February 28, 2008

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The art of theater criticism
A travelogue from NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutey
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Mysteriously, I was selected as one of the 25 fellows for the fourth annual National Endowment for the Arts Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. Your tax dollars at work and we tried to make the best of it.

Why is it important for small-market news sources to provide thoughtful theater criticism and coverage? Fear that these are two waning art forms seems to be part of the reason why the NEA funds this institute, which is partnered with University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications.

Dana Gioia, chair of the NEA, spoke of dwindling exposure to the arts and “systematic removal” of arts from schools. Meanwhile more coverage of theater, for example, can help a community feel ownership of something positive. Gioia cited how the ancient city of Athens would shut down and every citizen would go to play competitions.

The 42-year-old NEA’s mission is to bring the best art and arts education to as many people as possible, Gioia said.

J. Wynn Rousuck, a theater critic for the Baltimore Sun for 23 years, told us that it’s important to know what quality is and that’s different than knowing what you like. Instructors emphasized the importance of analyzing “Why?” — if you are bored by a performance, why? Michael Phillips, a former theater critic for the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, hit the same idea when he presented ten points on theater criticism.

Rousuck quoted Goethe’s three questions for the critic: What is an artist trying to do? How well did he or she do it, and was it worth doing? And great theater doesn’t give all the answers, it raises questions — and a review can do the same thing, she said. Dominic Papatola of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press is a past chairman for the American Theatre Critics Association. He warned that the competition to the newspaper is not the computer but the mobile phone, which can be used anywhere to access information instantly. The good news is that with the trend of “hyper-local” coverage, arts writing is key.

“There is nothing more indigenous to a community than an arts scene,” Papatola said. It’s the arts writer’s responsibility to connect the arts to whatever else is happening politically, locally, in sports, or otherwise (oh, the drama of the Patriots).

We didn’t just talk to experienced critics. We talked to designers, actors, directors, producers, artistic directors and playwrights to learn how the pieces of a play come together. For example, if all the acting seems off, was it because of a director’s choice or the actors?

One bit of advice from Phillips is to avoid plot summary — it’s dull. Forgive me, then, for the following listing of events we attended.

We kicked off the institute Feb. 5 watching the Oprah-endorsed musical version of The Color Purple. The next day, my writing instructor, Charles McNulty, theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, asked my group of five fellows to write for half an hour. We read what we had written and discussed the good points and what we could work on.

We also saw Orson’s Shadow — fitting since one of the characters is based on theater critic Kenneth Tynan. Before the show, we heard from its director and from Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps. We stopped at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, where there was time for questions with the executive director, directors and designers.

Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, gave the keynote speech for the institute kick-off, followed by an opening dinner at the Athenaeum, a private club on the California Institute of Technology campus. Perloff hit on a point that we returned to throughout the institute: she’s not a fan of media using icons with reviews since people tend to skip the review to see the positive or negative icon. Theater review can easily become consumer guide, rather than a thoughtful reflection that connects a performance to the real world.

Doug McLennan, founder of Artsjournal.com and director of the National Arts Journalism Program, gave a talk on “Digital Media: Changing Your Mindset,” and generally spread the gospel that newspapers need to embrace new media or be left behind. McLennan was particularly adamant that arts writers should have blogs (not the public diary kind, but the kind with actual news or analysis).

Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson, L.A. Weekly theater editor Steven Leigh Morris and Phillips provided reviewing tips in a panel discussion called “Critic’s Confidential: The Nitty Gritty Things that Plague Us.”

A performance of The Wooster Group’s Hamlet was, well, my head was going to explode. We also attended Athol Fugard’s Victory at the Fountain Theatre. It was the U.S. premiere of the post-apartheid drama by the South African playwright.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a new emo-musical at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, was written and directed by Alex Timbers (he co-created A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant), who spoke to us briefly after the performance. It was sort of a teenage rock musical looking at Jackson’s presidency as a populist and his role moving Native Americans westward. Anthems included lines like “Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular.” There was, of course, reference to Bush’s presidency. Many of the shows had some reflection on Bush or the Iraq war. Particularly Carnage, A Comedy, by Tim Robbins and Adam Simon, which we saw at the Actors’ Gang. Robbins wanted to revive the 1987 satire about televangelism.

At A Noise Within, we saw some of a rehearsal of Henry IV, Part One, with co-artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott. We saw the premiere of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, written by and starring Joan Rivers, at the Geffen Playhouse. The last performance we attended was the opening night of Voices from Okinawa at David Henry Hwang Theater by Jon Shirota, performed by the East West Players.

Aside from writing workshops, we were asked to make a go at acting in a class taught by Tom Leabhart, a professor at Pomona College. This was held at the Colburn School, a rare hybrid of a community music school and residential conservatory. Former Village Voice dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer and Lewis Segal, chief dance critic for the L.A. Times, gave a talk on choreography for musical theater with help from Broadway dancer and teacher Kay Cole — who also had the whole class try to follow her for a (very) few steps (Cole played Maggie in A Chorus Line).

Fellowship director Sasha Anawalt (who was among the first women to attend St. Paul’s School in Concord), closed the institute with a dinner at her home, including a presentation from Viertel on the evolution of theater song. Pianist Brad Ellis and singers Eydie Alyson, Roger Befeler and Sue Goodman accompanied. To illustrate one concept Viertel chose “Ice Cream,” from She Loves Me — which Manchester Community Theatre Players just staged.

I left the NEA institute with a renewed enthusiasm for journalism in general and arts coverage in particular. There’s lots of bad news in the world but the arts stories are a place to focus on the positive.