Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cracking the Golden Egg; Omelette or Mess?

Theatre League of South FloridaI was one of the attendees at the Theatre League's 'Town Hall' meeting to discuss the Carbonell situation. It was held atSixth Star Studios, the home of the Women's Theatre Project. About thirty to forty area theatre professionals of all stripes met to discuss the proposed cancellation of the 2009 Carbonell awards, and to come up with some possible solutions to offer to the Carbonell Committee.

http://www.gablestage.org/images/carbonell_award.jpgFor those of you who have not followed the news, last week,the Carbonell Committee blindsided surpised the South Florida theatre scene (I mean everyone, not this blog!) by announcing that they would be taking a year off from the awards "to regroup." Reasons cited in the press release included gas prices, the loss of several theatre critics, including death of long-time board member - and founder - Jack Zink.

And farther down, they barely hinted at the real reason:
"In the current voting process, panelists are not required to see all productions."
As it turns out, this is really what brought everything to a head. I will explain the process, as best I understand it. Anyone who finds factually errors, please post a comment below. It's necessary to understand this part so you can understand how everything came to a head.

the process

There are two categories of panelists: nominators, and judges. The nominators do not have to see every show, but the shows they select as being worthy of being judged must be seen by all the judges. Six nominators see the show the first weekend, so that the judges have time to see the show for judging.

The nominators have a ballot they fill out, and it lists all the categories for the award. Beside each category is a box. Checking the box nominates the show for that category. To be considered eligible for judging, at least four of the judges must select the show in any one category. If four judges like a show for best actor, the show is eligible and the judges will see it. HOWEVER, and this is a sticky part; if all the judges select it for one or more categories, but none of the categories receive a total of four votes, the play isn't eligible.

But that's not the worst of it; to save tabulation time, each ballot ALSO has a box labeled "not eligible for any category." It was intended to save time in the tabulation. If three nominators checked that box, the show is ineligible; after all, if you need four votes, but only three voters are left in the pool, it's a moot point.

This process was put into place because the prior system produced so many nominations that judges had difficulties making it to every single eligible production.

But the current system has resulted in too few nominations; some very excellent shows fail to get four in a category, although every single nominator have nominated their show for something.

Several theatre producers were furious that they could put time and effort into a show, have everyone love the show, critics rave, and even the nominators applauding it, and then learn that no judges would be seeing the show because it didn't score high enough. One theatre, although they had a few nominations, elected not to come after seeing 95% of their season - and the best of their productions - go unrecognized.

the crisis
Jack Zink was the embodiment of the awards; some years it was the force of his will alone that got them to the day of the ceremony. He was its human face. He was also its heart, soul, and brain. If you had a problem with something involving the process, you'd speak to Jack. He'd calm you down, or promise to take action, whatever. Producers and actors would go to Jack, he'd go to the Committee, and then he'd go back to the producers and actors or whoever. Changes may or may not have resulted, but people felt listened to.

And then Jack died.

He had started the website, and it may have been under his personal ownership; shortly after his passing, the site came down. Jack may have been the only one to have the authority to update or access it. "Might have," because he might have put someone else's name in but forgot to tell them. Or they forgot that they have the account numbers and passwords; no one knows for sure.

And since no one can call Jack anymore, and no single person was identified as taking over for him, people with complaints started calling members of the Carbonell Board directly. Suddenly, instead of Reasonable Jack mentioning that some adjustments needed to be made, there were angry people, vehemently insisting that the awards were hideously out of whack. They complained about how long the ceremony was, or that aspects of it were completely inappropriate. And mostly they complained long, loud, and hard about the unfairness of the nominating process, and demanded an immediate solution.

At least one producer threatened to bar voters from even entering their theatre. And since one major theatre was conspicuously absent from last year's ceremonies, the Committee took it seriously. If things were this bad, they reckoned, they'd better close down before a massive boycott developed.

So the Carbonell Board decided to announce they'd take a year off to fix things, and published a press release that they figured would quell the complaints from participating theatres.

They could not have been more wrong.

the aftermath

The nominators felt blindsided, as did the judges. It was never discussed with any of them in advance. The first notice they got was the press release, and it falsely intimated that they, the judges, had been the force behind the "hiatus" proposal.

The members of the Producers's Forum were also caught off guard; they'd been complaining, but they figured that there'd be a meeting of the minds to work out changes that would benefit everyone and address at least some of the problems.

Most of the people working in South Florida theatre felt betrayed; not because the awards validated them, but because the Awards call attention to the fact that there's a lot of theater going on down here. A lot of theatres made it into the public eye by winning their first award, or by garning the most nominations - or awards. A few years back, the City of Coral Gables even touted the fact that the combined theaters in their town had more awards than the rest of the region combined.

No one is happy about the prospect of a year without Carbonells.

the 'town hall' meeting

First, you have to understand what the meeting was NOT. It was not a meeting with anyone who had the authority to re-instate the awards. No one from the Carbonell Committee was there, although a couple of past members were there. Their insights were invaluable.

Nor was it a meeting about the awards ceremony itself. Pointless to discuss a ceremony that had no awards to give out, and many of the most common complaints are slowly being addressed anyway. (Sorry, Jean-Ann. We didnt' mess your dancers this year. Not even a little.)

Bill Hirschman has taken the lead in addressing the problems, and had approached some members of the Committee, and asked the crucial question: what would the Committee need to hear from the Theatre Community to change their minds and move ahead with holding a 2009 season?

Their reply: an agreement to run the Carbonells as is, without any changes, for the 2009 season. One or two of them said that "really minor tweaks" might be possible, and suggested immediately to lose the "not recommended" box from the ballots. A suggestion followed that it might be possible to change the qualifying number from four to three.

It's important to note that these tweaks would significantly increase a production's chances of being nominated for judging, while not requiring any change in the composition of the panels, nor the criteria by which they judge.

The caveat is that the Carbonell Board meets in the first week of December, and then they're done for the year. So there's not a lot of time to come up with solutions. There's only about ten days, as of this past Sunday.

The room began to discuss these tweaks, to see if they could be refined, or if there were similar small tweaks that could be made.

and then Joe Adler showed up...

He had missed the beginning of the meeting. But he swept in, apologized offhandedly for being late, and then said his piece. And as best as I can recall ( and those of you who taped, feel free to correct me, and I will update as needed) this is what he said, or at least the gist of it:
"I was one of the theatres who threatened to boycott. I'm formally withdrawing that threat: I won't boycott the Carbonells. I was out of town, and then I got the call that November wasn't going to be eligible, and I said "fuck'em. Count me out!" Me, who's won more awards than anyone; who the fuck am I, right?

I was mad; but this is too important. I say 'go ahead with the Carbonells.' And I say go ahead without any changes, because frankly, there's no fucking way to change anything at this point anyway. It's too late. There's no time.

In fact, this whole thing is fucking waste of time: I don't know why I came up here. They're not going to listen to you. They don't give a shit about anything we have to say, anyway. I'm not staying. Fuck it, fuck you, I'm taking my ball and going home!"
And that's exactly what he did.

Things got a little out of kilter for a while after that: Joe has that effect on people. Someone got all riled about politics, Obama was mentioned for reasons I still don't follow. Grumblings came up about the composition of the board, about the backgrounds of the nominators. Someone else griped about the ceremony and was quickly overidden as the meeting came back to a focus.

A motion was eventually made to proferr a resolution to the Carbonell Committee that the theatre community (or at least those of us attending the meeting) that we would find it acceptable to continue with the current system as is for the 2009 season, providing that a process to re-vamp the system was initiated in the first quarter of 2009.

The measure passed, with two abstentions.

"I abstain - courteously!" said the one artistic producer.

The Theatre League selected some members who would form a comittee to meet with the Carbonell Board to discuss the results of the Town Hall meeting. Overall, it was a positive meeting. The message was clear amongst these participants: better to have flawed Awards than no awards.

some thoughts...

A couple of people worried that too much was being made of the awards. "I don't do it for the Carbonells," complained MadCat artistic director Paul Tei. "I do if for the art. And so do all of you. If there were no awards, would you stop doing plays? Hell, no! And if you would, fuck you!"

I agree that the Awards do not really decide who puts on better plays, or who is the best actor. That's nonsense. It's like arguing that Apples are 'better' than Oranges, or Chocolate is 'better' than Vanilla. No, the Carbonells do not validate our work. They never have. They were never meant to.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the true value of the Carbonell Awards is that they give us an opportunity to discuss our plays, and our work.

Look at it this way; right now, you can generally get three news stories about your plays in the mainstream press:
  1. When you announce your season.
  2. As a promotional story before the play opens.
  3. When it gets reviewed.
The Carbonell gives you at least two more opportunities to be in the news:

4. When it gets nominated.
5. When (if) it wins the Award.

And of course, even though Carbonells don't validate your work, it's still nice to able to brag about them: "from the theatre that won 8 Carbonells!" " Featuring Carbonell Award Winning Actor!"

Another observation: this fiasco was created, in no small part, to the fact that the Carbonell Committee doesn't seem to have its finger on the pulse of the South Florida theatre community. If they had, the problem with the nominations could have and should have been addressed much earlier, but even if that still got missed, they should have been aware that cancelling the awards for a year would have been unacceptable.

It's not the first time the Carbonell Committee has made an egregious error in judgment; two years ago, they gave Arnold Mittelman, the most reviled man a very unpopular producer in South Florida theatre, an award. The next day, his theatre closed. Not a great day in Carbonell history.

Some people are calling for the entire board to step down. I'm not. First, I have no place to do so; after all, I couldn't do what they've done for so long. Second, there are some very good people on the board, even though I believe they'd made some terrible decisions, I think that it comes not from lack of competence or intelligence, but simple ignorance. I think they've kept their contacts with the South Florida theatre community minimal; they know the critics, maybe a couple of producers, but they haven't really spent any time with any of us.

The Carbonell Committee ultimately needs to hire an executive to actually run the thing; someone who will make the effort to know how every producer feels about the process, make sure that the Board knows what's going on in the community, and finally, that the entire process is transparent so that there are no questions about how the voting takes place. I'm sure every board member does their best, but every board member has a full-time occupation all ready. The Carbonells need someone who's only concern is the Awards, 24/7. And they'll only get that by hiring someone to do just that.

Jack Zink served in that role voluntarily. But he worked a job that ultimately supported such a role; he was in every theater in South Florida on a regular business. With the way newspapers are being gutted, that's not gonna happen again. At least, not in the near future.

Yes, changes need to be made, from the top on down. But in the meantime, let's not miss 2009. Or any other year.

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