Trophy Life

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."

Then again, maybe not. Fagen has an unusual strategy for battling nepotism and possible abuses of adjudicating power. "Just in case anyone's trying to be vindictive," she says, "we throw out all the really low scores." (What that bizarre tactic does is spotlight a few productions that are nominated repeatedly, while many worthwhile shows and performers are completely overlooked.) "We also have the judges fill out a form every year where they can tell us if they have a conflict of interest with any company. And the theater companies are given lists of adjudicators, so they can prevent anyone from judging their shows who they perceive as having a conflict."

Jack is gleeful when I tell him about the forms. "So someone is going to write, 'I cannot judge this show because I used to sleep with the lead and now I hate her'? Please. Everyone who works in theater in this town has a conflict of interest, and most of the ariZoni judges are theater people. You figure it out."

About the list of judges, one local artistic director scoffed, "These are all the people who aren't good enough to get hired by my company."

Not every ariZonis judge is nursing a grudge. "I do my best to not be swayed by the fact that I'm seeing a show directed by a guy who didn't give me a callback," says Marc, a pseudonym for an actor who appears in local productions when he's not adjudicating them. "I try to be as positive as I can, no matter how bad the play. I keep in mind that the people involved aren't being paid, that they're doing it because they love the theater. So if the show is lousy, maybe I'll play up the set design or something. There's nothing wrong with that."

Several mask and sword clubs feel otherwise. "I think I can speak for the professional theater companies when I say that none of us takes the awards too seriously," says David Ira Goldstein, artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company, which received the most ariZoni nominations of any company this year. "Some of the performers who were nominated were on stage for seven minutes. The judges are an unknown quantity; they leave the theater saying, 'I liked the play, so the costumes must have been good, too.'"

Goldstein feels that the main value of the ariZonis is as an occasion for theater people to get together to celebrate their craft, a sentiment that Fagen echoes. "It's also great publicity for theater companies and their shows," she says, but Goldstein isn't buying that.

"I always hear that the ariZonis are a good marketing tool. How? Scapin got 15 nominations, but no one can buy a ticket to it; it closed months ago. And subscribers don't know how many awards we got. Most of them don't even know what the ariZonis is."

The ariZonis is fast becoming as worthless to actors as it is to theatergoers. Qualtire was somewhat underwhelmed to discover she'd been nominated for her performance in One More Time, a show reportedly renamed One More Crime by its production staff. "I said, 'I was nominated for that?' Believe me, this was not my very best work."

Consensus among stage people seems to be that the nepotism and would-be fair-mindedness of the ariZonis has debilitated the award, that inferior work is lauded by judges who can't see straight, while exceptional work is overlooked. "It's a flawed system," agrees ariZoni judge Marc, who wasn't aware that the awards show was being held this month. "But any boost to theater is a good thing. The ariZonis is like a grade school pageant, where the kids are told, 'Congratulations, you did a good job.'"

Qualtire, for one, isn't all that interested in such kind-hearted compliments. "I don't think I stand a chance of winning this thing," says Qualtire, "but if I get the award, I might have to say something about how I've done better work that no ariZoni judge happened to show up for."

That's an acceptance speech I'd like to hear.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela