Everyone's A Critic, Episode I

Day one, and we already have a casualty. Justin Fitzpatrick, whom you met in the last entry, bowed out with a good excuse--he'll be appearing in the festival's production of Love's Labour's Lost. Our ranks are now down to an enthusiastic five students.

62252-buggy-whip.gifThe first assignment I've given to my Critics Institute participants is one that should be familiar to plenty of writers who entered the job market in the 1990s and later (and also to those re-entering the market after a layoff or buyout): write me a query letter for a feature on some aspect of theater in your community. The assignment reflects the reality of a critics' work in these uncertain times. I don't think there's a critic working today who still has the luxury of sitting back and turning in nothing but reviews, and by the time these students graduate, the position of "full-time staff reviewer" will have taken on the quaint, instructive patina that used to accompany the term "buggy-whip salesman." Editors, freelancers, staffers, theater professionals, please let them know what you think of their ideas, and feel free to weigh in with anything else they ought to know about their potential profession.

Query 1

Dear (Editor), 


Although the works of Shakespeare are brilliant and eternal, why is it 

that the works of the Bard seem to be the sole source of dramatic 

literature available to US high school students? If it wasn't for an 

accelerated 10th grade English class and an AP English calss, I 

personally wouldn't have have been introduced to the works of Miller, 

Ibsen, and Chekhov. The same cannot be said of the typical academic 

student at my former high school


I would like to offer you the approximately 1,200 to 1,300 word 

article, "The Exile of Dramatic Lit in American High Schools." 

Generally it will discuss how the exclusion of dramatic literature in 

high schools is systematically hampering the education of students. For 

instance: 


1. Drama polishes the mind: This is the cognitive benefits to studying 

drama.

2. Drama fosters understanding: This includes the empathetic and 

sympathetic benefits to the studies of drama.

3. Drama engages the students: This discusses how drama can bring 

students literally into the world of a piece of literature.

4. You think all modern drama is inappropriate? Have you read "Romeo 

and Juliet?": This final section discusses the fallibility of the 

argument that modern drama is inappropriate by taking a look at the 

seedier side of the typical, sole high school exposure to dramatic 

literature.


This subject really fascinates me because I am both working on a degree 

in secondary education, and I have a vested interest in dramatic 

literature (also being an acting major). I really hope that you find 

this topic intriguing. I look forward to your response. I really think 

that with the current atmosphere of negativity towards standardized 

testing this article is quite applicable. I can get this article to you 

within 3 to 4 weeks of receiving the green light. I cannot wait to hear 

from you.


Sincerely,

Shawn Arnold


Query 2

Dear Ms. Rosenfield:


The issue concerning the updating of classic works of drama confronts any theatre seeking to bring the works of great playwrights of the past to a contemporary audience. Even when a change unlocks new elements of the text, some viewers may find it off-putting to see a great work so "twisted." Yet Mauckingbird Theatre Company is breaking new ground in how to capture the spirit of classic playwrights while applying their texts to their own struggles. Their productions of The Misanthrope, R+J, and Hedda Gabler strive to examine gay culture and its place in our society.


I'd like to offer you an 800 word article titled "Reinterpretation Done Right." This article delves into how Mauckingbird Theatre Company has managed to find ways to make these classic works so relevant to the social themes and issues facing the gay community. The piece looks both at how these productions reinterpret the plays and how they critique our own culture. It specifically discusses the following:


Mauckingbird Theatre Company does not impose ideas upon the text. Rather, it links the themes central to these classic works to their own passions as artists and people.


The Misanthrope proves that Mauckingbird is willing both to critique society as a whole and, more specifically, gay society. Just as Moliere's criticism comes from a hope of bettering French society, Mauckingbird's reinvention embraces gay culture while striving for more depth within that culture.


Mauckingbird's choices of R+J and Hedda Gabler showcase the company's willingness to critique the forces outside the gay community as well. The two productions challenge the established ideas of male and female sexuality, respectively.


As a theatre artist coming out of Villanova University's graduate school, I find it is important to highlight how these artists are reshaping our theatrical community. I believe this article could help expose their work to a larger audience.


I would like to thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Sincerely,


Devin Dippold


Query 3


Dear Ms. Rosenfield,

 

Have you ever wondered how the current recession affects the Philadelphia-area theatre community? The auto, credit, and housing industries as well as job markets across the country have been drastically impacted by the recession, a problem of which most Americans are well-aware. What effect has the recession had on our theatres and arts organizations? Michael Kaiser's recent Washington Post article "No Bailout for the Arts?" addressed this concern at a national level, but how is the ever-more-dismal economic situation affecting our local theatre community? 

 

I'd like to offer you a 1500-word article titled "Philadelphia Theatres: Dark Days Ahead?" The article would discuss the prospective outlook of the Philadelphia theatre community through an examination of specific situations at a range of local theatre companies: small and large companies as well as long-established and recently created theatre companies would be consulted in order to provide a true picture of our diverse theatre community. 

 

My article would describe the recent and projected changes in subscriber bases and gifts from corporate and individual donors. It would probe into the effect of reduced budgets on season selection and hiring practices at area theatres, as well detail creative solutions that individual theatres are investigating. Finally, the article would explore long-term projections for the theatre community as a whole, considering such questions as the number of theatres which expect to weather the storm of recession, and the number of years that it may take to regain previous subscriber numbers and theatre community diversity.

 

I believe that this article would prove engaging for your readers, and I look forward to receiving your response. If the article interests you, I can provide the piece within 15 days of your go-ahead. Thank you for your time!

 

Jessica Hinds-Bond


Query 4


Dear Editor, 


    Comedic improvised acting is a trend in theater that has only truly come into the spotlight in modern times.  While some  "improv" has managed to make it to the national scene (the most prominent of which being the incredibly popular "Who's line is it Anyway?" series), the greater majority of live improv is limited to professional troupes in urban areas. Subsequently, a great deal of theater enthusiasts who also live in the suburbs and the country are forced to miss out on this greater jewel of live performance. However, at the same time there are high school students banding together across the country--forming their own amateur improv troupes simply for the joy of it--and they are desperate for an audience.  


    I would love to present to you an article titled "Startling Amateur Theater: High School Improvisational Troupes Amaze." It would be a 1500 word piece on high school Improv Troupes in  the Deleware valley area, how long they've been around, how often they perform, and how readers can find out if their local  high schools have an improv troupe of their own. 


    First, the article would give a description of what improvised acting is. Improvised acting being the method of doing theater without a script--simply going on stage, taking a suggestion from the audience, and performing a scene based off of that. It would then discuss the perks of high school improv . Amateur improv performances are a great way to spend an evening. Since their members are invariably performing for their families, the shows are usually kept at a PG rating, so one can bring their whole family to the shows. Since the performers improvise for the simple joy of the art and desperately need  publicity--the shows are usually free, giving theater enthusiasts a cheap way to enjoy theater performances in this terrible economy.      

    After this, several examples of prominent local troupes would be highlighted, such as the North Penn High School improv troupe in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  Following this, it would give readers in other parts of the Deleware Valley tips on how to figure out of their own local high school has an improvisational troupe of it's own. Readers can do this via school website and google searches. 

    I am interested in doing this article because I am a graduate of a high school improv troupe myself. I know how to find other high school troupes, as my alma mater's group was in a constant search for fellow improvisers to work with. After high school, I taught informal improv classes for high school students and subsequently have an extensive improv background. 

    I hope I am right in thinking that this would be of some interest to your readers, and I wait eagerly for your reply. I can have a final draft of the  manuscript delivered to you within a week of your decision. 


Regards, 

Peter Starr Northrop. 

January 13, 2009 1:13 PM | | Comments (4)

4 Comments

Hi Wendy,

A great post. Like our fellow ArtsJournal blogger at Performance Monkey, I'd also like to congratulate your students on their bravery. Pitches are rather personal documents. It's hard enough plucking up the courage to send ideas to editors without contemplating the thought of opening them up to the scrutiny of the entire arts journalism community!

I think all the pitches are fluidly-written, unambiguous and concise. My greatest concern, however, is to do with their "hooks". The topics are interesting, of course. But editors may remain to be convinced about why these stories need to be told now and what is there that's particularly original/unusual about the angle. I've read lots of articles contesting the Bard's primacy on school curricula. What new insights will be offered in this article? Similarly, the media has lately been riddled with features about the impact of the failing economy on the arts (I've even written one myself), so how will the proposed story provide a different angle on a now-familiar topic?

Another related issue might be one of news-worthiness. The idea about reinterpreting classics for gay audiences seems like it would make a great academic paper. Not sure if the media would buy into it though.

I think the writer of the pitch about improvisation may be on to something though. He's picking up on a trend which I don't think has been covered much before, or at least not in the way the writer proposes. A local media outlet might find this idea fun. It has a strong human angle. And with the growth of reality TV etc, improv (in the broadest sense) has become a staple of mass media entertainment. as such, the story could appeal to a wide general audience.

Anyway, I hope the above comments don't come across as being too harsh. I very much enjoyed reading all the pitches and wish your students success in all their writing endeavors going forward.

These are all interesting ideas. I've only got a question for Shawn, though, and it's to do with his assessment of the value of drama as a form of education (i.e., polishes the mind, engages the youth, &c.).

How is this different from any other form of literature? Including dramatic literature in a high school curriculum means necessarily displacing some other element--it will therefore be necessary to show not just that dramatic literature has some value to add, but that this value is superior to the elements of the curriculum that it's supplanting. Theater, in other words, must not only offer something, it must offer something that nothing else can.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments--We'll be discussing them in class today.

This is such a creative idea, Wendy. And utmost respect for the students' courage and generosity in allowing their assignments to be posted here.

Impressed by these initial ideas, and interested to see how they throw up potential pitfalls. Are the proposed pieces on Mauckingbird and on improv acting sufficiently rigorous? Interesting subjects both, but sounds like these could both be slightly uncritical - they would have to be full of detail and contain one or two less cosy questions. Readers won't want to read a puff piece.

Shawn's idea about the narrowing range of dramatic literature taught in high school is a terrific one, and raises some important questions, not merely about theatre but about the purpose and direction of wider education. It's a shame that Shawn offers it as an opinion piece rather than as a report. I'd love to read something that interviewed teachers, students, theatre professionals, policy-makers, rather than offer his own (however intelligent, persuasive) personal views.

So my imaginary newspaper is going with Jessica. I'm sure pieces on the recession's effect on theatre have been and will continue to be written, but I'm really impressed by her ambition, and by the range of interviewees and angles she proposes. As a writer, I recognise that this piece would demand that Jessica really put in the hours; but to harvest a broad range of perspectives, looking at both immediate and longterm impact of the economic situation on the theatre community, should be truly thought-provoking. If she could cover this much ground, it's a piece I'd love to read.

My tip, for what it's worth? Think like a reader. What, as a critical, time-pressed, not-necessarily-theatre-struck reader, would catch and hold your own attention? It's not (simply) about your personal passion, or about giving a plug for a company you particularly like. The play of personality is for a column, or a blog. But a feature asks you to take those ideas and burrow into the outside world a little. It's always great to engage with a writer investigating questions to which they may not already know the answer. Good luck, everybody - can't wait to see what you will all write next.

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