Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{July 16, 2009}   The critic in training

My Facebook friends out there are aware – from a couple of my status updates and their subsequent discussions – that I was irritated recently by feedback from a reader who, instead of simply disagreeing with a review and focusing on a discussion of the production, attacked me personally, calling me “shallow.”

Well, I’m here to tell you – it’s true. I’m emotionally dead inside.

But what, BESIDES that, prepares one for a career in theater criticism? 😉

When I came on the job five years ago, I definitely got the sense that some in the local theater scene were dubious of the News’ vetting process for a theater writer. Did I have a theater degree? No. Experience in theater? No – unless you count some tiny roles in a couple of high school productions. Then what were my qualifications, exactly?

I stumbled through various answers to this question. Um, I’d always loved theater? I’d peppered my English major schedule, in college and grad school, with classes that focused on plays whenever possible? While at Penn State, I made the three hour drive to NY to see shows often?

Even as I spoke these answers, I realized how lame they all sounded. But what I eventually figured out was this: my work in pursuit of an MFA in creative writing – writing fiction, specifically – prepared me pretty well for this job.

Now, I’m not suggesting that that’s how you go about breaking into this line of work; this was a circuitous, unconventional route, at best. But consider this: the majority of my class-time, for three years, was spent in workshops, wherein I had to offer analysis of my classmates’ original work (while also getting a healthy dose of criticism myself). This forced me to regularly articulate, in writing and verbally, my responses to works of art. If the piece worked for me, or if it didn’t, I had think hard about why and back my conclusions up with some examples/evidence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I slip back into this writing workshop mindset when I’m seeing a brand new play. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Over the course of several years, I’ve absorbed, from having my own work critiqued, tough lessons about story structure, characterization, pacing, exposition, contrived situations, the need for surprise, the too-easy punchline, and the central importance of narrative momentum and conflict, among other things.

So I’ll confess that my basis for assessing acting and technical stage elements comes from little more than a diehard theater fan’s years of observing and appreciating the craft. And while on the job, I’ve pursued projects (like my series on those who work behind the scenes) with the intention of further educating myself about these gaps in my knowledge. 

But given my background as a writer-turned-critic, my basis for exploring the strengths and weaknesses of a script comes from an intellectual place that, to me, feels like home.


Heather says:

But, really, who is “prepared” for any job? No job I’ve ever had even remotely resembles any of my degrees. Most jobs I think I are really trial-by-fire. You learn through being on the job.

Jenn McKee says:

I think there’s some truth to that, certainly; but part of the point of my post is that although creative writing is far from an obvious path to arts criticism, in some strange way, it was the perfect preparation.
I entered my graduate program simply focused on becoming a better writer, and the fortunate by-product of that aim was that I left grad school very well-equipped to articulate my ideas about all things, including my interests and passions.

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