Theater Critics Camp Diary, Days 3 through 9

I have such fond memories of Girl Scout Camp. S'mores, songs around the campfire, ghost stories told in creaky bunks. Good times.

Now I am at Theater Critics Camp in Connecticut, a two-week indoctrination into a cult that worships the three S's: Shaw, Shakespeare and Sondheim. Did you see that movie Camp about the teenage musical theater geeks spending a summer singing show tunes in barns? Well, that's this place except everyone's way too serious to think about having any adolescent fun. There are no s'mores or skinny-dipping or scavenger hunts. Oh, there are some ghost stories, but they're all about great performances by long-dead stars of the stage. If one more geezer waxes nostalgic over Olivier in Othello....

I am sneered at by other campers because the S's I worship are the Simons, critic John and playwright Neil, and the Sedaris siblings, David and Amy. John Simon, my personal idol among theater critics (he wrote for New York for 30 years), is considered the anti-Christ here. He's deemed "mean" because he's done things like review a performance by Zoe Caldwell in which she bares her bosoms and then opines that her left boob is vastly more talented than her right. Brilliant.

"Don't be mean," we critics are told again and again by our "mentors" at camp.

Every day we sit through hours of numbing lectures by senior critics from East Coast papers (all of whom express great surprise upon learning Dallas actually has a lively theater scene and not just rodeos and biker bars).

Every night we see new plays staged at the concurrent Playwrights Camp starring actors from the Professional Acting Camp. We "critic fellows" stay up all night typing our reviews, which are then read aloud and critiqued line by frigging line the next day as we gather at picnic tables in an open field at the Theater Farm.

Between Days 3 and 9 of camp we've watched plays about the horrors of 9/11, Abu Ghraib-type torture, incest and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, plus a musical based on the German novel Sing, Brat, Sing about a 4-year-old musical prodigy (played by a shrieky 25-year-old woman) who exerts mind control on adults and ultimately murders her stroke-weakened grandmother. After this festival of feel-bad, I'm so depressed I stop wearing Lyme tick repellent. Go ahead, bite me.

When we are hustled one afternoon onto a white van (just like the one county jails use to transport inmates) for a trip to a community theater performance of Bernard Slade's Same Time, Next Year, I weep with joy. It's a corny production full of overwrought sentiments and hammy acting. I give it a rave and am soundly thrashed by the mentors for liking such artless fluff.

I hear conflicting advice on improving my critiquing skills. One mentor tells me to write more in first person. One says never to. Write in the present tense. Write in the passive. You're too clever, I'm told. Be more clever, says another. I'm ordered to write a review as if explaining theater to a 9-year-old who's never seen it before. (Ah, I think, like writing for the DMN.)

My head spins. I could be home, watching Project Runway and drinking icy colas. Here, we are cloistered far away from pop and pop culture. We are kept on a steady diet of bland starches (typical lunch: noodles, potatoes and rice) just like Moonies fed new recruits at brainwashing retreats in the '70s. We're cut off from USA Today, Access Hollywood and Air America. Every conversation is about one thing: theater. Nobody talks about the wars in the Middle East, the price of gas, global warming or whether David Hasselhoff is back on the sauce.

Nobody laughs much either.

As I lie alone on the hard little cot in my airless, convent-like room, trying to grab a few winks between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., I keep asking myself, Why am I at Critics Camp? I just know that any day now they'll march us into the woods (Sondheim!) for ritual branding. How in the name of Patti Lupone did I get myself into this?

Monday: Personality probation... --Elaine Liner

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams

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