WATERFORD, CONN. — /TC Waterford, Conn. -- Critics might seem like the last people a budding playwright would want to have around.
But at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, the critics aren't scouting out hits or flops.
Known as "critic fellows," they're participants in one of the O'Neill's more unusual programs -- the National Critics Institute. An intensive series of workshops and seminars for working professionals, the Institute is held each July, concurrent with the National Playwrights Conference, one of the pre-eminent new-play programs in the country.
The word "journey" pops up repeatedly in the lingo of the O'Neill. And for playwrights and critics alike, a highlight of the journey is -- the opportunity to fail with impunity; failure is regarded as part of the learning process at the O'Neill.
Playwrights get to see their scripts presented exactly as written. The theory is that seeing a play on its feet is sometimes the best way to identify weaknesses.
Critic fellows are encouraged to experiment, to try things their editors might discourage; typical exercises include eliminating adjectives and adverbs, or writing two opposing reviews of a single play.
A former critic fellow myself, for the past two summers I have served one-week stints as a so-called "master critic," or mentor to the fellows. This year's highly diverse group included critics from Hungary and Australia, as well as one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.
My job was to review their reviews, which were written exclusively as educational exercises since the O'Neill prohibits published reviews; I also critiqued their feature stories.
While critiquing one of the latter, I came across the following tongue-in-cheek summary of the experience:
"We slaved for hours for master critics, several of whom have themselves gone through the hell-month of the Critics Institute and seemed to want to inflict their bad experiences on us recruits."
At least I assume it was tongue-in-cheek. True, the fellows didn't have a day off during the entire month. But what draws me back to the O'Neill isn't the opportunity to browbeat less-experienced members of my profession; for me, the appeal is twofold.
First and foremost, the O'Neill offers a chance to get back to basics, to focus on critical standards, philosophy and practices.
Deadline pressures at a daily newspaper often leave little time to analyze the fundamentals of your craft. However, examining fundamentals is at the heart of the O'Neill "process," to borrow another bit of conference terminology. What makes a play work? Who is the central character? How is the script structured? Is it inherently theatrical, or is it a television script disguised as a play?
The Critics Institute poses a parallel series of questions: What makes a review effective? What is its focus? How is it structured? Is it a genuine analysis of the play, or merely a statement of opinion?
Among the first things the critic fellows learn is that their job isn't to rewrite the script or suggest how they might have written it; their job is to deal with the play as it exists. The way I explain it is that the function of a review is to identify what a play is attempting to do and evaluate how well it succeeds.
The second appeal of the O'Neill is obvious. It provides a concentrated look at some of the country's most promising playwrights; the list of Playwrights Conference alumni reads like a Who's Who of contemporary American dramatists -- John Guare, David Henry Hwang, Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson, to name a few.
In his preperformance speeches, Lloyd Richards, the O'Neill's artistic director, stresses that he isn't looking for next year's Broadway or off-Broadway hit -- though he wouldn't turn it down -- he's looking for a "voice." Because the conference focuses on playwriting, not on finished productions, each script receives minimal staging; two staged readings are presented in which actors carry their scripts.
The morning after the second reading, a critique session is held. All of the conference participants -- including the critic fellows -- are invited to give their reactions. Although the playwrights can also read the fellows' reviews, few do. Instead, most of the feedback comes from these conferencewide sessions.
With the exception of 58-year-old P. J. Barry, whose credits include the Broadway production of "The Octette Bridge Club" (which received a staged reading at Center Stage in 1982 and played a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre three years later), most of the playwrights at this summer's 27th annual conference were young.