Fall 2008 | Volume XXI, Number 4
The Show Goes on for the Carbonells
By Mary Damiano

It was the e-mail that shook the theater community to its core and threatened to bring the curtain down on a program that recognized and rewarded excellence. 

The November 17, 2008, announcement that the highly regarded Carbonell Awards would suspend its program for a year to re-evaluate its system - meaning that no show opening in South Florida in 2009 would be considered for recognition - took everyone by surprise. 

The reasons for the Carbonell Board’s decision included 10 months of high gas prices paid by the volunteers on the Carbonell panel who see shows in an area that spans, north to south, more than 90 miles; the untimely passing of co-founder and executive director Jack Zink; a rapid decline in the regional media pool which formed the basis of the judging procedure; and a failing economy which affected donations and ticket sales to the annual awards ceremony. 

But the show must go on, and the theater community set out to make sure the Carbonell Awards would continue in 2009 as well.  The Theatre League of South Florida, an 18-year-old advocacy organization led for the past six years by Meredith Lasher, sprung into action.  The Theatre League held an open forum for the theater community on November 23 to get ideas about what could be done to reverse the Carbonell’s decision.  The Carbonell Board asked that all information be filtered through the Theater League.  Committees were formed, ideas were discussed, and flurries of phone calls and e-mails became the order of the day.  The hard work paid off, and on December 5, 2008, the Carbonell Awards issued a press release saying that the Carbonells would continue through 2009. 

It was a dark 18 days, but representatives of the two organizations, including Lasher and Carbonell board members Jay Harris and Savannah Whaley, reached a solution that gave back the awards to the South Florida theater community.  The power of partnerships had produced another success story.

“The theater community could exist without the Carbonell Awards.  The Carbonell Awards could exist without the Theatre League,” says Lasher.  “But the point of all this is to give visibility to the theater community.  The visibility the Theatre League can provide to the Carbonells and that the Carbonells can provide to the Theatre League makes it an obvious partnership. The Carbonells give us nationwide recognition, and that is absolutely in line with the mission statement of the Theatre League.  Of course we should be aligned.”

The Carbonells were founded in 1976 as a way to recognize excellence and also as a scholarship program, raising funds for students in the region to study at accredited colleges and universities for careers in journalism, and the visual and performing arts. Since the first, single $500 scholarship was given in 1978, dozens of students in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have received a total of approximately $100,000.

Michael McKeever, a Davie-based playwright, actor and scenic designer, has received more than 10 Carbonell nominations, for both his acting and writing.  His plays have won the Best New Work award three times.  He praises the effect a Carbonell Award can have on a winner’s career.

“It’s always a great hurdle just to get the play written, and then it’s an even bigger hurdle to get the play produced,” says McKeever.  “When you win an award that’s picked by people who see all the work that’s out there, it really is a validation of all the energy and all the effort that went into that piece.  And once a play becomes an award-winner, its value immediately goes up.  Possibly, the most valuable thing about the awards is its ability to be used to market a new play.  And the Carbonells are known at this point as far up as New York.” 

The South Florida Theatre League was founded in the early 1990s.  Although its mission and direction has evolved over the years, its current role is as is an alliance of theatrical organizations and professionals dedicated to nurturing, promoting and advocating for the growth and prestige of the South Florida theater industry.  Members of the Theatre League get a member page in the organization’s online directory, with their headshot and resume posted, giving them global visibility.  They also receive weekly updates on auditions and upcoming theater events. 

The Theatre League has also produced the South Florida Theatre Festival since 2005 as a way to develop audiences and increase public awareness of South Florida’s vibrant theater scene. 

Formerly a two-month event in the spring, the 2009 Theatre Festival has been changed to a two-week event in the fall - the beginning of the theater season - so that theaters can better promote their new season and the event could include the national Free Night of Theatre event, a program of Theatre Communications Group in New York. The plan now is to kick-off the festival with Naked Stage Theatre’s critically acclaimed 24 Hour Theatre Project.  The 2009 Theatre Festival, Lasher says, will also include staged readings, ticket discounts and the Silver Palm Awards, given for outstanding recognition of work done within the festival. 

“It’s much more focused and not all over the map,” says Lasher.

According to Harris, the Theatre League and the Carbonells partnered to administer the Carbonell Awards jointly in 1994. The Theatre League helped the critics expand the voting base to serve a theater community that had expanded into more productions and a larger geographic area than in 1976 and also helped with the ceremony and awards presentation.  In 2002, the Carbonells were reorganized into a community-based program maintaining the mission of rewarding excellence in theater; the arts and providing scholarships; the Theatre League no longer co-sponsored the awards.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that when a group is handing out awards, there will be grumblings about who’s nominated, who wins and who doesn’t.  That’s long been the case regarding the theater community and the Carbonell Awards, with the theater community citing flaws in the Carbonell system.  Several theaters had questioned the value in participating in a program when they felt slighted by its system.  But faced with the loss of the Carbonell Awards for a year - and many believed that a year-long suspension would lead to its demise - the theater companies and individual theater professionals banded together to come up with a solution that would keep the Carbonell Awards going through 2009.

McKeever says he was initially outraged by the Carbonell board’s decision to suspend the awards.  “Looking back now, I understand why they did it, to get the theater community’s attention,” McKeever says.  “And that they did.”

Lasher sees the near-loss of the Carbonell Awards as a catalyst toward unification.  

“I can’t think of a single other issue that would unite the theater community the way this has,” says Lasher.  “To see vastly different theater companies come together and say this is truly important to us and it’s at the core of who we are as a community, it’s really inspirational.  It was an incredible catalyst to make that happen.”

Now that the Carbonell Awards have been reinstated, members of the Theatre League and the Carbonell Awards are moving forward, working together to ultimately build a more successful theater arts partnership.

“Having a strong arts community makes the place that you live better,” says Lasher.  “It provides options in entertainment.  It makes the value of your home greater (because) you have those kinds of options in your backyard.  It gives the public at large opportunities to participate. It says something about where you live.” 

- Mary Damiano is a writer, editor and Carbonell panel member in Wilton Manors.  She is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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