We were warned well ahead of time that we should expect boot-camp-like conditions. They certainly didn’t lie.
We wrote fourteen pieces in fourteen days. That makes the last two weeks of the Broadway theatre season (traditionally filled with eight to nine openings) seem like child’s play.
I’m fairly certain that nothing we wrote at the NCI represented our best work, but it stretched us, pushed us and expanded our horizons. It exhausted us to the point that our common grammar and style errors were exaggerated, thus easier to see and dissect. It instilled in us a sense of confidence. The one disadvantage to writing reviews for your own site is not having an editor to double-check your work and point out mistakes, factual and grammatical. Although, I know my friends will come through for me on those two counts.
Each day came with a new set of copied hand-outs in our mail boxes. It was either a sample from one of our many prestigious mentors, or some guide to improve our skills, like “50 Rules for Writing Good” and “Under the Grammar Hammer.” We were so busy, I think many of us didn’t get to read these until well after we had returned home. When pulled together, these handouts represent a virtual textbook on writing and theatre criticism.
Dan Sullivan, a former theatre critic for the Los Angeles Times for twenty years has led the NCI program since 1999, but has been involved with it since 1977. I was thrilled to be a part of NCI this year as it turns out that this was Dan’s last year as the program’s director.
Not one of our nine participants complained about the average food (which actually was very good when you stop to consider that they were cooking for 75-100 people at any given time.) No one complained about the dorms where the men and women shared the same bathroom. No one complained that we were up late writing and had to be back on the O’Neill campus at 8:30AM for breakfast and the start of our 9:30AM sessions.
The National Critics Institute is just one of the many programs at the O’Neill Theater Center’s summer season. We were surrounded by talented actors, playwrights, directors, designers and technicians. The season includes the National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference and Theatermakers. Theatremakers is the summer component of the National Theatre Institute, a year-round program at the O’Neill for college students.
Also at the O’Neill during the summer is the National Puppetry Conference. Unfortunately, this took place prior to our arrival.
All three conferences provide puppeteers, playwrights and composers with a safe environment in which to massage their new works, away from the critical eyes of publishing critics.
Owing to its reputation and its proximity to New York City, the O’Neill attracts the likes of actor Brian Murray, musical director John McDaniel and puppeteer Jane Henson. Mrs. Henson was the widow of famed puppeteer Jim Henson and a founding member of the National Puppetry Conference. She passed away just before this year’s conference and, in tribute, a tree was planted in her honor in the Sunken Garden.
Each evening at the O’Neill was filled with theatre and then retiring to nearby Mitchell College to write in sweltering, un-air-conditioned dorms. For many, this was preceded by a trip to the Blue Gene Pub for a bit of “creative juice” to kick-start the evening’s writing. Most evenings we were up until 1:30AM to 2:00AM writing, some stayed up even later. Our assignments were due by 8:00AM the next morning.
My fellow critics and I reviewed everything we saw during the two weeks. Like the other programs at the O’Neill, these reviews were written in a safe environment where we were encouraged to take risks with our writing without the review being published or shared with the artists. This was our creative sand-box where we could learn and expand our own writing skills.
If we weren’t seeing a play or musical at the O’Neill, we were off to one of the other ten professional theatres in the state of Connecticut. We saw Footloose at the Ivoryton Playhouse and Hello, Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House.
We were encouraged to mingle with other artists, with whom we ate three meals a day prepared in the industrial kitchen at the Hammond Mansion. In addition to reviews, two of our assignments were a feature and an interview. Time was a precious and fleeting commodity at the O’Neill so I elected to move quickly in determining my topic and interview subject.
For my feature I selected the Theatermakers program and one of its young playwrights, a man named Zach Rufa. Rufa, 21, lost his leg at the age of 16 after efforts to fix a birth defect failed. The Theatermakers program helped him get in touch with himself both physically and emotionally.
The subject of my interview was NCI program director, Dan Sullivan. That feature will be appearing on this site in the coming days.
I did an additional interview because the opportunity presented itself. I spoke with a rapidly rising new talent, playwright Samuel D. Hunter. Hunter’s play The Whale, starring Shuler Hensley premiered off-Broadway last season and was the recipient of a 2013 Drama Desk Award and 2013 Lucille Lortel Award. He was at the O’Neill to work on his latest play, A Great Wilderness. The play was commissioned by Seattle Repertory Theatre and is making its professional premiere as part of its upcoming season. A Great Wilderness is just one of three commissioned works he has premiering at three different regional theatres during the upcoming season. I couldn’t help but wondering if I was interviewing the next Arthur Miller.
With the slow death of newspapers, we frequently found ourselves talking about the future of theatre criticism. Though concerned, the general concensus was that theatre criticism would continue and evolve to the latest medium. We just needed to find a way to make it pay. We were fortunate to have experienced critics as our mentors, a number of them affected by this millennial shift.
Our mentors included:
- Dan Sullivan – reviewed theater for the Los Angeles Times for twenty years and recently retired as Director of the O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. He teaches arts reviewing and reporting at the University of Minnesota Journalism School.
- Mark Charney - is the Associate Director of the National Critics Institute; National Coordinator of the Institute for Theatre Journalism and Advocacy for the Kennedy Center American Theatre Festival; and Chair of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University.
- Michael Feingold – was recently laid off after three decades as Chief Theater Critic for The Village Voice, he currently writes a monthly essay, "Thinking About Theater" for Theatermania.com. A noted translator, dramaturg, and playwright, he is presently translating a 20th-century French classic for Theater for a New Audience, which will wind up the company's first season in its new Frank Gehry building in May 2014.
- Julius “Jay” Novick - is a journalist and an academic: a veteran of forty years as a theatre critic in New York, and Emeritus Professor of Drama Studies at Purchase College, SUNY.
- Nelson Pressley – is a theatre critic with The Washington Post.
- Andy Propst - is a freelance writer and theater critic living in NY and currently working on You Fascinate Me So: The Authorized Biography of Cy Coleman (tentative title, to be published by Hal Leonard.) Follow Andy on Twitter @apropst.
- J. Wynn Rousuck - is the former longtime theater critic of The Baltimore Sun and current critic at Baltimore's NPR affiliate, WYPR. Follow Judy on Twitter @jrousuck.
- Linda Winer – is theater critic and arts columnist at Newsday, which she joined in 1987. She has also taught critical writing to dramaturgs at Columbia University since 1991 and has served on the Pulitzer Prize jury for drama eight times, five times as chair. Ms. Winer’s full biography.
We began each morning reading our reviews of the preceding evening’s show aloud. The floor was then opened to discussion. No one held back, yet no one was vicious or hyper-critical. Our exercises included writing a review that restricted us to the use of just five adjectives or adverbs, an effort to get us using more active verbs. During one exercise we were told to go out onto the grounds of the O’Neill and using any of our senses other than sight, describe what we heard, smelled, or touched. We had a half-hour to do this exercise. It got us in touch with the rest of our senses and how these might help in painting a picture for our readers.
We were encouraged to go out on a limb and write reviews in formats other than the traditional, stock review. This included writing a review for radio. In a sign of the times, we were encouraged to compose Tweets and Facebook posts that would be used to promote our reviews (if we were creating them for the real world.)
Perhaps one of the most exhilarating exercises of all was getting to work with director and acting coach, J Ranelli. We sat in Eugene O’Neill’s boy-hood home, the Monte Cristo Cottage, and took part in reading O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I hadn’t read a script from an actor’s perspective in years. As I read the role of Tyrone, J would stop us every few lines to get our faces out of the script and talking and reacting to one-another.
The National Critics Institute was a life-altering event for me. It pointed out my short-comings and gave me a new respect for theatre and arts criticism. It sparked an interest in me to make sure that theatre criticism survives and theatre critics are able to find a revenue model that will allow them to sustain their livelihood as newspapers slowly disappear and theatre critic’s careers are cut short.
In addition to myself, this year’s Critic Fellows were:
- Ellen Gardiner – applied to NCI in order to enrich her teaching and to indulge in her own love of writing. Next summer she plans to put to use what she has learned while at NCI. She will teach a class at the Spoleto Art Festival called "Writing for the Arts."
- Erin Hopkins - is a freelance writer and dramaturg living in Raleigh, NC. Follow Erin on Twiter @Hoppicans.
- Paul Hyde - is the arts writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News. His features and reviews can be found under “eGreenville” at greenvilleonline.com.
- Randall Rapstine - is an actor, director, playwright and screenwriter. He is currently an MFA candidate at Texas Tech University. Visit Randall’s site at randallrapstine.com or Follow Randall on Twitter @pranrap.
- Sammy Scott - is a stage manager, actor and playwright based in Seattle, WA. Follow Sammy on Twitter @samantha_scot.
- Lauren Smart - is a theater critic and arts journalist based in Dallas, Texas. Visit Lauren’s site at laurenesmart.com.
- Jamie Leigh Stevens - is a double-major soon to graduate from Middle Tennessee State University. Actor, playwright, and critic, she is preparing to teach high school.
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