At the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Critics Institute: 5Q4 Dan Sullivan
Some months earlier, before I was showing, probably before I knew I was pregnant, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities had given the Institute grants that allowed it to offer a tuition-free expense-paid experience to reviewers selected by artistic directors of 12 regional theaters in different parts of the country. The idea was to send working reviewers to a “boot camp” that would support our development and early careers. The Institute asked Bob Kalfin, who directed the Chelsea Theater Center at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to select someone from New York.
I used to go to Bob’s rehearsals and pick his brain about acting and directing. We talked exclusively about his productions or productions we both had seen and about the state of the American theater. He never mentioned the O’Neill to me and had probably dashed off a recommendation without thinking much about it. I hadn’t told him I was in production myself. So, maybe a month or so before I was due, and just after I’d given my paper notice to stay home with the baby, a letter arrived.
On the recommendation of Robert Kalfin, I had been selected to participate in NCI.
For five minutes, I was high. I would be in a group of the best young reviewers throughout the land, mingling with the top young playwrights, in an idyllic setting in Waterford, Connecticut. I would have a chance to hone my craft by reviewing new works by playwrights who had made the cut in the competitive Playwrights Conference, discussing my reviews with people who had been around the arena a few times.
That year, the playwrights would include Wendy Wasserstein, who I predicted would never make it in theater but might succeed as a sitcom writer, and Ted Tally, who I was sure would be the toast of the New York theater and steer clear of Hollywood; he later won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs.
The late Ernie Schier, critic for the late Philadelphia Bulletin, ran the Institute, and Dan Sullivan (L.A. Times), Larry DeVine (Detroit Free Press), Norman Nadel (Scripps-Howard News) and Julius Novick (Village Voice) served on the faculty with him. Sullivan became co-director in the early 90′s and director in 1999. Edith Oliver (The New Yorker), Michael Feingold (Village Voice), and Marilyn Stasio (Cue, and later New York Magazine) were among the dramaturgs for the Playwrights Conference who would join some of our sessions.
Then I remembered: I would have a baby, whatever this meant, and I might be a little too tired to handle a boot camp, whatever that meant. But my husband was adamant. I could not give up this opportunity, Greg insisted. He would care for the baby during sessions. Somehow, I would also nurse on demand, as planned.
To my surprise, our summer on the Long Island Sound worked out just fine. I learned a ton about the art and craft of criticism, attending rehearsals to see just how directors collaborated with playwrights to develop new works, seeing readings of these new plays at night, and reviewing them before morning. In the morning, Institute fellows would meet with faculty members who sat with us in a circle under a tree, critiquing our critiques. Although we were on our honor not to publish our reviews of these plays-in-progress, we attended all-campus critiques of each, sharing our thoughts and hearing what actors, dramaturgs and playwrights had to say about each play.
Greg held Randy when I wasn’t essential, and when I was, Greg brought him to me. Most people were comfortable as I nursed during rehearsals, performances, and critiques. Actors, directors, playwrights and dramaturgs played roles, by turns holding and talking to and serenading the baby on guitars. John Heard, who drove around town on a motorcycle, would transform upon seeing us, doing precise imitations of the baby’s sounds and movements that reduced Randy and his parents to giggles. Some, though, felt a baby had no place on campus. Swoosie Kurtz, for instance, found him distracting while trying to create the role of a childless woman, and I was banished from rehearsals of that play.
That summer, I think I got more advice about raising the baby than I got about theater criticism, almost as much as you’d find in American Parent. Dan Sullivan suggested I let the baby cry it out as soon as we got home. Jeff DeMunn told us about family beds and why a baby should self-wean, no matter how many months or years before he was ready. I took Jeff’s advice on babies and Dan’s advice on reviewing.
Today, that baby is an accomplished performer, something I’m certain was inevitable after nursing to the sound of applause during play readings.
I’ve changed a little over the years, too. And, I wondered, had the Institute, a critical part of the theater that will be recognized on June 13 with a Tony for this year’s Regional Theatre Award, changed as well?
I gave Dan Sullivan a call.
He had taken early retirement from the L.A. Times in 1990 and was in Minneapolis, where he’d had an earlier job at the Minneapolis Tribune and where his wife had grown up. Now, he teaches a class on covering the arts at the University of Minnesota and returns to Waterford each summer, continuing as director of the Institute. He was in the process of getting the candidates together for this summer’s session when I phoned.
DN: So what’s going on at the O’Neill these days? What’s changed, what hasn’t?
DS: We just won the Tony Award for regional theater. It’s really a thrill. The more I think about the O’Neill, the more I think it can be taken as a model of what a theater center can be. Conferences like ours promote scholarship to a degree…They aren’t just about production but a think tank as well.
It’s still true you can send a play blindly to the O’Neill and have it done. That’s not so much the case anymore anywhere else. The O’Neill is more in touch with agents than it used to be, but there has to be a place where the unknown playwright has a chance. We’re reading tons of manuscripts. They send me 12 that I’m supposed to judge…..The quality of the writing may be more professional than it used to be, but I can’t say we’ve had another August Wilson…I don’t know if there’s been a change in what people are writing about. There’s still an American idiom but there’s more diversity of the origin of playwrights.
Lloyd [Richards] was God in your day. He ran those critiques. Jim Houghton, who succeeded Lloyd, abandoned them. Wendy Goldberg [present artistic director] shows no interest in them. I used to rail against them because I didn’t think they were critical enough, but they served the purpose of getting everyone together the next morning. There’s still plenty of discussion, but never publicly.
We have the Music Theater Conference now. It used to be done a separate time of the year….It’s more production focused. A piece probably had some rehearsal in New York [before being workshopped at the O'Neill]. In the Heights, a wonderful piece of theater, was at the O’Neill about four years ago. We still go to the Goodspeed Opera House and Ivoryton Playhouse every summer to see what an average summer theater crowd sees and to see some costumes, because the O’Neill still doesn’t have costumes or anything but rudimentary lighting.
There is a little less of a family feeling now. Actors are not hired to do everything [all the plays in the season; they come up for short periods]. I sort of miss the old atmosphere, but I realize times have changed.
DN: With the Music Theater Conference on the same schedule, I gather critic fellows now review musicals as well as dramas and comedies. Has the Critics Institute changed in other ways?
DS: I don’t think it’s changed very much. I always thought it was a good model: Send people out to write a review, then discuss it. The difference is in your day, it lasted a whole month. Four weeks gave us time to do some extra things we’re not able to continue with much… One thing we did in the old days, we did something more with film criticism than we have room for now. We gave two or three days to that, now we give it a lick and a promise. Now it’s down to two weeks, which I think is too short. We did three weeks a couple of years ago, and that was about right.
Another difference maybe is we are accepted more readily on campus than we used to be. Playwrights would say, ‘What are those critics doing here? I thought this was a place to develop new work without being judged? I always tell people, “Let’s go to the pub at night together and do some drinking and some talking. Don’t just hang around with the critics.” That’s the tendency. Everybody goes to camp feeling a little shy and foreign. I don’t totally object to that because I don’t think critics should feel they are members of the theater community. It’s unhealthy for your own private life to identify yourself too strongly with the people you write about because they’re never going to be able to truly accept you. Theater people and theater critics should respect each other. People have made friends in the right way.
We probably have fewer applicants now because there are so many fewer paying newspaper jobs. Anybody can have a theater column, so we talk about how you get a readership. The question now is not how do we get people jobs or how can we promise to make them theater critics but do we have enough faith in the idea of theater criticism, and I do. You can’t have an art without response. [So we say] let’s have examples of how to do it well, what’s responsible and what isn’t. If everybody can have an audience, what’s the difference between the kind of thing we do and abuse? That’s the kind of thing we talk about now that we didn’t before. And this year, we’re going to talk about websites. Do you have a website and how do you keep it up?
On balance, we’re working with people who want to provide intelligent and tasteful and interesting responses to the conversation, and it’s now literally a conversation. If you were there, you wouldn’t find it very different.
DN: How has the faculty changed over the years?
DS: The same sort of person is on the faculty-people who have been out there doing it for a while and understand the problems and can give feedback. If you’re writing about the theater or the arts in general, you might get abuse from online readers, but you don’t get a professional response. We all need that as writers.
We have a grab bag of people on the faculty, a lot of whom have been through here and know how to work with students. Michael Feingold is still on the faculty. I still think he’s the best theater critic in the United States. Linda Winer joined us in the early 80s. She writes for Newsday, and she’s the best daily New York critic. We’ve had Michael Phillips, who became the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. Andy Probst went through the program in 2000 and even then was interested in online journalism. He went on to found the American Theater Wire, which would give you reviews of almost everything around the U.S. every day. He works with TheaterMania now. He’s a fabulous teacher and a very good writer. Helene Goldfarb, who does go back to Ernie’s day, is our administrator.
I worked as co-director with Ernie. I now have Mark Charney who I think the world of. He runs the National Critics Institute of the American College Theater Festival. They have a series of regional semi-finals in April at the Kennedy Center. In the last few years, I’ve gone down and run seminars with young critics. Eight semi-finalists come to the Kennedy Center. I select one or two to be at the O’Neill. I was a little leery about it when Ernie had this idea. If you’re going to have college kids, that would change things. These are theater majors who know a lot, sometimes a lot more than so-called professionals, and they’re willing and have the stamina to do whatever we have to do.
DN: Is your Minnesota class similar to the Critics institute? What do you teach?
DS: I teach a course in arts reviewing, and I deal with young people, most of whom aren’t going to do this for a living. I cover the arts backstage, in partnership with the Jungle Theater. We’re up there once a week, poking around. We see what’s going on there: What’s possible in theater? What are some theaters up against? How does the money operate? I don’t know if in my day we thought too much about that or cared.
DN: What advice can you give to aspiring critics?
DS: You can’t visualize this job where some paper is going to hire you, and all you have to do is review plays. You have to make yourself a brand. You have to have a website, and you have to equip yourself for broadcast. You have to be good at connecting and making yourself known. You probably have to have some other job you can rely on. In terms of believing in it, I believe in it no less; it will always be good for looking at things and finding out rather quickly what you think about them and judging your own work.
Minnesota has two full-time critics at a time when a lot of papers are dumping their theater critics. Both have been through the O’Neill. It adds something to a theater community if there are a couple of people with some authority starting the conversation in a public way. The reader can react either for or against. When I left the L.A. Times, Sylvie [Drake] replaced me, then someone replaced her, then Michael Phillips, then there was a three-year gap. People who were available who wrote for me weren’t given the status of full-timers, and the theater community felt it, too. In my years, I worked with really professional people who didn’t understand what I was doing but gave me space to do it. I will always be grateful for that and hope some version of that will be available.
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