A couple of miles west of former whaling port New London, Connecticut, there’s an estate of rambling farm houses, cutesy pastel cottages, and a few barns with richly painted siding. It’s storybook rural Americana, the sort you see in tv from the 1950s. The buildings are tucked amongst towering beech trees facing Long Island Sound, which you can see at the bottom of a gentle slope an easy walk away.
But this is no farm. It’s the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the original home of large-scale theatre development in the US. Every summer a programme of plays and musicals are selected from blind submissions to intensively workshop in this picturesque location with the support of American theatre’s most notable creatives. There is also a puppetry intensive and a cabaret conference. Shows developed here often go to Broadway or large regional theatres; alumni productions include the likes of In the Heights, Fences and Avenue Q.
There’s nothing like it in the UK. Part- remote summer camp, part- exclusive development programme, and part- festival, the O’Neill provides selected artists with a cast, dramaturgical support and mentors and public readings. Room and board are also part of the residency. In a country as big as the US, the chance to work with other creatives from around the nation is also an invaluable part of the experience.
In early July, likely to be found at the picnic benches inside the low-walled garden, there will be a dozen or so people hunched over laptops in hushed discussion. This group is a bit different from the others you’ll find in rehearsal rooms and theatres around the campus. They’re the National Critics Institute fellows, and they’ve been there amongst the writers, composers and actors since the 1960s.
For two weeks every summer, Chicago Tribune lead critic Chris Jones convenes the NCI. As theatremakers hone their craft, the critics do as well. Like the rest of the programmes happening at the O’Neill at that time, there’s nothing else like it in the US or UK.
The environment evokes long, lazy days on the beach, but the critics follow a schedule that’s anything but relaxing. Filing deadlines at 8 or 9 in the morning are followed by at least half a day of meticulously workshopping each person’s review from the show the night before. There are also guest tutors from venerable publications like the New York Times and Washington Post, which take up the rest of the day. There might be some downtime before the show that evening. After the show, you write. Some choose to go to bed, then wake up before dawn. American word counts are generally longer, and most of our pieces are expected to be in the vicinity of 800 words.
And it’s wonderful. It’s also really, really hard sometimes – I am often frustrated by my own shortcomings. It will certainly deprive you of sleep. But it makes you look at your writing in a way you may never have before. My first review back in London after the NCI was one of the hardest I’d ever written. You also make invaluable contacts and friends for life. You learn so, so much.
Though the default writing style is that of mainstream newspapers, you are encouraged to experiment with voice and form. Chris will sometimes give you a specific thing to work on – at one point I am tasked with bringing more of myself into my next review. Another time, we focus our ledes on the play’s emblematic moment.
NCI participants encompass a range of ages, backgrounds and experiences. Some are bloggers, some have been writing for newspapers for twenty years or more. Some have other areas of focus or careers; this year there is a film critic, a couple of dramaturgs, a comic book reviewer, a playwright, and most of us have day jobs. A few of us blog. There’s always a uni student who won a national criticism award through the Kennedy Center for the Arts. Everyone there is a good writer, and with fourteen distinct styles in the room, there’s much to take away from your peers.
The awareness of our profession’s precariousness hangs heavily over us all. The US has no official national papers, which means the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications in large cities all have critics which cover theatre productions and news both within and outside of their respective cities. Time Out and various alt-weeklies around the country also use freelancers, although this work is almost always freelance and low paid. But this proliferation of outlets doesn’t mean there are more theatre critics. Per capita, there are probably fewer than in the UK, although American critics are no less passionate about theatre journalism than their counterparts here.
Few of us attending the fortnight are likely to have full-time careers in arts journalism. The writers for regional papers also hold other jobs, or write on a wider range of topics than theatre criticism. Most of the freelancers have full or part-time day jobs. And there’s an awareness that clicks are currency. Perhaps it’s even more so in a country founded by right-wing religious radicals, that’s so inherently resistant to public funding.
As well as theatre criticism, we review a dance show, a film and a restaurant, and these are accompanied with sessions from established critics in these fields. We also write a think piece, and one for radio. Chris is also realistic about our job prospects and encourages us to diversify.
The sessions and workshops mostly focus on developing our skills, but there is time set aside to discuss issues in the field. Etiquette, conflict of interest and social media behaviour all feature. Here’s where things can get spiky – someone’s thinkpiece proposing behaviour rules for audiences directly conflicts the idea raised by someone else to keep house lights on to foster inclusivity. Battle lines are drawn, and critics take sides. Something similar happens when an older newspaper critic brings up ‘de-professionalisation’ in the field. The bloggers glance at each other uncomfortably. Fortunately, we all make up quickly.
I am the sole internationally-based writer this year. Whilst there are moments where you might have little to say if you’re foreign, this is a great update on issues and notable work in American theatre. It helps that Chris is British – he has lived in the US since the 1980s (we have several quiet conversations during meals about Brexit, the current state of British politics and our fears for the NHS). It also helps that the other fellows are keen to hear about issues and notable work in the UK.
The O’Neill is like theatre camp for grown-ups. You eat, sleep and breathe theatre. It’s easy to forget about the real world for a little while. The NCI is even more concentrated – you’re welcome to mix with the writers and actors in the on-site bar Blue Gene’s, but the critics are around each other most of the day and night.
It’s tough, tiring work, but the opportunity to focus exclusively on criticism for two weeks is a priceless gift. The O’Neill genuinely cares about the NCI and its fellows, and put immense care in ensuring we learn a lot and have a great experience. We are crammed so full of knowledge in a short amount of time that it’s impossible to assimilate it all right away, but it will undoubtedly linger like the sunsets over the sea below the O’Neill.
For more on the National Critics Institute, visit the Eugene O’Neill Theater Centre’s website. Applications for next year’s session open in March.