What’s in a name? Maybe not much in Juliet’s case, but in Waterford, Conn., a name can be loaded.
With people coming and going each summer, everyone at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center wears a nametag. Hung around a black lanyard, the tags are a great networking tool—how else are you going to remember everyone’s name?—and a way to delineate who belongs on campus and who might be passing through to visit the nearby beach. And under each person’s first and last names comes their title: Playwright, Props Intern, Artistic Director, Fellow.
“What does ‘fellow’ mean?” you might ask, as many of the artists did, whether mingling at Blue Gene’s Pub or lounging on the mansion’s front porch. The answer: In these parts, “fellow” is a friendlier word for “critic.”
Now the critics, or the “fellows” of the National Critics Institute, are not outsiders at the O’Neill—NCI was founded in 1968, three years after the famed National Playwrights Conference began. “Without the journalist, the piece wouldn’t be as strong,” Preston Whiteway, executive director of the O’Neill, says. “The play’s holding a mirror up to society, but who’s holding a mirror up to the play?”
With the closing of the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program earlier this year, the O’Neill is now one of the only professional-development avenues for working critics. Some entities—like the Goodman Theatre, which has a young critics’ program for girls, and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, whose winners are given spots at the O’Neill—host education-based initiatives for aspiring journalists. But the O’Neill’s focus is on those already working in the field. Writers—including, this past July, yours truly—come to the O’Neill for two weeks to work on their craft.
This year, NCI received a makeover courtesy of Chicago Tribune theatre critic Chris Jones, who took the helm of the institute following in the footsteps of long-retired Los Angeles Times critic Dan Sullivan, who ran the institute since 1999. With critics losing their jobs around the country and the world, and peer-review sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor supplanting professional critiques in other fields, Jones maintains that the necessity for professional criticism only increases.
“I don’t feel downbeat about it. People really want critics,” Jones argues. “To some degree it will survive. There is still a place for someone writing thoughtfully about the theatre.”
Still, Jones recognizes that the industry is evolving and the role of the critic is expanding. Writers, particularly those employed full-time at general-interest publications, are increasingly asked to cover areas outside of theatre, and accordingly, Jones incorporated different coverage areas into the institute’s curriculum, with a seminar on film criticism from NCI alum and Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips; a focus on dance from Chicago Sun-Times theatre and dance critic Hedy Weiss; and even a day on food writing, led by former Times restaurant critic William Grimes.
But one thing Jones argues should never change about the role of journalists is their unbiased position and the fact that they are separate from the artists and the people they cover. While the O’Neill encourages interaction and understanding between journalists and artists, Jones admits that he was initially hesitant about accepting the director position, as he feels that being employed by a theatre development organization can muddy the strict line between “church and state.”
“I don’t think I would have taken this if this was a producing entity, which it’s not,” Jones explains. (The O’Neill develops new works for readings and workshops, though none of the presentations are full productions or are open for public review. If or when works move on to a full production, they don’t take any cut of the royalties.) “I admire the people that run this place for letting that happen all these years,” he continues. “And there have often been attempts here to get rid of the critics, like, ‘What the hell are critics doing here?’ I really admire the way critics are tolerated and allowed to be separate.”
For the first time, Jones secured independent funding from the Chicago-based Robert R. McCormick Foundation for the institute, which allowed him to offer scholarships to many fellows, as well as invite some new faculty, including Washington Post theatre critic Peter Marks and London-based New York Times critic (and NCI alum) Matt Wolf.
Though Jones strives to maintain a healthy separation, he still seized the opportunity to grill some of the artists about reviews they’ve received. Responses included the gripe that critics ignore certain elements of the production, misattribute who did what, and try to be clever at the expense of considering the work. While the critic’s responsibility is to readers, not artists, the O’Neill’s goal is to inform journalist about the process.
“There should be a bridge between the two—perhaps it’s a gated bridge that comes up and down from time to time—but a bridge nonetheless,” says Whiteway. “We’re all in this together. We’re all trying further the art form in our own way, and the more we remember that, the stronger we are as a community.”
Critics are welcome in rehearsal rooms at the O’Neill, but publicly reviewing the shows in development is forbidden. Fellows critique the readings and workshops, but for classroom purposes only, thereby eliminating some chance of conflict between critic and artist on campus. But it’s still important to find a mutual understanding.
“‘Critical’ isn’t just another word for ‘mean,’” explains Lindsey Wilson, theatre critic for D Magazine in Dallas and a 2014 NCI fellow. “It’s the process of analyzing and presenting evidence to back up an opinion. We understand that you may have worked for months or years on your art, but we usually only get a few hours to work on ours, if we’re lucky—and no one applauds us at the end.”
And really, critics and artists are more similar than many may think. Just as actors must continually audition to land their next gig, and writers need to constantly pitch themselves to get their plays produced, critics find themselves in similar positions, since landing a paid critic post, let alone a single writing assignment, can be difficult in the Internet age. “We’re just human beings trying to hustle like anybody else,” says Chloe Riley, a theatre critic for the Chicago Reader and 2014 NCI fellow. “It’s certainly a sensitive business, but I think having mutual respect helps there.”
“I really love theatre,” adds Erin Keane, arts reporter for Louisville’s NPR station and 2014 NCI fellow. “I go into every show hoping to be amazed, and when that happens, I am overjoyed. I love plays, especially new plays, and I’m always trying to figure out how and why they work.”
But new plays also present a unique challenge and a chance for potential conflict between artist and critic. At this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, playwright Lauren Gunderson spoke to the American Theatre Critics Association about how a review of a new play can determine that show’s future and how sometimes, from her perspective, a play is not really a finished product after just one production, and critics should consider that in their reviews.
When Times critic Charles Isherwood reviews a show outside of New York, for instance, a good review can be the push the show needs to transfer to New York (Hands on a Hardbody is one example), or, conversely, a bad review can seem like a show’s death sentence. According to Jones, a critic’s job is to hold the artist to the highest possible standard and also want them to reach it; in the case of new plays, if the work is in production, it is fair game for critique, as the artists are charging people money and time to experience the art.
“Somebody needs to keep the artist accountable,” Jones says, though he goes on to insist that no review comes from a mean-spirited place: “Good critics pour a lot more of their heart and soul into their reviews than artists think. Most artists think that critics are just enjoying writing judgmental truisms, and in reality, most critics really wrestle to try and find the truth of what they say. There’s a lot of noise as a critic—there are people trying to influence you; you’ve got your own insecurities; you’ve got your own career goals. But you’ve got to put away that noise and write the truth.”