For years, many local theatre people had talked about wanting to do an awards show. But in 1991, it was Mark Edelman of Theater League who brought the template from a similar awards program to Phoenix from Kansas City. The former Arizona Film, Theatre & Television (AFT&T) organization was asked to be the objective tabulator and “keeper of the ballots,” and AFT&T members along with Valley theatres organized the first awards program for Stage West at the Herberger Theater Center.
Hoping to at least break even for their first attempt, organizers were stunned to learn that by noon, tickets for Stage West had sold out! A few quick phone calls, and arrangements were made to move the obviously popular new event to the larger Center Stage, where the awards were held for many years. The Paul Galvin Theatre on the campus of Arizona State University was a venue as well for one year. The Awards were later held at the Tempe Center for the Arts. In 2019, the awards moved to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and they continue to be held at that location.
For the first few years, the awards were called the Zony Awards, aptly named by AFT&T member Bob Garthwaite. However, a few years later, in an attempt to register the name, Sony Corporation lawyers told AFT&T the name “Zony” could no longer be used because of confusion it might create with “Sony.” Former AFT&T board member Rosanne Armijo helped create “ariZoni” and the new logo, and it's been ariZoni ever since.
At that time, theaters applied to become part of the adjudication process by selecting one of four theatre divisions: professional touring, contracted, non-contracted (which includes educational), and children's. Theatres were also required to meet certain production criteria, including having a scheduled season, presenting on a regular basis, having full-length productions, generally having a minimum of four performance on four separate days, and not remounting previously adjudicated shows unless it is a substantially new production.
Contracted theatres were required to meet two of the following three criteria: operate in association with Actor's Equity Association contract; have at least 50% of actors and designers as salaried employees; and have a minimum annual budget of $150,000. Non-contracted theatres were community, dinner, educational, children's, etc.; and the Children's category consisted of productions featuring children performers (75% or more of the cast was required to be 19 and under). Over the years an emphasis on support and visibility for Arizona actors meant that touring productions were no longer being considered. After the 2016 celebration, contracted theaters removed themselves from adjudication noting "too few theaters in the category." At that time there were only three theaters in that category (Southwest Shakespeare, Phoenix Theatre and Childsplay). This left only non-contracted adult and youth categories.
Theaters producing in those categories continued to grow and today there are more than 35 theaters receiving ariZoni adjudication.
Productions are adjudicated as a play, musical or original work in both adult and youth theater categories. There are currently several categories for adjudication. They include: award of excellence for actress/actor in a major role; actress/actor in a supporting role; directing, musical direction; original script/playwright; choreography; scenic design; costume design; hair and make-up design; lighting design; artistic specialization, specialty choreography and sound design. Theaters submit their productions for adjudication including names of those they want to have adjudicated.
Judges for the first few years were the Valley's newspaper, radio and television critics. However, it quickly became evident that it was physically impossible for only a dozen people to attend the more than 120 shows that needed to be adjudicated. So, the ariZoni Executive Committee opened the adjudication process to professionals and other area people with a theatre background as judges.
Each year, prospective adjudicators send in a resume and an application that details their backgrounds. Potential conflicts of interest are also requested by each applicant. A committee goes through all the applications and determines who is most qualified to adjudicate. Each adjudicator is then REQUIRED to attend annual training sessions (whether new adjudicators or returning) where rubrics are reviewed, any updates provided and adjudicators are provided detailed instruction on conflict of interest potential and how to recuse themselves from adjudication if such a conflict exists. Adjudicators are then randomly assigned productions to adjudicate throughout the year avoiding those for whom they may have a conflict of interest.
In the beginning, the awards were similar to the Academy Awards, where five people were nominated in each category, and one recipient would take home the ariZoni award at the black-tie ceremony. However, in an attempt to avoid a “popularity” contest, and to truly honor “excellence” in theatre, it was decided that a top percentage of vote getters would receive awards. The top ten vote getters in each category would receive a nomination and the top two scorers in the category would receive awards. In 2018 it was decided that in order to provide more visibility within each category one individual could not receive more than one nomination or award in a single category. If an individual received more than one score that fell within the top ten, they would only receive a nomination for the highest of those two scores and the next highest vote getter would receive the next nomination.
The tabulation process was redesigned by Jim Pinkerton, then of Actors Theatre of Phoenix, who based it on a standard bell curve. It's a fairly complicated formula, but one that has worked well for the past few years. And there is a lot of competition at the top! On many occasions there has been a hundredth of a point difference between a finalist and an ariZoni recipient!
Beginning with the 2000-2001 theatre season, every show was assigned five adjudicators. Each theater prepared five ballots ensuring that everyone they wanted to receive adjudication was on the ballot. Adjudicators would receive a ballot when they picked up their tickets at the show. After they saw the show, they filled out the ballot following the detailed rubrics provided in training. Ballots were then put into a sealed envelope and mailed directly to the accountant. Envelopes were not opened by anyone but that accountant and only when it was time for the tabulation to be completed. The lowest score and highest score were eliminated and the rest were averaged according to the bell curve. You can learn more about the adjudication process here.
From the initial theatre nominees, the finalists were determined in each category based on a percentage scale, and nominees are announced to the public about six weeks before the ceremony. The ariZoni award recipients' names are kept secret until the night of the gala ceremony, when they are read on stage. Before this time, the only individuals who have seen ballots or the awards are the accountant and the manufacturer of the awards plaques.
In 2017, the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence Board of Directors found an online adjudication program to help simplify and speed up the adjudication process. With the implementation of Award Force, theater representatives now fill out their ballots online and adjudicators can add their scores online as well. Once ballots are submitted by the theaters and confirmed, they are locked and only adjudicators have access to the ballots to fill in their personal scores. Adjudicators are not able to see any scores but the ones they submit. Once an adjudicator has submitted their scores, the ballots are locked again--this time to all except the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence accounting firm. On July 1 of every year, the accountant begins the process of tabulating the scores so that nominees may be announced the first week in August.
Hosts at the annual ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence have been Valley personalities, such as Beth and Bill, and Maggie and Marty, both air personalities from of KESZ-FM, Pat McMahon from KTAR Radio, local actors Bruce Miles, Ben Tyler, Bob Sorenson, Kathy Fitzgerald, Robyn Ferracane and many others. Celebrity award presenters have included Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, television anchor Liz Habib, newspaper columnist David Leibowitz, and a host of other theatre and area dignitaries.
In continuing efforts to keep the awards ceremony from running too long, an experiment with an announcer, Phil Allen, and an otherwise “hostless” show in 1998 was well-received, and is still the procedure (with Brian Sweiss and announcer). As participation in youth adjudication grew, the ceremony was divided into two events--a youth theater ceremony and an adult ceremony both held on the same evening. The ceremonies are typically held on a (usually dark) Monday or Tuesday night in October, and a party to celebrate the recipients is held after the youth ceremony (and before the adult ceremony) and after the adult ceremony.
During the COVID pandemic, the 2020 ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence ceremony went virtual with a pre-recorded event that included participation by every member theater. In 2021 a re-worked celebration included an effort to hold some aspect of the events outdoors, but Mother Nature had other ideas and a rain deluge limited those options. However, as part of that effort, the ceremony was tightened to just one hour for both the adult and youth celebrations by cutting all performances, eliminating the reading of the nominees (instead showing the names on a video screen), and reading multiple categories of recipients at once. The truncated celebration was very well received. Before COVID, the ceremonies had started to grow unnecessarily long (each running approximately 2.5 hours). The shorter 2021 ceremony allowed more time for pre and post-event gathering. Community building is one of the most important aspects of the event so that time was greatly valued.
In 2022, the ceremony returned to something more similar to the pre-pandemic events; however, the production team incorporated many of the things that made the 2021 celebration such a hit. Performances were added back into the celebration, (three instead of the pre-pandemic four), the video presentation of the nominee names and the reading of multiple categories of recipients continued. Even with the added performances, the ceremonies were both under 90 minutes and a lobby band, open bar and cabaret tables allowed for post-event fun and gathering.
The ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence Board of Directors coordinates the various aspects of the awards ceremony every year. The producer works closely with the board for guidance and volunteers when needed. In 2022, the production team at Scottsdale Arts took over the majority of production management including coordination of all performing groups, rehearsal management and more. This made for a very smooth production and helped provide the board more time to focus on ticket sales, sponsorship coordination and more.
In the summer of 2021, the ariZoni Board of Directors (along with other interested theater community members) met to develop a strategic plan for the next five years. That plan includes expanding the theater community support role of the organization to transition the organization to a theater support organization as its foremost mission with the presentation of the awards being part of that mission.
In the spring of 2023, as part of the sustainability aspect of the strategic plan, the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence Board of Directors hired the first administrator who is tasked with helping facilitate the collaborations, fundraising and project planning work of the board necessary to transition the organization from an awards-only organization to a full-service theater support organization.