Are the Carbonells Still Relevant?

It’s a good question.

In the wake of awards organizations such as the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, and the Tonys all facing diminished ratings — not to mention suffering public relations nightmares such as a lack of diversity and inclusion in their nominations process — are the Carbonell Awards waning in significance? 

The Carbonells came into existence back in 1976 to “foster the artistic growth of professional theatre in South Florida by celebrating artists, producers and audiences,” as the organization’s website proclaims. A two-tiered nomination/judging system was developed to filter out the most deserving contenders for a host of competitive awards. Over recent years, however, members of the South Florida theater community have targeted the organization with accusations of a lack of transparency, bias among nominators and judges, and an apathetic board of directors.

To dig deeper into this subject, prominent members of the South Florida Theater community were sought to share their opinions on the worthiness of the Carbonell Awards: Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder of Slow Burn Theatre Company; Marcie Gorman, executive producer and artistic director for MNM Theatre Company; Gary Schweikhart, vice president of the Carbonells’ board of directors; Geoffrey Short, board president of the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts; Missy McArdle, both a multiple Carbonell nominee as a performer and a former member of its recommendation panel; and Patti Gardner, a notable South Florida actress, and Carbonell Award recipient.

Marcie Gorman, executive producer and artistic director for MNM Theatre Company

Ms. Gorman, who withdrew MNM from Carbonell consideration last year — along with the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Primal Forces, and the Wick Theatre, both in Boca Raton, and City Theatre in Miami (who withdrew their Summer Shorts program) — indicated she’d listen to any proposed changes, but is unwilling jump back into consideration just yet. 

“My problem was in the number of free tickets that had to be given out to the judging and recommendation panels,” she said. “For someone like me who doesn’t even own a theater, I have to convince the owner to give away those tickets, which comes to a large hit in revenues, that’s a problem.”

Then there was the fairness issue, she added.

“Palm Beach Dramaworks, who I love, by the way, received 29 nominations,” Ms. Gorman said. “I got zero. With the Maltz pulling out of consideration, it was only me, the Wick, and Dramaworks. The Wick got precious few nominations as well, and we both felt very disappointed with that outcome — not only in a lack of nominations but in how they seemed so skewed away from theaters in Palm Beach County. So we decided we didn’t want to be involved with them anymore. They certainly weren’t benefiting us.”

Finally, Ms. Gorman questioned the Carbonells’ identification factor with area audiences.

“I’m not sure the public understands or cares what the Carbonells are,” she said. “We care about the awards, of course, but we’re all on the inside. The public doesn’t even know what a Carbonell is. I mean, they’re not even named for anyone prominent in South Florida theatre. They’re named for the artist who sculpted the award, and who knows him? Until they do a better job of educating the public about who and what they are, they’re frankly not helping me to build my business.”

Ms. Gorman added the annual awards ceremony, nicknamed Theater Prom, currently serves as little more than an opportunity for the South Florida theater community to congratulate itself.

“Why do we need to do that?” she asked.

Mr. Fitzwater agreed.

Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder of Slow Burn Theatre Company

“I do feel the Carbonells are not as relevant right now,” he said. “I feel awards shows, in general, can be more divisive than finding a way of actually bringing a community together. It’s kind of like the Oscars, where everybody gets online and watches it, and whoever wins — or doesn’t win — somebody has something bad to say. Or something good to say. You don’t need that much-wasted energy. We have enough things going on in our lives right now. Is that the most important thing, to put one person ahead of another and say this is a model of excellence?” 

Ms. Gorman and Mr. Fitzwater don’t stand alone. A letter dated Aug. 6, 2020, came to the Carbonell board from the 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 — along with the South Florida Theatre League, all pushing the need to increase fairness and diversity in Carbonell’s recognition.

Mr. Schweikhart said the Carbonell board took those criticisms seriously and gave a very proactive response.

Gary Schweikhart, vice president of the Carbonells’ board of directors, said the organization actively seeks young and diverse theatre lovers to add to its board and cadre of judges.

“We asked members of the theater community to join us to examine the Carbonells from top to bottom and see what changes people recommended,” he said. “We put together a special committee that spent over eight weeks meeting regularly, going through it top to bottom, figuring out what is valuable, what could be tweaked, and in particular, what could be done to increase the emphasis on diversity and equality. And I think we came out with a powerful joint statement and began making some genuine changes to make the Carbonell’s as relevant as ever.”

The statement came out as a nine-page letter that, among other things, outlined five recommendations ensuring the organization:

  • needs to be both a recognition and celebration of local theatrical excellence;

  • needs to increase the diversity and inclusion among Carbonell board members and judges;

  • needs to actively support efforts by local theaters to increase diversity both on- and back-stage;

  • needs to continue awarding scholarships;

  • needs to both sharpen and expand the award selection process while reaffirming Carbonells’ established mission of celebrating the diversity of our theater artists and highlighting achievements of our theater community.

“Everybody’s fingerprints are on this letter — even from members of theaters that dropped out of the Carbonells a year ago — who served on the special committee that wrote the letter and made recommendations,” Mr. Schweikhart said. “Our goal is to have a whole new organization in place, with all the new judges, starting this fall for the 2021-2022 season. We want to have at least seven judges from each of our three South Florida counties. And we’ve taken real steps to address the criticisms and improve the organization.”

So from the performer’s standpoints, do awards shows like the Carbonells even matter anymore? Geoffrey Short, who has spent a lifetime involved in the performing arts as a singer, actor, director, and songwriter, was “an invaluable member of the Carbonell special committee,” Mr. Schweikhart added, “and very critical of the lack of diversity, but very helpful as we worked through the process that resulted in the joint statement.” An artist of color, Mr. Short is also a music producer, theatrical director, and marketing and entertainment specialist. He said two crucial things the Carbonells bring to the South Florida theater community are recognition and celebration.

Geoffrey Short, board president of the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts, said two important things the Carbonells bring to the South Florida theater community are recognition and celebration.

“These are important,” Mr. Short said. “But I’m not so convinced that an actual award for ‘best this’ or ‘best that’ is the most effective way to celebrate and recognize excellence. And a competition, per se, is tough to do in an artistic realm. There’s just so much subjectivity and so many varying degrees of resources available to performing arts groups that it becomes a real challenge to find equity among all of the people who would be considered ‘excellent’ under any other circumstance.”

He added awards such as the Tonys and Oscars to help generate more business at the box office, whereas regional theaters rarely get any revenue bumps from awards recognition. Mr. Short maintained that rather than competing against each other for awards, it’s far more essential to cooperate between performing arts organizations in areas such as show selection, casting diversity, and dedication to quality.

Mr. Short maintained it’s not enough for the organization to say it’s searching for people of color to add to its ranks.

“We have to go into different communities and explain to them why being a part of the organization — and the effort and the project — is important to them,” he said. “And we have to be genuinely interested in what they have to say. What are the obstacles for them to be included? Are they economic, sociological, cultural? What’s impeding their inclusion?”

Mr. Short added should he get on the Carbonells board, job one for him — beyond listening and learning — will lie in sharing his experience and unique viewpoint.

“I know what it’s like to be a black man in the theatre,” he said. “I know what the challenges are, and I want to bring that first-hand perspective into the organization. It’s not my goal to burn the house down and push for grant changes. But when it comes to issues like race and diversity and cultural inclusion, there’s a lot of heartfelt emotion built into it, and changes can be incremental. But dialogue needs to happen, and we’re no longer asking for permission to sit at the table. If we don’t sit at your table, we’ll make our table. We know the value that cultural diversity —and that’s not just black, it’s any BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Color) perspective — brings to the art that we love so much.”

Missy McArdle said the organization had shifted its focus from commemoration to competition.

Eight-time Carbonell Missy McArdle said the organization had shifted its focus from commemoration to competition.

“Back in the day when the Carbonells were starting to gear up, it was a wonderful celebration of community,” she said. “I think what we all loved about it then — as in many of the years since — was it was an opportunity to see everyone all at once. And back then, it was a little more spread out, rather than being so Broward/Dade County-focused as it is now.”

Ms. McArdle also voiced a problem with anyone declared a winner — even though categories now carry “Outstanding” ratings instead of “Best.” Instead, she proposed the event switch to more of a party setting, where everyone gets a chance to see highlights from the past season.

“But if they’re determined to have five nominees, why not honor them all?” she suggested. “Give them each a medal. I’ve been nominated eight times and have never won. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t discouraged after those eight losses.”

In addition, Ms. McArdle felt the Carbonell judging panel ought to have more performers on it.

“I’ve been in the theatre all my life,” she said. “And I’ve seen a lot of theatres. So performer representatives on the panel would certainly help it because they bring a unique perspective. Also, there ought to be a lifetime achievement award for performers. Right now, that recognition goes mainly to producers or directors or those who work tirelessly behind the scenes.”

Carbonell recipient Patti Gardner agreed awards shows all have the inherent flaw of pitting dissimilar productions and performers against each other.

Carbonell recipient Patti Gardner confessed as she is tempted to criticize the organization for its shortcomings. Instead, she proudly lists her award and numerous nominations on her resume.

“I always feel it’s challenging to judge art in any way,” she said. “We try, but I don’t know we can do it successfully. However, I have loved the Carbonells celebration — the evening, the ceremony. I love seeing everybody again, and I love celebrating a year’s worth of work — whatever that work is and whether it’s been nominated or not.”

Ms. Gardner added up until now. The South Florida theater scene hasn’t shown the kind of diversity needed to round it out into a better-represented community of art and artists.

“And we can’t judge all theaters in the same way, with some of them having huge budgets while others are working out of storefronts,” she said. “I hope the recommenders and voters will be able to see things objectively and outside the box, then reward accordingly.”

Ms. Gardner looks forward to welcoming more young, diverse, and versatile artists into the South Florida theater community, providing new and imaginative ways of presenting their productions. 

“I believe we’re entering a new phase of entertainment that’s certainly been propelled by the pandemic,” she said. “I’m encouraged things will take on a different perspective. Much the way Theatre Lab’s recently streamed digital production of ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ did. With its unique way of telling the story, this piece let me sit on my couch, watch it, and be educated and entertained all at the same time. And Palm Beach Dramaworks’ streamed production of ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ as satisfying as it was, inspired me to come to see it live once they open their doors again.”

“Theatre Lab’s recent streaming production of Venessa Garcia’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” brought “young, diverse and versatile artists into the South Florida theater community, providing new and imaginative ways of presenting their productions,” Ms. Gardner said.

Ms. Gardner admitted as much as she is tempted to criticize the Carbonells, she proudly lists her award and numerous nominations on her resume.

“It’s certainly a paradox, I know, but it’s a credit that I’ll embellish in an interview or audition to get another job hopefully,” she laughed. “Hey, it’s what we actors do.”

In addition to the current scholarships and six traditional special awards the Carbonells currently give out, Mr. Schweikhart said they plan to add another: the Vinnette Carroll Award, honoring an individual, theater, or organization for significant achievement in advancing the cause of diversity, equality, and inclusion in South Florida theater.

“It’s an important step forward, and I hope it’s a big one,” he said. “We have had diverse winners in the past. But we wanted to create an award just for that person or organization truly advancing that cause. However, we don’t see the Vinnette Carroll Award as a ‘catch-all’ award. We need to see diverse winners throughout the Carbonell Awards categories as well.”

In addition to seeking more diversity on the Carbonells’ board of directors, Mr. Schweikhart said the board is actively seeking newer, younger, and more diverse judges. Also, by eliminating the two-tier judging process, he said, each judge will see fewer shows but will be able to focus more on shows within his or her county — significantly easing what has been, up to now, an arduous viewing process.

“It opens up the opportunity for more people to become judges,” he said. “We see that as a significant change for the better. And we hope that will mean we’ll more easily recruit new judges. Look, the change process continues. Carbonell board member and special committee co-chair Jeff Kiltie is now putting together a new committee made up entirely of the judges to work out the judging details, logistics, scoring, and so on. We believe it is important that they be an integral part of the change process. We’re still standing. We’re still going forward. I think that’s a credit to the South Florida theater community. And if you know of anybody younger, diverse, love theatre, would like to be a judge, contact us. We want to talk to them.”

To learn more about the Carbonell Awards or apply to be a judge, log on to www.carbonellawards.org or send an email to President@CarbonellAwards.org.

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