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Front Row Seat: What I learned at critics' summer camp

The National Critics Institute is a rare opportunity for arts writers to hone their skills through an intensive two-week "boot camp."

Jay stands at right of frame for a selfie, shouldering a backpack with a white Eugene O'Neill Theater Center shuttle in the background
The 2022 National Critics Institute included two nights at the Berkshires, reached via shuttle bus.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The National Critics Institute is a mix, I was told, of summer camp and boot camp.

The summer camp aspect is very real. Over the past two weeks, I caught the worst poison ivy rash of my life. I was stung. I was sunburned. I ate cafeteria cucumbers with curious color gradations. Damp picnic benches stained the seat of my shorts. I even sang a camp song, although it wasn't "The Cat Came Back" around a campfire — it was a Kool & The Gang cover at a seaside karaoke bar.

The boot camp aspect involves the rigorous demands of an experience designed to push arts writers to our limits. I was among 15 fellows who took up residence from July 12-24 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center on Connecticut's coast, seeing shows every night and writing reviews for workshop-style critique. We were critiquing the shows, but more fundamentally we were critiquing each other as writers.

The institute is fast-paced, by design. We'd typically see a performance each evening, then face a bright and early deadline to write several hundred words about it. Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune theater critic and NCI director, encouraged us to see deadlines as our friends and to focus on making the most interesting argument we could within the allotted time.

I'm used to having people react to my reviews, but their focus is almost always on what I'm reviewing and whether my review measures up to their experience. Is the new "Top Gun" really that good, or that bad? Did "Hamilton" live up to the hype? Is Sally Rooney truly the greatest millennial novelist?

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When readers disagree, they'll often go so far as to disagree with the entire premise of criticism. What gives critics the right to comment on plays they didn't write, meals they didn't cook, or dances they could never do? My response has always been that critics are part of the arts ecosystem, encouraging audiences to engage with art in its fullest complexity.

NCI is premised on that idea. The O'Neill is a site for the development of new work and the training of theater artists. A critics conference launched just a few years after the organization's 1964 founding, reflecting a recognition that people who write about theater serve an important purpose. Frankly, we could use some training, too.

We saw readings of work in development at the O'Neill, where buildings are named after some of the iconic artists who developed work there. (One fellow accurately referred to her room as being "inside Michael Douglas.") We also took field trips to nearby theaters, donning our masks and squeezing into a shuttle. We reviewed eateries, meaning that for the first time in my life I had to find something interesting to say about an Italian restaurant.

We spent two nights in the Berkshires, including a day at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Both Jacob's Pillow and the O'Neill are often described as "sacred" to America's performing arts communities, having nourished generations of transformative artists.

A large group of smiling people perch on a rock in a wooded setting, smiling for a portrait.
Participants in the National Critics Institute posed on Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass. on July 15. The rock's name was inspired by the "Jacob's Ladder" road leading up the hill to the site where the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival is now based.
Contributed / Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

The word "humbling" has become a colloquial synonym for "flattering," but it was genuinely both flattering and humbling to have my work critiqued by over a dozen talented writers who are all committed to the practice of arts criticism. They also trusted me to read their unedited work and to share my own observations.

The critiques often involved fairly technical matters. What makes a good lead? What's the best kind of "kicker" at the end of a review? How long should paragraphs be, and what parts of speech should they end on? Should you ever write a paragraph consisting almost entirely of questions?

Jay Gabler previously worked as a digital producer for The Current at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

A play I shall not name inspired a review that crystallized one of my most meaningful takeaways from the program. I didn't like the play, and I knocked out a quick review like dozens I've written before. It was a snarky take, describing the production's various issues with a cutting, condescendingly bemused tone.

When I wrote for a free weekly paper in Minneapolis, I saw myself as the person who could say out loud what other reviewers were either too polite or too uncritical to say. Reviews like that certainly drew readers, and while some artists understandably hated them, others (including, not infrequently, people who were actually in the show) sent private messages thanking me for the honesty. I thought of myself as a fresh voice, but NCI helped me realize that kind of tone has reached its sell-by date.

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"I wouldn't write that review," said Chris, "and I think my readers would be surprised if I did." He wasn't saying the review was poorly written on a technical level, or that I hadn't spotted genuine problems with the show. His implicit question, seconded by others in our group, was whether a review like that was the most productive way to use my platform. A catty review might make readers chuckle, and it might contain some real insights into the show, but it can also come off as amateurish: stylistic grandstanding at the expense of real analysis. It's not my job, as a reviewer, to be nice to artists, but who does it help if I'm mean to them?

The next time we saw a show that I didn't like, I deliberately wrote a review that was much more measured in tone. It was still negative, but it didn't take any glib potshots. Instead, I focused on identifying the show's issues as precisely as possible, in the spirit of constructive criticism. I worried that review would be too boring, but in fact, I received much more positive feedback. My peers pointed out that it was still very readable, and I realized it was a more sophisticated way to use my voice.

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I learned even more from reading the other writers' reviews. The last thing we reviewed was Jordan Peele's "Nope," a movie so layered that every single one of us contributed at least one observation all the others missed.

In my "Nope" review, I'd rejected my first idea for a lead because I thought I needed something more sweeping, but through the workshop I realized that in doing so, I'd rejected a specific idea several other reviewers seized on. If I'd trusted myself to think through why that lead first occurred to me, I might have found a more compelling argument than the more generic one I went with.

Analyzing reviews might be the last thing you'd ever want to do at summer camp. For me, though, the experience wasn't just fascinating, it was genuinely moving. (More so than some of the shows we saw, for sure.) I can't speak for the other participants' experiences, but as I type this at my newsroom desk, my phone is constantly pinging with an NCI fellows' group chat mixing reports of exhaustion, exhilaration and nostalgia.

On our last night at the O'Neill, we watched a staged reading of a musical in progress, then headed to the campus pub (Blue Gene's, natch) to celebrate the program's conclusion. In line at the bar, we chatted with the artists who made the musical, but outside on the lawn many of us stuck to our own group. Cliquey? Maybe, but also miraculous. As critics, when have we ever had a clique of our own?

Even when there are other critics at a show — and there often aren't — we all run home afterward to write our individual reviews. The next day, we'll be back in art venues, whether reporting for a feature or attending another show for review. The result, in my case, has been a tendency to see artists as my true peers. After NCI, I know that's not really the case.

Certainly, artists and critics share a lot in common. We're all committed to the value of creativity, expression, and critical thought. We all like to be surprised and challenged, as long as it serves a worthwhile purpose. We're all part of a financially challenged arts ecosystem, working to shore it up.

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"Front Row Seat" is Jay Gabler's weekly column with a personal perspective on arts and entertainment.

At the end of the day, though, what I do is different than what an artist does. I'm reviewing art, reporting about artists, and focusing my efforts on a discipline that's both an art and a science. My true peers are other critics. After 15 years in this field, at NCI I felt truly seen in a way I've never been before, and I hope I was able to help my colleagues experience the same sense of mutual appreciation.

This isn't just warm fuzzies: What I learned at NCI has made me a better writer, and a better member of my community. You could be enjoying art yourself right now, but instead you're reading this column because you're hoping I'll have something worthwhile to say, something that might enhance your connection to the arts. I don't take that trust, nor the artists' trust, for granted.

As our cohort gathered one last time to say goodbye, we discussed how critics are portrayed in movies. "We're rarely treated sympathetically," said Chris, "but we are treated as the only way the story can end."

When I was a kid, I'd much rather have been home watching "Siskel & Ebert" than attending a Park Point day camp where I pounded my name into flimsy leather satchels and shot dull arrows into hay bales. It wasn't until last Sunday, as I stood there with my backpack watching the O'Neill shuttles pull away, that I finally understood why people cry when camp is over.

Related Topics: THEATERMOVIESMEDIA
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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