Trophy Life

Controversial ariZoni Awards push envelope on recognition of true excellence in local theater

I once interviewed a film actress who was attempting a comeback with her own television show. "I always tell people that I do this for the art, for the love of the craft, all that hogwash," she told me. "The truth is, I started practicing my acceptance speech when I was 4 years old. I do it for the awards. We all do it for the awards!"

Maybe in Hollywood. But local actors I spoke with recently seem less inspired by the prizes handed out here. No one appeared overcome about next week's eighth annual ariZoni Awards, the much-beleaguered program that honors theater excellence. But not too much excellence, according to many who toil on Valley stages.

"The awards don't mean a whole lot anymore," says actress Debra Qualtire, who's nominated this year for her supporting role in Stagebrush Theater's One More Time. "There's just no prestige left to them. It all sort of fell apart after that year where every person who was nominated won an award," she says, referring to an early ariZoni debacle.

It's that more-than-fair-minded approach to pleasing nominees, and the program's much-maligned and frankly baffling judging system, that has resulted in its rickety reputation among stage artists. (It doesn't help that the award plaques themselves get uglier each year.) Rather than a short list of nominees and one winner, judges (the ariZonis call them adjudicators) nominate 10 contenders and hand out five equally rated trophies in each category. So, after all the bean-counting, there are still no clear winners.

"We want to stay away from the whole winner-loser idea," says ariZoni co-executive director Laurie Fagen. "We call them recipients, and we give out a lot of awards. We want to be able to recognize as many people as we can."

In support of this all-for-one concept, theater companies pay a fee to have their season adjudicated, and a handful of the more than 90 judges are assigned to each production by an ariZoni flunky.

Adjudicators dole out scores from 1 to 10, and the top 10 scorers in each category become finalists. Many of the 140 recipients who take home plaques this year will have won them by as little as one one-hundredth of a point.

The win margin isn't the problem, according to Theater Works managing director Julia Thomson. "It's the lack of a critical criteria. You might have 50 different judges coming to see your season, all of them with different standards," she says. "The result is that a topnotch show seen by judges with particularly high standards will rank lower than a mediocre show seen by judges who love everything."

Theater Works has been nominated for a number of awards this year, and while Thomson, herself an ariZoni judge, admits that "it's nice to be recognized," she confesses that "I don't think the nominations represent our best work." She cites her company's recent production of Lucky Stiff, a musical that was well-received by critics and audiences but failed to receive a single nod from the ariZonis. "Meanwhile, we're nominated for Baby," she says. "Now, I was the musical director on Baby, and I'm telling you, it was a nice show, but it was nowhere near as good as Lucky Stiff."

Everyone I spoke to about the ariZonis carped about the ersatz judges. The first couple of years, the award choices were determined by local theater critics, this critic among them, who later were replaced by a "blue ribbon panel" made up mostly of theater professionals. (Fagen recalls that the critics were replaced because they "couldn't get out to see all the plays," an absurd assertion, since seeing plays is what theater critics do for a living.)

I recall that we critics resigned because we didn't want to vote alongside judges who were theater professionals, assessing the work of their own colleagues. The critics formed the Greater Phoenix Theater Critics Circle, an organization that produced a single awards ceremony before it disintegrated in an explosion of egos. Today, 75 percent of ariZoni judges are theater professionals, which suggests that most of the shows are being critiqued by folks whose interest may go beyond the quality of the work.

"Let's say I'm an ariZoni judge," muses "Jack," a local actor. "And I auditioned for but didn't get cast in your play. Then some nimrod sends me to adjudicate that play. Or maybe I get sent to judge my roommate's play. Or there's an actor in the show who always gets parts I try out for. Is it even slightly possible that my ability to judge is going to be affected by these things? Give me a break."

Jack believes that the awards are also used to penalize obstreperous theater workers. "I was in a play where I was told that the director wasn't going to put me up for any ariZonis because I was such a pain in the ass during the production. I was a pain in the ass, in terms of questioning the artistic process while I was creating the role. But I don't think I deserved to be punished for that. Of course, I could always get even by becoming an ariZonis judge and giving low marks to everything that director does."

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