[Repost of a blog entry I posted on the Association for Women Journalists web site at the end of the initial year (2007-2008) of the Young Critics Circle project (also called the Cindy Bandle Young Critics program) co-administered by AWJ and the Education Department of the Goodman Theatre to train high school age women in the art and wonders of theatre criticism. I am a dramaturg, I am a critic, and I have been a proud member of AWJ. Follow this link for more information about this fabulous program.]

The first year class of the Young Critics Circle project had its last workshop meeting on Saturday, May 31, 2008. We met as usual in one of the Goodman rehearsal spaces (this fact alone all year thrilled the theatre geek in me). Goodman provided some food and drink, and we all contributed to a very cool goody-bag: membership in the Theatre Communications Group (which provides discounts and other benefits including a subscription to American Theatre magazine), and Moleskine reporters’ notebooks. Some of the girls brought along cards of their own to hand out.

I will add some “end of project” comments here, and hopefully some of my AWJ sisters who participated in the YCC project will chime in.

I found this project exhilarating and energizing and encouraging. Our Goodman Theatre Education Department colleagues, led by Willa Taylor and a large cast of interns, staff members, and other staff, arranged tickets and press kits, corralled the young women between workshops, provided the space and much of the content for our primarily bi-weekly workshop meetings, and provided part of the cheerleading.

We occasionally had guest speakers at our workshops during the year, including AWJ’s own Kelly Kleiman who spoke about critical writing for radio, Ifa Bayeza, author of The Ballad of Emmett Till who provided great insights into the experience of playwriting (hers and her sister Ntozake Shange‘s!), and a panel of dramaturgs (um yes, I had a hand in encouraging that little experience) from Goodman and Steppenwolf theatres.

One of the most theatrical (in a sense) and engaged sessions was led by AWJ’s Sylvia Ewing — we set up a mock press conference in which the Young Critics interviewed us, the mentors and Goodman staff, about our experiences with and expectations for the program. The girls then wrote a feature story about the program including materials from that “press conference” and their own perceptions and interviews with each other. It allowed the girls to be participant observers and to attempt to capture, fairly, an experience in flux in which they were active participants.

The young women developed knowledge of the Goodman performance and rehearsal spaces, the people there, and themselves as observers of art in that beautiful theatre. In a way, for some of them, it could have become a bit of a home. At the very least, it would feel familiar and welcoming to them by the end of the year.

The core of the experience for me (and I would say for “us” AWJ-ers, but I won’t presume), was to mentor a set of young women (I worked with four) by reading and commenting on their evolving reviews of each Goodman performance, and of their features and other project writing assignments. Organized and encouraged by Cheryl Corley, this class of program mentors included Kerry Reid, Anitra Rowe Schulte, Dawn Raftery, and me. I loved the experience. And several of my young women have and continued to hone truly lovely arts critic voices. They moved me.

From a note I recently sent to my particular young writers:

“I had a chance to say a bit at our last workshop about how much this project has meant to me. It will come as no surprise to you that I am passionate about theatre in general, about the very difficult art (verbal and written) of analyzing artistic productions, and about the importance of good, strong, true, articulate, passionate writing and thinking in this area. The Young Critics Circle project in its first year learned as it went along. We learned as much from you all as you might have learned from us.”

And that’s a view from the field.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 6, 2008)

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