THIS STORY AS BEEN UPDATED TO REFLECT DATE CHANGE, FULL STORY POSTED WEDNESDAY
By Bill Hirschman
A sign of recovery in theater, the Carbonell Awards have announced a firm date and location for the live resumption of the annual recognition of excellence in South Florida theater.
“Theater Prom,” in which artists, patrons and fans annually gather in their finery for the premier socializing reunion of the season, is slated for 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center in central Broward County.
Judging for the program went on official “hiatus” in November 2020 due to Covid shutting much if not all live theater on stage. Judging resumed in October last year and is currently underway. Shows that opened during the interim (going back to that January of 2020) will not be in competition for an award, but the Carbonell board has been considering some kind of recognition for the gala.
During that dark period, the board made changes to the structure of the award including injecting more diversity into the board and nominating panels, plus other changes sought by producers and directors who have accused the program of favoritism and a lack of diversity in several areas.
The annual gala was slated for April 2021, but Covid forced the non-profit board to postpone the event until August 2021 when the ceremony was created online and broadcast over YouTube. The last in-person Carbonell event was the spring of 2019.
From many years, the celebration was held at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which had a smaller seating capacity than the Lauderhill venue at 3800 NW 11th Place, and required attendees to pay for parking whereas the Lauderhill lot is free.
As before, 20 competitive awards will be presented as well as a handful of special awards such as the highest honor, the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts honoring an individual or team who has contributed significantly to the artistic and cultural development of the region.
Another change will be the elimination of the ensemble category – one that judges have said for years was difficult to appropriately define – and the addition of Outstanding Achievement of an Artistic Specialty. The latter has been recommended by judges for years to include such evolving theatrical elements as computer-animated projections being used increasingly in local productions.
But this year, the board also will present its first Vinnette Carroll Award, named for the nationally-known pioneering Black actress, playwright, producer and director who spent the last years of her life managing a theater in an old Fort Lauderdale church. The award will recognize “honoring an individual, theater or organization for significant achievement in advancing the cause of diversity, equality, and inclusion in South Florida theater.”
The 2022 Jack Zink Scholarship winners are still to be announced, and the competitive nominations will be announced at the end of judging period in September.
But deciding who wins the competitive awards has been greatly changed in ways that some people have cheered as long overdue and others have questioned as far as accuracy of process.
Previously, a rotating list of at least six “recommenders” based in each county told a Carbonell administrator if they thought a production or any of its elements were worth of consideration. Those companies and artists were then viewed by a panel of “judges” who saw nearly every one of the recommended material and artists, comparing them across the county lines. Then they debated the entries in a closed session and then voted in a two-tiered ballot.
Some producers and artists alleged, among a laundry list of issues, that the secret meetings of the judges lacked transparency and allowed friendships and other biases to taint the results, something the judges adamantly denied.
Now, in a one-tier system, judges are now assigned primarily — but not exclusively — to their home counties “thus maintaining the regional integrity of the awards,” a news release stated. “In addition, judges will be utilizing a scoring rubric in evaluating on-stage and back-stage achievements, adapted from the highly respected ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence.”
The changeover alienated some judges and nominators who quit, but the Carbonells recruited several others including BIPOC members of the theater community.
The list of this season’s Carbonell nominations and special award recipients will be announced at the conclusion of this season’s evaluation period at the end of September.
At previous awards galas, a number of nominated musicals were often presented and years ago, a scene from nominated plays.
Again, in response to complaints of the programs being perceived as a closed shop, there will be more musical scenes from the past season and preview snippets of live performances from current or upcoming productions.
The news release added, “At the same time, smaller/newer/BIPOC professional theaters can take advantage of this performance opportunity to showcase their talent to the entire South Florida theatrical community.”
One program to assure that most professional theaters, regardless of size, will be recognized had to be shelved until next season because the mechanics were too pressing while trying to institute the other reforms, said spokesman Gary Schweikart.
Those Carbonell Audience Choice Awards would have allowed participating theaters to nominate up to five “moments of excellence” from their current season of licensed productions, or personnel backstage, in the office or connected to a specific show. 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 local theater community has had a love-hate relationship with the awards for many years. Some artists and companies prize it, take career encouragement from it and cite it in their resumes, grant applications and playbill biographies even when they appear on Broadway. Some artists deride the competitive aspect as comparing work that isn’t comparable, and criticize various aspects, or second guess the choice of winners. Sometimes they are the same people.
The 2022 awards ceremony will be produced by Fantel Music. The wife-and-husband team of Caryl Fantel (music director, event producer, pianist, teacher, composer) and Roy Fantel (drummer, percussionist, teacher, video-audio producer) helmed last year’s online production and are well-known for producing concerts, shows, and staged events, including serving as musical directors for many local shows.
Along with New York’s Drama Desk and Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards, the Carbonell Awards are among the nation’s senior regional arts awards and predate others, including Washington, D.C.’s Helen Hayes Awards. The Carbonell Awards are named after Manuel Carbonell, an internationally renowned sculptor, who designed the original solid bronze and marble award in 1976, the signature trophy that is given annually to Carbonell Award winners. Over the last 45 years, the Carbonell family has donated more than $250,000 in awards.
This week, former board president and current treasurer Donald Walters revealed that the current board president Jeff Kiltie, general manager of the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, was stepping off the board next month and would be replaced by Schweikhart, head of the PR-BS, Inc. public relations firm. Kiltie will still supervise the counting of the votes later this year.
(Editor’s note This reporter was a Carbonell judge for many years until the reorganization last year.)