Thursday, August 2, 2018

a conversation with the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence Board President Rob Stuart

Rob Stuart
by Gil Benbrook

For 28 years, the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence has been celebrating theatre in the Valley though their annual awards ceremony.  Over the 2017 / 2018 season, close to 100 adjudicators attended and scored every element and individual in the 200 productions that were submitted from the over 30 participating Zoni theatres in the Youth, Play and Musical categories.

On Monday, August 6th at 7pm, Phoenix Theatre will be the place to be to hear the names of nominees for this year's awards, with the winners rewarded at the ceremony at the Tempe Center for the Arts on Monday September 17th in both a Youth Ceremony, which starts at 5:30 and the Adult Ceremony which will take place 8:30. Tickets for both ceremonies will go on sale first thing Tuesday morning.

This past year also saw many changes in the Zoni organization with the launch of an entirely online adjudication system, a new adjudicator training program and there are many new changes coming up this season.

As a Zoni board member I know there are a lot of questions and some confusion that people have concerning how the Zonis work and last year at this time I interviewed Rob Stuart, the current Zoni President, to get his thoughts on the changes as well as to discuss some of the misconceptions people still have with the organization and how the awards program works.

Last year's interview got a lot of feedback, and with so many more changes this year I thought it made sense to ask Rob some questions again about the organization.

Rob, the last year has seen a lot of change with the ariZoni awards and there are some new and exciting things coming up this season. First, let's talk about the changes that were made this past season including the new award categories that will hear the names of nominees at the reading of the nominee ceremony on Monday.

"Thanks, Gil. We are very excited about the two new award categories. The Media Design and Fight Choreography categories were previously considered parts of other categories, but it has become clear that they can both stand on their own. Media Design, in particular, has become such an integral piece of theater in recent years, that specific recognition of those designers and the work they do is critical."

I've only been involved with the Zonis for three years now but I know that once the reading of the nominees event happens that the next six weeks are going to be crazy!

"They sure are! This coming Monday, August 6th at 7pm at Phoenix Theatre is where we will present the names of the nominees for this year. Everyone is invited and it always proves to be a fun event. Once this year’s nominees are identified, the presenters and performers will be identified and contacted, and the ceremony script work will begin in earnest. It’s an exciting time!

And I also have to mention one of the most important pieces of our yearly ceremony: the special awards and college scholarships. We are so grateful to be working again with Flynann Janisse of the Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation as our sponsor for this year’s College Scholarships. The deadline for scholarship applications, and nominations for the Max McQueen Distinguished Service Award, and the Kyle Lawson Outstanding Contribution Award are also due on August 15th, and we are anxious to present these awards at this year’s Celebration.

This year we decided to keep the same format as years past, with no host and each participating theatre being represented as presenters, but there are some fun and exciting things we are adding to the ceremony experience this year.

"We have all enjoyed the recent improvements, which have resulted in a shorter event, and in better representation for each participating theater during the ceremony. In addition to extended hours for the bar, and improvements in the event’s sound design, we are adding another new experience this year. Watch for announcements soon, regarding a contest to determine who will host a Red Carpet Facebook live, which will lead up to curtain for both the youth and adult shows. We will be live tweeting winners throughout the evening again, and posting them on Facebook as well, just as we did last year. "

Speaking of the TCA, let's talk about how the construction around the Tempe Center for the Arts has made us make some slight changes to the ceremony this year

"Yes. On-going construction has prompted some alternative parking arrangements for both ceremonies. We’ve worked diligently with the TCA to ensure that there is ample parking for everyone, and that attendees can get to and from the parking areas with ease. Attendees to the Youth ceremony will park in a temporary lot just west of the TCA, and attendees to the Adult ceremony will park in a parking garage just a bit south east of the TCA. In both cases, buses will be provided by the TCA to move people to and from those lots, so that no one will have to walk. We have also moved the Adult ceremony back to an 8:30, in order to be sure everyone has time to get to the theater on time. These adjustments will help alleviate any inconvenience caused by the construction. Everyone should watch for more information on the ariZoni Facebook page, and plan to arrive just a bit earlier than usual, so that we can all be on time for this year’s events."

Let's go back and talk about some of the changes we made last season. The decision to move to an online ballot and voting system seemed to be a no-brainer. How would you say the reaction has been from the both the participating theatres and adjudicators?

"What a success the online balloting has been! The reaction from both theaters and adjudicators has been tremendous. The entire process has been streamlined and simplified. We are very happy with the results."

I know last season it was your mission to also improve upon the adjudicator training materials. Why was that so important to you?

"The backbone of the ariZoni awards process is the adjudicators, and the ideal pool of adjudicators are those who are aligned in their approach and dedication to adjudication process. In pursuit of this ideal, we engaged Paul Pedersen, a corporate trainer by profession, to create a new training program which would include better structure, clearer instruction, and professional training materials that can serve as a reference to the adjudicators all year. We have also seen a significant increase in the number of applications to become an adjudicator, so we can be more selective each year, when adding to the adjudicator pool."

Let's talk about the new categories that we added this season as well as some benefits we are planning for the participating theatres

"For the 2018-2019 season, we have made a few important improvements. We have added an award for a youth actor or actress under the age of 13, in a youth show. It will be called the 'Rising Star Award' and is the direct result of suggestions at the yearly theater meeting, and discussions that followed. This will allow a younger actor or actress to be considered for recognition, even in a show that is dominated by the talent level of older teens. We will be issuing an ariZoni theater map this fall, that lists the location and contact information of all of the participating theatres. We believe this map, which will be available at all of the Zoni theatres, will be a great asset to help promote theatre in the Valley. This map is also the result of suggestions from the theaters. And lastly, we have made a change to the Original Script category. Adjudicators will no longer score for an original script. Instead, a panel of experts has been assembled for this purpose. Each member of the panel will read every original work, and will decide through scoring and deliberation which scripts will be awarded."

I know that even while we make many changes and improvements to the ceremony, the organization and the process, that there are some people who still have misconceptions about the awards process. Some think that the Zoni Board members have some influence on both the nominees and the winners and also that the adjudicators have bias or preference in the scores they give and seem to always only get assigned to theatres they only give high scores to.

"This subject is extremely important to us as an organization. The whole system is set up specifically so that the ariZoni board members don’t have access to or any influence over the submitted scores. The only individual who can access that information is our independent accountant. In addition to that, adjudicators are assigned to shows at random, to help reduce the effects of bias in the adjudicating. An adjudicator can never be assigned to adjudicate a specific theatre they've asked to be assigned to as the entire process is done with a random assignment formula. Providing this impartial service to the community is one of our most important goals."

I know you are always open to getting feedback from both the participating theatres and the members of the theatre community. Last year you had one on one meetings with several theatre heads. What was the number one take away you got from those meetings?

"The overwhelming message I continue to hear from the theater leaders is that the ariZoni organization is heading in the right direction. By driving for sensible changes, improving communication, increasing representation for all theaters in ariZoni events and promotions, and by asking for and acting upon input from the theaters and others in the community, we are doing a better job of representing and supporting all local theater."

Under your leadership the Zoni Board has implemented a lot of change and made many improvements. What do you think we still need to focus on or improve upon?

"It is so important to be willing to make change, when it makes sense. In recent years, we have pushed to improve the ways in which we can be a better resource for the theater community. The potential is almost limitless. The ariZoni organization has just begun to scratch the surface, when it comes to ways in which we can add value and further support theater in the valley. It’s exciting, yet maddening, because these things take time. We will continue in our current path, and we welcome those who are willing to help us improve and support! Local theatre is so important to the lives of so many, and we are proud to be a part of it!"

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