This July, I was one of 14 theater critics from across the country who participated in the 2017 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It was a great honor, and an even greater learning experience. Led by Chicago Tribune Theater Critic Chris Jones, the intensive two-week program focused on improving our journalistic style; expanding our reviewing experience to include food, dance, and movies, in addition to theater; discussing pressing issues within the profession with renowned guests; and participating in developmental workshops for new plays and musicals.
It was also strikingly similar to being on a reality TV show. (Project Runway comes to mind.) Since the networks are unlikely to pick up a series focused on people typing elegant sentences and killer ledes on their laptops, let me fill you in on what “Project Critics Camp” would entail.
1. Lots and lots of tight deadlines. In 15 jam-packed days we saw 9 performances. We wrote 5 theater reviews, one modern dance review, a restaurant review, a movie-inspired op-ed, a theater related think piece, and a 45-second radio review. Sometimes worked late into the night to turn the pieces around. Sometimes we got up insanely early to meet a 9am deadline. Sometimes we had less than an hour to get our writing done. This leads us directly to. . .
2. Sleep deprivation. Our schedule was intense. Normally it went like this: Morning sessions critiquing our writing, afternoon sessions with a guest artist or critic learning about their process. Then a play or musical in the evening, followed by a restorative beverage at Blue Gene’s Pub, often mingling with the cast. Finally we would head back to our dorms to write — our 800 word reviews were due first thing in the morning. Repeat for two weeks, with occasional side trips to Mystic, the Berkshires, Goodspeed Opera House, or the Williamsburg Theater Festival. The result? I drank more coffee at the O’Neill than I had in the previous three months — cafeteria coffee with cream and an extra packet of Sanka mixed in to give it the power and taste of espresso. By the end of the Institute I was up to three or four of these custom coffee drinks per day.
3. Every day was a surprise. You know how Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum are always waltzing down the runway to announce the next challenge to the group of anxious designers? The O’Neill was like that. Our schedules for each day were emailed out only hours in advance, so there was no time to worry/prepare for each new session. There was just showing up and participating fully, whether we were going to tour Eugene O’Neill’s cottage and eat lunch at Fred’s Clam Shack, or getting in the van to venture to Jacob’s Pillow for an immersive crash course in modern dance.
4. We were frequently star struck. The designers on Project Runway get to meet some of biggest names in design, often at cocktail parties or at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. Similarly, we talked about a great new production of Hamlet with Ben Brantley, the chief critic at the New York Times. We discussed great food and terrible service with Sam Sifton, the NYT Food editor. We learned how to talk about dance from Pulitzer Prize winning dance critic Sarah Kaufman. And we chatted with composer Tom Kidd (Next to Normal) and book writer John Logan (the play Red and the screenplay for “Skyfall”) about a new musical they were working on with Tony winner Kelli O’Hara — who later sang it for us. The level of talent and accomplishment in our classroom was staggering. Their generosity of spirit in working with us was also astonishing.
5. We made it work. There were no tears during the evaluation of our writing, and we got everything done on time, more or less. There was nervousness and questions and occasional frustration, but there was also lots of support and encouragement from our mentors and also from our fellow critics. And although there were no cash prizes, no one got sent home at the end of each day either. Instead we went to the beach, waded in the water, and watched the ferry to Block Island sail back and forth as the sun set. That was pretty great.
6. Returning in future seasons. There is a tradition of O’Neill participants returning as guest teachers and visitors, just like some of your favorite Project Runway designers show up on all-star seasons. In fact before we left several of my classmates were already plotting and scheming on ways to come back to soak up some of the O’Neill magic in future summers. My group also talked about reunions in New York City or London. . . and one week after my O’Neill experience ended I confess there’s nothing I’d like more.