Theater Critics Camp Diary, Day 1

Back in the late 1980s, I wrote magazine stories about crimes, murders mostly. Grisly murders where one spouse kills another in a way that leaves scorch marks on the garage floor or bloodstains splashed across the kitchen ceiling. I sometimes interviewed the accused, giving me access to county and state prisons.

I think of those prisons when I unlock room 306 in the dorm at the small New England college where I've been billeted while attending what I'll call Theater Critics Camp. I was invited to apply to this prestigious two-week program and was awarded a "scholarship" covering room and board.

Meet the room: 8-by-8-foot box with one small window. No a/c. Chalk-white walls. Sticky bare floor. Small desk with missing knobs and uneven legs. Low, hard cot--just a thin, stiff mattress on metal frame--draped in rough, yellow-stained sheets. One flat pillow. Desk lamp with cord that doesn't reach the single electrical outlet. Box fan on floor. Its cord doesn't reach the outlet either until I rearrange the bed and desk. If I plug in my laptop and printer, I forgo light or fan. All breathable air has been sucked out. What's left is something hot, thick and fetid, like air in a storage unit where someone's left a dead girlfriend stuffed in an old steamer trunk.

The toilet and shower are down the hall. Way down the hall.

I think back on prison accommodations. Better beds in prison. Nicer desks, too. And air-conditioning.

After checking into the dorm, I join the seven other "critic fellows" I'm housed with. We are trundled, like inmates, in a white van to the site of Theater Critics Camp--a collection of old farmhouses nestled on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. Everything reeks of quaint. Nothing appears to have been updated since Theater Critics Camp was founded 40 years ago.

We push trays through the line in the stifling dining hall. Meet tonight's "board:" gray noodles, gray sauce, gray vegetables not so much steamed as angered into submission. Styrofoam cups of water. I skip the entree and grab a boiled egg sitting already peeled in a damp bowl at the end of the line.

The other fellows: two cute college boys, both 21, who've won a writing contest through the Kennedy Center; a perky 26-year-old freelancer from Manhattan; a 25-year-old gay Yale grad who uses the word "dramaturgy" every other breath; a 24-year-old actress-turned-critic from the Midwest; a college prof, 45, also from the Midwest, who's never written theater criticism; a retired San Francisco surgeon, 77, who sees plays and writes reviews for his own Web site.

Our schedule for the next two weeks: Every night we'll see a new play in one of the farm's barn theaters. (Critics Camp coincides with Playwrights Camp and Professional Actors Camp.) We will write reviews nightly (deadline: 7 a.m.). At 9 each morning we'll meet at a picnic bench in an open field at the farm to have our reviews critiqued by visiting "mentors" (veteran critics from East Coast papers). Discussions will last till dinner. Then we'll see a new play and start the process all over again.

Back at the dorm I stretch out on the cot and don't sleep. New England is in the throes of a brutal heatwave. At 3:15 a.m. I pad down the hall to take a cold shower. At 4:16 a.m. I shove the cot under the window where a limp breeze wafts in. I am sweating from the ends of my hair.

As the sun comes up over New England, I grind hot fists into the cot. Autopsies are performed on softer surfaces.

Tomorrow: Tick-picking vs. nitpicking. --Elaine Liner

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