Theatre critics have a place to sharpen their craft and learn about their profession, and Robert Faires reports on his stint as a teacher there.
Believe it or not, there are places where theatre critics can learn to be better at what they do. No kidding. There are places where arts writers can absorb the knowledge of seasoned journalists and accomplished theatre artists, where they can witness new plays being brought to life, where they can have their reviews analyzed by critics from prominent publications. I know, because I've just come back from such a place. The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., may be best known for nurturing new work for the theatre, but it's also home to the O'Neill Critics Institute, an intensive program that has been nurturing arts writers for 35 summers. For two weeks, up to 15 critic fellows study with mentor critics, directors, actors, and designers; observe rehearsals and performances; write, write, write until their brains cramp; and have their writing discussed in detail by their colleagues. Way back when I was just a few years into this line of work, I was fortunate to attend the institute, and the experience did much to shape my approach to criticism and sharpen my skills as a writer.
Two weeks ago, I returned to the O'Neill for the first time in 15 years. This time, however, I wasn't one of the critics seeking knowledge about the profession, but one of the critics seeking to share my knowledge with the fellows in attendance. The invitation to spend a few days teaching at the O'Neill came out of the blue this spring, and while I was delighted to have it, I felt a little like a bush leaguer being called up to the majors. Typically, institute instructors are award winners who write for nationally known dailies and alternative papers in big cities. During my three days at the O'Neill, I would be working alongside Michael Feingold of the Village Voice. What could a guy from a weekly in Austin possibly add to the pearls of wisdom that would surely be flowing from him and the other nine distinguished critics at this summer's institute? Well, I had to trust that OCI Director Dan Sullivan, former lead critic for the Los Angeles Times and one of my mentors at the O'Neill in 1988, wouldn't invite me without cause, so I put on my best Leo DiCaprio Catch Me If You Can confidence and headed for Waterford.
You'd have to talk to this year's critic fellows to find out if I did, in fact, contribute anything useful to their understanding of theatre criticism, but for myself, I found this trip to "the show" to be invigorating. I had the opportunity to meet more than a dozen arts writers from around the country and to learn about the challenges they face as critics and, more simply, as people who care about the theatre. That's one fact about critics that I find to be true more often than not: They have a deeply rooted love for the art form they write about, and in most instances, it is that love that led them to criticism. Far from the popular stereotype of the sneering aesthete who seeks to tear down what he sees, these critics embrace theatre and want it to succeed. They're looking for ways to write about plays and theatre artists with humanity and insight. Their generosity, toward their subjects and to me personally, encouraged and inspired me. If you have despaired over this country's indifference to the arts, take heart. I have seen people working to get the word out. They're good.
The Austin Circle of Theaters has long honored outstanding work by actors, directors, producers, playwrights, singers, musicians, designers, and other theatre artists in its annual B. Iden Payne Awards, but they've yet to recognize the contributions of the artists who design the posters promoting all that stage work. Well, ACoT is rectifying that this year with a six-week exhibition of outstanding poster art from the 2002-2003 season at its Orange Room in the arts space on Tillery. Theatre companies and producers have until Thursday, July 31, to submit samples to ACoT at its office: 701 Tillery #9, Austin, TX 78702. Submissions should include the artist's name, print-house name, and relevant artist media information along with a program for the event or other relevant production information. Visitors and a jury panel from IDEA galleries will be able to cast their votes for their choice for outstanding poster design, and the artist whose poster is voted most outstanding will be announced on Sept. 22, the night of the 29th annual B. Iden Payne Awards.