Film and theater critics train at 'boot camp'

Rigorous course sharpens craft of critics - new and old

They call it a boot camp for critics.

Its real name is the O'Neill Critics Institute, but the nickname suits it just as well - or better, as its participants might say after a particularly hard-working day.

The mission of the OCI is to raise the level of American film and theater reviewing - and cultivate the skills of individual critics - by plunging arts-minded journalists into an intensive summer of viewing, thinking, discussing, and writing, writing, writing.

All of this happens in an idyllic setting: the renowned Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, nestled on the Long Island Sound waterfront of this quiet Connecticut city. Looking in from outside, you might think you were watching culture buffs whiling away their time with picnic-table discussions of the latest plays and movies. What you'd really be seeing is a group of solidly committed writers pondering their craft in depth and breadth.

Some are professional reviewers who want to polish their prose and improve their general knowledge of theater and film. Others are newcomers, eager to learn more about criticism by analyzing their articles under the watchful eyes - and strict editorial pencils - of veteran critics who serve as mentors.

Still others are educators who know that "critics and creators come from different places," in the words of OCI chief Dan Sullivan, and want a deeper understanding of the relationships journalists have with the theater and film communities.

Participants put in long, intensely focused days during their OCI sojourn. Activities start early, when Sullivan collects just-written articles first thing in the morning. They frequently end late, when the lights go down on a movie screening or workshop production that the critics-in-training will write about for tomorrow's deadline.

It really is like a boot camp, and at times the going gets tougher than anyone expected - even too tough to take, Sullivan says, recalling one aspiring critic who hightailed it for home after the very first day.

But most revel in the opportunity to live and breathe their craft in such a vigorous, undistracted way. This includes the senior critics who come here as mentors and teachers. I've done this myself for the past several years, along with respected colleagues like Newsday's John Anderson, the Village Voice's Michael Feingold, and Marshall Fine of the Gannett Newspapers.

The emphasis here is on theater, since the OCI operates in tandem with the National Playwrights Conference, an annual assembly of dramatists and other artists - actors, directors, designers - who hold discussions, seminars, and workshop productions of new plays. Film also has an important role, though, reflecting the fact that many working critics alternate between stage and movie assignments.

A particular point of pride for the OCI is that its activities have a perceptible impact on critical writing around the country. Its students (or "critic fellows," as they're formally called) contribute to newspapers and magazines of every description, so their readers benefit from their O'Neill experiences as much as they do. OCI graduates are self-critical critics who've had their own reviews reviewed, and the results can be enlightening.

As Kevin Nance wrote in The Nashville Tennessean after being a fellow last year, "The more I learned, the more I realized I didn't know."

Critics have been part of the landscape at the O'Neill center since the 1960s, but their ways of interacting with the playwrights conference have changed. In the early years, reviewers did onstage critiques right after performances, or had morning-after discussions with playwrights. This seemed like a good idea until one disgruntled dramatist responded to negative comments by waving a pistol under the critic's nose - just a stage prop with no bullets, but disconcerting enough to make the OCI rethink its methods.

Today's critic fellows work alongside the other O'Neill professionals throughout their stay, following the evolution of each stage production through observations, interviews, and yes, writing, writing, writing. They also review movies, like the coming musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which this year's group saw in a specially arranged screening - and wrote about in generally favorable terms.

Not every assignment is a straightforward consumer-guide critique, moreover. Fellows may be asked to write "think pieces" commenting on important issues - like the question of whether violent entertainment causes violence in society, which this year's group explored by imagining that Sam Peckinpah's western "The Wild Bunch" had sparked protests at a local film festival.

Other assignments pose technical challenges: meeting a two-hour deadline, matching the prose style of a particular publication, or writing a 400-word review with a maximum of only five adjectives or adverbs. Many old pros would flee at the mere mention of such challenges, but here they're part of the everyday routine.

This year's roster of nine fellows illustrates how far the OCI's influence reaches - from California to Florida, from young freelance reviewers to established journalists and college professors. What they have in common is a talent for writing and a fascination with what Sullivan calls "theater on the hoof" - works that are still in progress, not fully formed but as smart and promising as the people who spend their summers here.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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