Theaters tout the Carbonells in their advertising, emails to patrons and grant applications. Artists list the awards in their bios, even when they appear on Broadway.

But some artists question the idea of identifying a “best” winner in a competition among apples-and-oranges works as opposed to something being described as “outstanding.” Some have suggested simply citing multiple honorees in a category as the Obie awards do.

Some people have privately accused the board, nominators and judges as having actual conflicts of interest and favoritism, or at least the appearance of favoritism due to friendships. For instance, some board members represent venues which are co-producers of and/or hosts to eligible productions and companies. The board has no direct influence on the deliberations of the nominators or judges.

Some people have questioned the expertise of some nominators and judges in general. But additionally, the August 6 letter stated noted only two nominators and one judge are POC. “No matter how well-intentioned, such a racially, ethnically, and experientially homogenous group of judges cannot fairly and equitably assess the work the diverse and historically marginalized artists, or any artists, in our community.”

Further, although the board has held a town hall with theater leaders nearly every year, some have complained that they feel their concerns have fallen on deaf ears over the years.

The August 6 letter cited that again: “Many of us have raised these issues directly with the organization in the past, but no measurable, publicly acknowledged change has occurred as of this time”

Most prominently, Kato, Beryl and Hayes said they met with two representatives of the board for two hours in June 2019 to express their concerns. Having heard nothing back, Beryl inquired about three months later. The three characterized the response to Beryl as “what concerns are you talking about?” That perception was a tipping point that led to the Maltz’s withdrawal.

Dramaworks leaders stressed that last month’s online awards ceremony were not fuel for staying or not staying. They had gone into the ceremony with the most nominations of any company – 29 in 16 out of 20 categories – multiple nominations for every single one of its 2019 productions. They took home three awards. Conversely, Zoetic Stage in Miami took home 12 awards out of 20 nominations including nearly every top award.

“Our initial reaction was not that we should pull out,” Beryl said of its ongoing concerns. Hayes added, “But it is unfortunate that (things in general have) deteriorated to that point.” She continued, “It doesn’t really upset us.” Hayes added they have continued on as an eligible theater because “we think it’s important to support things that hold the community together and to acknowledge good work in the community…. We decided not to take an official position on the matter because we didn’t want to minimize (the awards) to the artists (for whom) it had meaning.”

The decision to suspend consideration of future productions during at least the calendar year 2020 reflected that some have planned reopenings at different times, some have no plans yet and some are producing online productions, the news release stated.

“With this operational disparity in mind, as well as the continued health and safety concerns of recommendation panelists and judges, the Carbonell board has decided to suspend the review of all productions for award consideration until early 2021,” the news release stated.

(Full disclosure: This reporter has been a Carbonell nominator, assistant administrator and is currently a judge.)

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