Everyone's a Critic, but Only One Gets the Comp

So this is it. We've come to the end of our weeklong foray into the exciting world of theater journalism (which this week conveniently managed to get a bit more exciting than usual). Though all our students stretched their fledgling critiquing muscles, there's only one empty chair at the Kennedy Center waiting to be filled by a Region II critic, and one waiting in the wings for an alternate. Those seats are so tough to come by I'm not even invited, which, you know, kind of hurts my feelings, but whatever. I'm sure whomever I picked will have a great time, and maybe bring me back a snowglobe or something.

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Without further ado, the winner is: Devin Dippold. Our alternate is Jessica Hinds-Bond. Coincidentally, both are grad students at Villanova University. Congratulations to them, and it was particularly gratifying, after agonizing over this choice for several hours, to see that you favored the same writers.  Everyone who was kind enough to comment on the students' critiques should know their comments were seen and discussed by all involved.

And one more thing: it ain't easy to make a profession sound exciting and glamorous when it's fighting for its life. The reason I posted this event here is because I figured we might as well get online and get used to interacting with an audience as quickly as possible, since that's the journalistic world these writers will inhabit once they graduate. And while watching the old newsroom model fade into oblivion is depressing as hell, on the flipside, if you're just stepping out of the collegiate cocoon, well, it's a pretty exciting time to be a writer. I know the economy's against them right now, but when that's all over (heaven help us), these students will be free to make their own rules and redefine arts criticism any damn way they please. 

The last time I taught at the University of the Arts, it was for a 'zine-making class. Remember those? DIY photocopied tracts you'd leave on the windowsill at coffeehouses? Like, not Starbucks, but dingy, poetry-reading-hosting independently-owned places that served espresso thick as mud? No? Then you're either too young or too old. There was a very narrow period when 'zines were all the rage, and when the internet appeared, they disappeared, and you're looking at what replaced them. The point is, with or without an established publication, writers will write, and the good ones will find an audience, and the scrappy ones will figure out a way to make it pay, too. Get enough scrappy ones together and you've got yourself a whole new arts journalism paradigm. It's our job as journalists and teachers to make sure the next generation doesn't flee from journalism, but instead leaves school ready to tear it free from its present bondage. I hope this year's Region II National Critics Institute has done its small part to feed this revolutionary spark. 

January 18, 2009 5:36 PM | | Comments (3)


Hey congratulations everyone!

I wanted Wendy to post this on her blog, but she was too humble and professional do that. Still, I wanted people to know what she did. As chair of the region's NCI, I mostly act like the director who brings in great people, let them do great work, and sit back and watch. Such was the case this year with Wendy and our students.


In the National Critics Institute (being renamed the O’Neill Critics Institute) at our festival, we have “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This year, that “stranger” was Wendy Rosenfield, our Drama Queen. I want to take this opportunity (if Wendy will give it to me) thank her publicly and to give a brief picture of what she did. You have read her assignments and you have read some of the work that the students wrote, but you could no more see what she did than you could see the shows the students wrote about.

Theater consists of innumerable acts of courage: the playwright writes not knowing if his or her vision can speak to others; actors walk out on stage knowing they will be watched and heard and judged; directors and designers are not seen themselves, perhaps, but they know their work is. Critics also put themselves out before the public knowing, as one of our previous critics put it, that they must “bear witness” to the show, to be the critical chroniclers of the production. As critics yourselves, you know how many people—readers, actors, directors, producers—imagine they are your masters. They are wrong, of course. If you have a master at all, it is truth and beauty, a love of the wonderfully ephemeral art of the theater and a conviction to speak honestly about it.

This week, I was able to witness another type of courage. Wendy, as you all know, is a terrific critic. But as she confessed to me, she hasn’t had many opportunities to teach. One wouldn’t be able to tell from the work she did for us. In fact, as someone who has been a teacher for as long as I have, it’s a bit unsettling and humbling to see someone master this craft as ready as Wendy did.

When I asked Wendy if she would be our Guest Critic, I didn’t lie exactly, but I did try to make the job sound less difficult that it really is. I told her that she would teach a four day seminar of about 10-15 hours on writing criticism to college students and then select the student who would go to the national festival at the Kennedy Center and an alternate. Sounds easy enough. But as a teacher, I know it’s not that simple. And yet, Wendy made it seem simple. She listens well (as one would hope a good critic would) and heard the “real” questions the students were asking. She blessed us with her insights about writing, about the theater, about the craft of criticism. She conducted discussions like a maestro, encouraging all the students in the room to talk intelligent about their work and the work of each other. She enabled all of the students to grow, to have skills and knowledge when they left the room that they did not have when they entered. This is the essence of good teaching.

I should also acknowledge the courage of the students in joining our happy band of critics. They, too, put themselves out in front of everyone else. First, they brought their writing to all of us in the group, ready to have it scrutinized, criticized and praise. They also allowed Wendy to put their writing out before all of you on artsjournal.com. (This was, by the way, the first time we had ever done something like this in NCI, and this was Wendy’s innovation, as well.) As I noted to Wendy, by the second of the six sessions, you could no longer well this was a competition—these were people who loved theater and loved writing who were working to make themselves and each other better in understanding both. This sense of camaraderie was fostered by Wendy.

Finally, I want to thank all of you who read and responded to the work of these students. Since most of their review writing up to this point in their lives has been a “review” assigned for an Intro to Theater course, read only by a teacher who quickly reads a stack of them, having their writing read and commented on by others in the field opened them up to a larger world. You made a difference. Thank you for joining our group.

NCI this year, like theater, was a collaborative effort. And it succeeded because of this collaboration. But someone needs to be at the center, and that was Wendy. No longer a stranger, for this week she was our Drama Queen.

Very well said, Wendy! Writers are always going to write, and frankly, I think there will always be people who want to read them. It's strange and a little scary watching the old model get replaced, but something new is going to rise up. Critics and criticism will not be denied.

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