Think of it as grad school in a bottle. Two weeks of 20-hour days filled with discussions, theater productions, review writing and critiquing, and never, never enough sleep. That was my recent two-week sojourn as a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.
The center is located in a beautiful part of rural Connecticut, on the shore of Long Island Sound. So there were a few brief opportunities to visit the beach, or, more likely, to see it from a distance as we sat under a tree for one of our discussions. We stayed in a college dorm nearby and got shuttled back and forth to campus. The O’Neill Center is quite large, with two theaters inside and two outside. The “mansion” is home to the O’Neill’s administrative offices and the kitchen and cafeteria where everyone ate (no ratings for the food). Another large home houses more offices and meeting rooms. There’s also the favorite Blue Gene’s Pub, a cozy tavern that was busy every night. Our morning meetings (before the heat set in) were usually held in the Sunken Garden, under the trees with a view of the ocean. In the afternoons, we met in the Founders Room or another meeting room. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
The Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s childhood summer home, is in New London, a short drive from the campus. The house was the setting for his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. We spent part of a day there, touring the house and talking about theater—and feeling some of the eerie O’Neill spirit.
Many other theater conferences were going on at the O’Neill at the same time. The National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference, and Theatermakers (a six-week intensive for student playwrights, actors and directors). The National Puppetry Conference had just ended and the Cabaret and Performance Conference was about to begin.
Chris Jones, chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, is the new director of the institute, and he has added some new features to the workshop. For instance, one lovely Saturday evening, we went to Mystic, where we split up into smaller groups to have dinner (and write restaurant reviews when we got home). We saw a movie one night for the purpose of discussing the adaptation of a work from stage to screen. (See my Jersey Boys review.)
My 13 fellow Fellows were theater and arts writers and a few graduate students, mostly from the northeast but also from Dallas, Phoenix and Louisville—and three of us from Chicago.
Our days were filled with talks by visiting theater critics and other theater experts and sessions where our reviews were critiqued by Chris, the visitors and each other. It was a fabulously invigorating experience. Our nights were spent going to the theater and then writing reviews about what we had seen, for submission by early the next morning. Did I say never, never sleep?
I’ll give you an overview of some of the sessions we had with visiting critics and theater folk.
Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune’s chief film critic, is a former theater critic for the Tribune and several other papers. He talked about his favorite film and theater writers and gave us some valuable insights on writing reviews. He also talked about the art of adapting a work from stage to screen.
Dan Sullivan, Jones’ predecessor as director of the NCI, was a theater critic for the LA Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We read the Tennessee Williams short story (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass”) that later became the play, The Glass Menagerie, and Dan talked about the structure of the play and its first reviews in 1944.
Josh Horvath, a sound designer from Chicago, was at the O’Neill Center to handle sound design for one of the O’Neill productions. He described who handles what in the sound area during a production, and the difference between orchestration and sound.
Jeffrey Sweet, playwright, who worked for years in Chicago, is author of Flyovers, The Value of Names, The Action Against Sol Schuman and Class Dismissed. He also is author of the new history celebrating the O’Neill’s 50th anniversary—The O’Neill: The Transformation of the Modern American Theater (Yale University Press, 2014).
Matt Wolf, theater critic for the International New York Times and formerly for the International Herald-Tribune. He’s a Yank, based in London, so he regaled us with tales of the London theater scene. He also was an excellent person to work with on critiques of our reviews.
Linda Winer, theater critic for Newsday, and formerly critic for the Chicago Tribune, provided a wealth of information about the role of the critic.
William Grimes writes for the New York Times, where he was chief food critic from 1999 until 2004. He told us his personal rules for the colleagues who accompanied him on his food adventures (everyone orders something different, don’t eat slowly, make at least three visits to the restaurant) and gave us many great insights on writing—about food and other topics.
Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy, a former dancer, had us start our session by doing stretches on the patio outside our meeting room. We watched different types of dance videos to get a sense of how to review this art that most of us were not experienced with. We also saw and reviewed the 2013 documentary—Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq—about the great ballerina who was stricken by polio at 27 and never danced again. After years of treatment and therapy, she was able to live a vibrant and active life (confined to a wheelchair) for several decades. The film was a PBS American Masters episode and had an art house release.
Nick Wyman, president of Actors Equity and an actor in one of the National Music Theater productions.
Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post. Peter was a delightful and thoughtful participant in our discussions. I learned a lot from listening to him critique our reviews.
O’Neill creatives—director, playwright, composer, lyricist and scene designer—who talked about their crafts and what pisses them off about theater reviews—and reviewers.
We saw and reviewed four of the O’Neill productions in staged reading form. By agreement with O’Neill, I’m not at liberty to discuss those in any way. Playwrights live at the O’Neill for a month and work with directors and actors in rehearsals that result in public staged readings. A similar process enables several playwrights, lyricists, and composers to develop new work in a variety of music theater genres. The O’Neill provides artistic and administrative support so that the artists can explore the material with directors, musicians, and Equity performers. Even after brief rehearsal and rewriting periods, you could see that some of these productions will definitely appear on stages or screens near you some time soon.
We also took field trips around Rhode Island and Connecticut to see and review regional theater.
At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, we saw an excellent production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. This veteran repertory company presented a gripping version of this Shepard play. It was my favorite performance of the two weeks.
At the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut, we saw a so-so production of All Shook Up. The cast was enthusiastic but the quality was community-theater level.
At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, we saw a fine production of Fiddler on the Roof. I should say, I heard a fine production. Some of us were sitting in the second-row balcony just over the stage where we had almost no view of the performance. The music was great.
At Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, we saw Leslie Uggams in a bizarre production of Gypsy. Bizarre because she was so miscast in the role. The theater trumpeted the production as the first time an African-American actor was cast in an Equity production of Gypsy with a multiracial cast. Many of the cast members were quite capable, but, unfortunately, Uggams was about 20 years past her time for this show. For the story to work, Mama Rose should be in her 40s or maybe early 50s but Uggams is in her 70s—and not a frisky 70. The actor who played her love interest was nearly comatose—either from shock or lack of direction.
By the end of two weeks, we were all sleep-deprived but exhilarated from the intellectual and creative experience. We worked straight through from Saturday thru Friday 14 days later, with one day off.
To make up for the relatively awful food in the campus cafeteria where we ate most of our meals, we had a few good food excursions. To Bobby B’s Deli, a short walk from our dorm, where we had amazing egg-on-bagel sandwiches. To a tavern in Ivoryton, where I had a sensational lobster roll. To Ocean Pizza in New London, for a fried scallop grinder that was mmm-mmm but too much to eat. To Azu in Mystic for some sophisticated casual food. To an Italian café in East Haddam for a pre-show dinner. And home again to eat my own cooking. Delicious.
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