Wednesday, July 26, 2017

a conversation with the ariZoni Awards President Rob Stuart

Rob Stuart
by Gil Benbrook

The ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence have been around for 27 years and like any organization they've gone through numerous changes over the years as they try to adapt with the changing environment and the needs of the wide ranging theatre community in the Phoenix area.

Each year, through an adjudication process that currently enlists 90 judges to score performances by actors and contributions by the creative staffs of close to 200 productions in Play, Musical, and Youth categories, the Zonis recognize the nominees and recipients in their annual Awards Celebration each September.

As a recently appointed Zoni board member I've witnessed first hand the questions and confusions people have with the intricacies of how the adjudication process works as well as other areas where there are misperceptions.

I thought it would be a good idea to ask Rob Stuart, the current ariZoni Board President, some questions about the changes the Zonis are going through as well as talk about some of the misunderstandings I've discovered that many people have concerning the Zonis.

Gil: Rob, you and I both became ariZoni Board members at the same time and there have been a lot of changes to both the organization, the awards, and the way the adjudication process works just in the 18 months that we’ve been on the Zoni board.

I know I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the changes we’ve been making and I’m sure you have as well so I thought it would be a good idea to have a conversation about some of the improvements the ariZoni Board made this past year for the readers of PHX Stages.

First, let’s talk about the new awards that have been added this season

Rob: Absolutely. The two awards we are adding for the 2017-2018 season are Fight Choreography, and Media Design. In past years, these two new awards were included in the Choreography and Artistic Specialization categories, but it has become clear that they deserve to be judged separately. Choreography focuses on dance and movement, while Fight Choreography focuses on movement during combat sequences. Artistic Specialization remains basically as has been, but without the Media Design piece, which focuses on special media like projection work, image mapping, and videography. We’re very excited about these new categories and the additional focus they will bring to these two important facets of the theater.

Gil: We also were fortunate that Flynann Janisse, President and Executive Director of Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation, has now become our College Scholarship Sponsor for the next three years.

Rob: We are incredibly grateful to the Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation for their generosity. This funding enables the ariZoni organization to continue to present scholarship awards to young people, just as we have done for years. I want to remind all of the students in our theater community that applications for these scholarship applications must be submitted no later than August 15th. The application can be found on the ariZoni website.

I should also mention that submissions for the Stage Manager Award, the Max McQueen Distinguished Service Award, and the Kyle Lawson Outstanding Contribution Award are also due on August 15th. Theaters should get their submissions in soon, so that three of our deserving colleagues can be recognized for their work in the community.

Gil: This year the annual Celebration will take place again at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Last year we decided to streamline the ceremony by no longer having a host and having a nominee sign-in table to avoid the delays caused when a nominee who wasn’t able to make the ceremony wins an award. I know we also wanted to include more musical numbers from the nominated shows in place of some of the time that was saved from these changes, but the rehearsal time needed wasn’t available to us. Based on the changes we made last year, and the feedback you heard, what other areas do you think we need to focus on this year to improve the Celebration?

Rob: This year, much of what we have done is further refinement of the adjustments we made last year. Based on feedback we have received, we are focused on improving communication with presenters and nominees leading up to the celebration, and minimizing the mispronunciation of names of productions and nominees during the reading and the celebration. And by popular demand, we are also bringing back the live tweeting of awards winners, the lobby slide show of the technical awards categories, and the streamlined production format that was such a hit last year. Our goal is to produce an awards event that represents all participating theaters, and the entire community of artists who contribute to these fine productions all year long.

Gil: I know automating the adjudication process and making improvements to the adjudicator training have been big topics of conversation since we both joined the board as to how to make improvements in those areas. I know we were fortunate that you stumbled upon Award Force doing a Google search one day.

Rob: It’s true. The board has been planning to automate the adjudicator balloting process for years. When I first contacted AwardForce, who is an Australian based company that focuses on the automated management of Awards Programs, I didn’t realize how completely it would change the way the ballots are processed, from start to finish. 

As of July 1st of this year, the ballots the adjudicators use to submit their scores, are created, completed, and submitted online. This may seem like a small change, but this online platform improves the whole process, saving the theaters time and trouble, allowing easier monitoring of timely ballot submission, and increasing efficiency and accuracy. I want to be very clear that, as in the past, even though this is now all on-line our independent accountant is the only person who can see the scores, and she can more easily process them at the end of the year to determine the nominees and winners. We are very excited about this new software, and the improvement it represents. 

Our next big improvement project involves the adjudicator training program which is presented to all adjudicators before the beginning of each new judging year. Next spring, the ariZoni's will launch a fresh, modern adjudicator training program that will offer adjudicators clear direction and relevant demonstrations, and will be an effective resource for them throughout the adjudication year.

Gil: I still think there is a big misperception as to how the adjudicators are assigned and also that some people think that you and I and our fellow Board members have some influence on the scoring.

Rob: It’s a good point, Gil. It’s important that everyone knows that the ballot scores, once completed on line, are only visible to the accountant, as they always have been. The ariZoni board members are not a part of this process, and don’t have access to the scores. The process was designed this way to eliminate any possibility of a conflict of interest. 

The adjudicators are randomly assigned to productions in their category (plays, musicals, or youth), based on a formula, and adjudicate shows at many theaters, valley-wide. And if a conflict of interest does exist, the theaters or the adjudicators themselves can ask for a replacement adjudicator. The Board has virtually no say in how the random assignments are done and has no access to the scores throughout the year or even after the awards are given out. 

Gil: One thing I was really surprised about when I first became a Board member was just how many shows and participants are competing against each other, not only to win a Zoni but just to be nominated. I know this year there are 200 shows in competition, with thousands of people on the ballots across the categories, so it’s basically harder to get nominated for a Zoni than it is to get a Tony nomination.

Rob: Every contributor to the valley theater community should be extremely proud of the work they do. Through our work in the theater, we are enriching lives and entertaining countless theater-goers every year. Having said that, you are right about the sheer size of the pool of participants who are adjudicated every year. Out of hundreds of productions, only 5 or 10 individuals will be nominated for the award in each category. That makes the nomination an honor in itself, and makes the award a truly special thing. Unfortunately, many quality performances and productions will not get a nomination, and it isn’t possible to recognize every individual contribution with an award. 

Gil: I know I’ve gotten several questions about the schools competing against the other Adult theatre companies in town. Do you think that’s a fair question?

Rob: It’s a great question. There are some who have expressed concern that judging the college theaters in the same categories as the other local adult theaters unfairly favors the school theaters. The ariZoni board of directors has spent considerable time discussing this subject, and we have once again decided to leave things as they are for the coming year. At last year’s celebration, 58% of the nominees and 56% of the winners for adult productions, were for non-college theaters, which made up 61% of the participating adult theaters. These numbers support the current setup, and are consistent with numbers from previous years. We will continue to monitor these numbers year by year. We always welcome feedback from the theater community, and we consider every suggestion. We are always looking for ways to improve the process, but in this case, the numbers just don’t show a significant advantage one way or the other, so we have left the process as it is.

Gil: You’re also really big on getting feedback from not only the theatres and the actors and creative staff who work on the Zoni participating shows but also theatregoers as well

Rob: In the corporate world, I am a strong believer in the value of feedback, and of questioning the status quo. In order to affect positive change in any organization, we must challenge “the way we’ve always done it”. And those individuals outside the small group of decision makers often have a unique perspective on an issue. The theater community is no different. We must make changes where they make sense, and continue to challenge the status quo, in order to remain relevant and effective in our work.

Gil: I know sometimes people are amazed that there are only 10 Zoni Board members with everything we need to do each year.

Rob: The ariZoni board of directors work behind the scenes all year long with theaters, adjudicators, donors and more, to monitor and maintain the process, and to prepare for the celebration in September. Every year, there are changes in the makeup of the board, and this year is no different. The ariZoni organization always needs volunteers to help share the load, and in that way, improve our ability to serve the community. Anyone who is interested in getting involved with this organization, as a board member or as a committee member or volunteer, should contact us right away. I can be reached at

Gil: Let’s go back to the adjudication process. Do you think that is the biggest misunderstanding concerning how the ariZonis work, or do you think there are other things that people are confused about?

Rob: I imagine there are many ways we can improve our processes, and improve the way we communicate with the theater community. Again, I invite anyone who has a suggestion for the ariZoni organization to contact us directly through the web site and let us know what you’re thinking. 

Gil: What do you hope for the future of the Zoni’s?

Rob: The ariZoni organization is here to support the theater community here in the valley. I see it expanding in the future to become more than it is now, more of a resource to local theaters, actors, and all participants of local productions. With everyone’s support and cooperation, we can continue to affect local theater in a positive way, for many years to come.

One last thing. Just a reminder to everyone to join us for the reading of the nominations on August 7th at 7pm, at the Phoenix Theater Bistro Bar. And remember, this year’s ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence celebration will be held on Monday, September 25th! Everyone is welcome to come support Arizona’s theatre community! You don’t have to be nominated to support your friends. Buy a ticket and come join the fun! Tickets will go on sale in just a few weeks, so check out the Zoni site and Facebook page, and PHX Stages, for more information

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