The Carbonell Awards Adapt to The New Era

After a long pandemic intermission, the theatre season is getting back into swing, and as of today, October 1st, the Carbonell Awards’ eligibility period has officially begun as well. But, after four theatres withdrew from the awards and 11 more signed an open letter calling some of their practices into questions, they aren’t quite back to business as usual. After discussions with a special committee of theatre professionals, several changes were made, which were first announced publicly at a Town Hall about two weeks ago. 

These included the addition of The Vinnette Carroll Award, a new Carbonell special award which “honors an individual, theater or organization for significant achievement in advancing the cause of diversity, equality, and inclusion in South Florida theater.”

Carbonell leadership made a point to emphasize that this award is not meant to preclude diverse candidates winning in other categories, but rather to provide an additional opportunity for these candidates to be recognized. 

That wasn’t the only effort towards a more inclusive operation that the Carbonells have made the past few months; they’ve also added four theatre professionals of color to the board, made an effort to recruit more diverse judges, and promoted long-time judge R. Kent Chambers Wilson (who is black) to the role of Carbonell Coordinator. 

But perhaps the biggest change being implemented is to the judging process itself. Instead of nominations being the result of a closed-door discussion between judges, and instead of the shows competing directly against each other, scoring of all Carbonell-eligible performances will now happen purely numerically. 

Within 72 hours of seeing a show, judges will submit scores between one and ten for all eligible aspects of the performance. The scores of all the judges will then be averaged together, and the five highest scores will be announced as the nominees, with the highest scoring winner to be announced at the event. 

This scoring system allows for more flexibility, since now not all judges need to see every individual show. Though a minimum of seven will be assigned to each, judges are also free to submit scores for shows they are not assigned to without giving them an advantage, since all scores will be factored into an average.

It was also announced that the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, the first area theatre to withdraw from the awards in Fall of 2019, has put themselves back into Carbonell consideration for the 2021-2022 season. I caught up with Maltz Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato, who was also a member of the special committee that worked to reform the awards, to ask for the reasoning behind his decision to return. 

While he cited lack of transparency by the organization as the main reason he initially withdrew, he now feels as if they have adequately addressed his initial concerns.

 “To the new leadership’s credit, they did engage not only with Maltz Jupiter Theatre but every organization in an effort to see what could be done to make the Carbonells more equitable, and it was an involved process that I appreciated participating in. At the end of the day, we feel that given the efforts that the new administration and board have done that it was only appropriate to give it a try,” he explained.

“Most especially, the fact that theatres are not competing with each other…the judges are judging the direct work that they’re looking at.”

He considered the old way of decision-making to be inherently biased, as more outspoken people could easily sway the opinion of the group.

“That doesn’t happen on any other awards ceremony ever, you know. If you look at anything from the Tony awards to the Grammy, any of them, they don’t get together in a group and discuss every organization before the vote happens…there were many things that I feel have been improved on, but the major one was the ballot standing on its own,” he said.

The other big change to be implemented this season is the addition of a whole new category of awards: The Carbonell Audience Choice Awards. For this category, theatres themselves will be able to choose five moments of excellence from their season to serve as the nominees, and they need not be limited to traditional categories in doing so. Patrons will then be able to vote for their favorite of these moments of excellence on the Carbonell site, and winners will be announced at the ceremony. 

While theatres won’t get an official “Carbonell,” for winning one of these Audience Choice Awards, the organization hopes theatres will use these new awards as an opportunity to promote themselves and their work, responding to the community’s demands for more opportunities celebration as opposed to competition.

“Honestly, I was recommending that in lieu of the full awards,” Kato said about the new addition.

“I’m ok with the full awards if that’s what people want, but the choice awards works because every theatre is different. And the fact that the Carbonells can honor people who are not actors or designers but all people of the theatre, creates an opportunity for each organization to kind of sell what they’re most proud of.” 

Though it’s as of yet unclear if any of the other theatres who withdrew will return, community reactions to the changes seems to be at least tentatively positive. Theatre PR professional Carol Kassie commented as follows:

“By including and consulting with theatre companies and individuals who had legitimate concerns about the Carbonell process on their various committees, the board showed a commitment to do better. In fact, I would like to extend my congratulations to Gary Schweikhart, Jeff Kiltie, and the Carbonell board and committees who worked so hard on this. Changes to the judging process, recognition of the need for diversity, equality, and inclusion, revisions to categories, the creation of the Audience Choice awards, the commitment to feature current productions, and even the change to the calendar – all these tweaks are, to me, a move in the right direction.” 

Andy Rogow of Island City Stage added: 

“I applaud the changes that the Carbonell Awards Board of Directors have instituted. They did a very good job reaching out to stakeholders across the region and including them in the process that led to the new guidelines. I’m looking forward to seeing how the new process works and evolves over time.” 

And there is certainly still plenty of evolving that could be done, with possibilities like judges who could assess Spanish language and Creole productions and potential assessment of future virtual productions still unresolved.

Concerns were also raised about conflicts of interest among judges who are still active participants in the theater community. Though judges will be prohibited from judging shows at theatres that they have a clear affiliation with, some believe that the more nebulous network of professional and personal relationships could still result in bias. 

But Kato and others suppose that this option may in fact be the lesser of two evils, as opposed to people without any theatrical experience trying to cast judgement on our industry.

“They have to understand, if you’re judging sound design, do you actually know what goes into creating sound design? If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be judging that. For the most part I feel like, the people they have selected, it’s more diverse, it is spread across three counties, they’ve got good qualifications. It’s never gonna be perfect, but, you know, what is.”

Some other more minor changes involved the awards ceremony now including performances from the upcoming season and from across the community rather than from just the nominees, and scholarships will now be distributed in an equal monetary amount to three finalists rather than given to a first, second, and third place winner. Performance award categories are also now identified by the gender of the role and not the performer to account for gender diversity among actors, though procedure is less clear if a role itself is non-binary.

The Carbonell board also articulated their hopes to find some way of recognizing the work done during the pandemic as well, which will not be eligible for any official awards as the organization was not appraising shows at the time. 

Trying to apply any objective standards to an art form as subjective as theatre perhaps remains inherently flawed. But there is a big enough bright side in recognizing excellence that the continuation of the Cabonells feels as if it is indeed something to celebrate, as does our ability to work together as a community to achieve it. 

“I think it’s most important to South Florida artists, however the Carbonells are listed on people’s bios on broadway, so it does draw attention to our area…yeah, so I think they have the opportunity, especially if they’re done well, to draw attention to the work that’s being done down here, that’s awesome,” Kato said.

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