Everyone's a Critic, Episode 5
Later today, I'll post the students' final reviews so you can have the pleasure of critiquing the critics, but first, without further ado, our merry--though exhausted--men and women, in their own words. P.S.: Ralph Leary (at left), who shows up in a couple of the entries, is the National Critics Institute Coordinator for Region II, and a professor of English at Clarion College in Clarion, Pa.
I liken the past 60 hours to the first time I ever put contact lenses in my eyes: the National Critics Institute experience has sharpened my focus for watching and thinking about theater. Charged with the job of critiquing the shows in the festival, I found myself paying closer attention to a show's costuming, lighting, and set design, whereas in the past I was mostly attentive to the acting. The teaching also unveiled to me the absolute requirement for a critic to back up every assertion they make about a show. To do this, I had to practice cataloging a show's memorable moments and producing them as evidence to my claims.
The challenge to describe theater in fresh, crisp language and to choose the most important points to put on paper is harder than I thought. It has been especially humbling to work side by side peers who picked up the skills quicker than I did. At the same time, I deem "most valuable" the chopping-block class feedback sessions where every student had a chance to chime in and point out strengths/flaws in each other's writing. It was a safe environment for evaluation because we not only shared our amateur status, but we mutually understood that all of us were here to learn and grow.
Both Wendy Rosenfield and Ralph Leary have been gems: encouraging, witty, and specifically helpful. The only thing that would make this experience better is a longer week.
The NCI schedule reminds me of tech weekends spent at the theatre, both in that we're so incredibly busy (over 12 hours on Thursday), and in how much is accomplished in such a short time period. Between attending critics sessions and performances, writing responses, and commuting to and from Center City every day, calling the program "intensive" would be an understatement. In spite of the long hours, I'm definitely enjoying the experience. I'm learning to approach theatrical performance in a new way, and getting to try my hand at some non-academic writing for a change. The sessions with my fellow critics have been fantastic because the broad range of backgrounds and interests enriches the discussion. I've noticed immediate improvement in my writing, and I have learned so much about the different ways in which critics, audiences, and theatre artists approach reviews.
One of my long-standing issues as a theatregoer was a tendency to be too kind to the performance. Rather than state my opinions honestly, I chose to either soften or outright conceal any strong criticism I had for a production. That attitude had to change at the NCI conference. It was one thing to say kind words about a production when your words were just those of a typical audience member. When you are supposed to provide expert commentary, however, kindness isn't really in the job description.
Learning to express my critical ideas wasn't so much a long discovery process as it was a rapid change. I had to say what I felt. I had to present an honest review every day, and it had to be driven by something real. If I hated a show, I couldn't just pretend it was good; I had to be honest with myself and admit that it was bad. It sounds simple enough now, but I just never let myself think that way. Now, I've found it impossible to go back to being nice. I tried during today's productions (which I am not reviewing) to relax and just enjoy the shows. Instead, I found myself critiquing everything onstage. Why is there a blackout here? Why is the pacing slow there? I can't turn it off anymore. And I don't want to, either.
When we arrived at the Doubletree Hotel for the ACTF conference I picked up the keys for myself and my three other roommates.
'What's our room number?" One of the guys--Sam--asked in the lobby as I handed him his key.
"Uhh..." I looked at the little pamphlet I'd been given. "1408" I said.
"...The haunted hotel movie?" Gilliam asked.
I stopped--trying to think. A group of other conference participants sitting at a couch near us and clearly eavesdropping suddenly burst out laughing. Sure enough, there's a horror movie entitled 1408 where an evil hotel room all but eats John Cusack.
We took this in stride, figuring there was no such thing as evil hotel rooms. But, sure enough, the next day another roommate turned on the tv and what else was on the screen but Jon Cusack getting told by Samuel Jacksion that room 1408 was evil. We'd been there a day and already the place was fucking with us.
This forms part of the reason why I'm glad I got involved with the National Critics Institute competition here at the festival. I leave my hotel room every morning, turning to my roommates and saying "Don't die...please", at 9 and usually don't return until about 11 at night. 1408 doesn't get much of chance to hate me.
But really--NCI proves to be an incredible experience, haunted hotel rooms aside. Theater criticism is a beautiful mashup of the rigid journalistic world and the ethereal land of the theatre. Most of my counterparts have come from the theatre side of the collision, whereas I am the stuffy journalist of the group. I'm pretty sure this makes me the luckiest member of our little band, as I am surrounded with brilliantly minded actor-types with huge knowledge of the stage and all the crazy shit that goes on behind it. I've learned more in the past few days than I did in a good half of my last semester. I love the thirst for knowledge and the need to write displayed by all of these guys.
And all the while, I've been on an endless stress-high since about midday Wednesday. I love deadlines, the way they inexorably approach, threatening to wash over you, whether or not you and your writing are ready for them or not. I thrive off of that sense of urgency--because when I'm writing furiously, I swear it's one of the few times where I truly feel alive. It's the worlds greatest feeling--and the style of theater criticism allows you to let loose the chains that boring ol'regular journalism nomrall imposes on you. I love this writing, I love this festival, and not even room 1408 destroying us could take away the joy of it.
Yeah, sure--that end was abrupt, but if I didn't stop you know I would go on, reaching (and most likely surpassing) Valare-lengths. And no one wants that.
Until next time, kids.
So I have to sneak back into classes Tuesday. On top of that I have to make up the things I missed this week(thank you). Ouch! However, I couldn't have asked for a more educational, more fun reason to miss than NCI. Although time consuming, it was such a free and thought
provoking process, yet it was so much fun. It was such a relief to find a group of individuals who can actually talk about theater in more than "good" or "bad." I mean is that too hard to ask for? Also I have learned a ton about how important it is to remain concise when writing
a review. The harsh world of editorial criticism has it limits on article size, and this forces the writer to keep the meat and remove the fluff. I have got to thank Wendy for her guidance in this process. I especially must thank her for helping me find my voice a bit more in
my writing. Plus she is a fan of The Office and Flight of the Conchords which makes her the coolest person ever. Major props Wendy! Anyways this week has been such a wonderful experience. Thanks to everyone involved!
The overall effect of the NCI workshop experience has reestablished my personal relationship to theater. Having entered the world of criticism from an interest in dramaturgy I believed the class would improve my analytical skills, but the effect is much deeper. Although I love dramaturgy and working with the text, I found myself in conflict with many of the directorial choices and learning critical writing skills has provided an outlet for my beliefs. While watching a production, the arrogance that I once felt for defending a script has faded and been replaced by a more objective critical eye. Being a critic at the KCACTF festival has been a life-altering experience, for which I am entirely grateful. In addition, working in a writing class has brought attention to my writing style and technique. The great part about being a student is the ability to try new things and expand as an individual.
So, I came to the American College Theatre Festival in Philadelphia this week expecting to sit in on playwriting workshops. Instead, I ended up participating in the National Critics Institute workshops. I know, I know... It's slightly shocking that I'd rather learn to be a theatre critic and review invited productions, than attend the playwriting workshops that I had looked so forward to. But fear not, the shock ends there.
The NCI workshops have been amazing! I feel like I've bonded with people who understand the theatre and who aren't afraid to write about their opinions. Regardless of the bad rap generally assigned to theatre critics, I can assure you that none of the nine people sharing this room with me throughout the NCI workshops are the asshole type. In fact, they've become some of the most supportive peers that I've known. As we sit in our workshop sessions critiquing our play reviews from the night before, no one is afraid to share their work. We provide each other with words of encouragement and constructive criticism and laugh and joke and talk theatre.
I couldn't have learned more about the journalistic art of review throughout the duration of this festival had I tried. Wendy and Professor Leary, our mentors, are treasure troves of knowledge concerning critiquing theatre. They've provided a great amount of support and criticism to aid us in our journeys as critics and as writers.
Despite the fact that I didn't attend any playwriting workshops, I feel as though my writing abilities have been nurtured and have grown. Everything that I've learned through the NCI workshops can be taken and applied to what I know about playwriting, which means that I've learned more than how to be an effective critic while I'm here. I've learned how to be an effective critic, how to be a better playwright, how to hone the art of writing into the veins of journalism, creative writing, etc., and how to let my unique voice of authority shine through all of my writing.
I sat down on the first day of this week with the National Critic's Institute and I was incredibly overwhelmed. I am not comfortable with others reading my writing. I am a performer and therefore somewhat fearful of critics. So what brought me to this particular workshop at the festival? Well, with a small attempt at theatre criticism (more praising than criticizing due to the nature of the program) in high school, I thought that this could be another chance to learn this profession in a more serious way. And boy was it! I was not prepared for the amount of work and difficulty I would have trying to keep up with the other, more advanced writers in the workshop. But once I got past my initial discouragement, I was able to find the positive in this situation, as I try with all things. For one, my colleagues weren't condemning me for my short comings. They were all surprisingly supportive of my meager attempts at a few reviews, (and let's remember that they're aspiring critics--so now I know they really are nice people even if they may be critical in their writing). Aside from that, as an actor, listening in on what the critics look at can be majorly beneficial. While a review may be informative, in this environment I got the chance to listen to everyone's opinions (and not in 500 words or less) and really hear what they look for. I have a newfound admiration for this profession and what these writers do. I now understand the effort they put into their work. While I may have realized that maybe this career isn't for me, I've experienced a week of yet another part of this wonderful business and that counts as a success in my book!