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A critical mass in downtown L.A.

It seems like forever ago that I was in Los Angeles, but it was just last month. There we were, 25 theater critics and editors, feature writers and arts and entertainment editors from newspapers in 21 states.

We had been invited to participate in a remarkable 10-day program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts offering intensive training for theater critics and their editors. We had our own rooms at the much-filmed Westin Bonaventure Hotel downtown near the Mark Taper Forum, the Colburn School, Walt Disney Concert Hall, REDCAT Theater and the Museum of Contemporary Art, among other arts venues. Is this heaven, or what!?

Be forewarned, it could rain. The mornings and evenings in January and February may be downright cold.

The occasion was the second Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater to be held at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. Besides being remarkable, the program was decidedly rigorous.

  • You will attend each event and every class, and arrive on time;
  • You will complete all writing assignments;
  • You will meet the writing deadlines.

The days were packed with writing workshops, history lectures, acting and directing classes, reading plays and reviews, observing rehearsals, meeting with theater professionals, and attending performances of plays and musicals. We saw six plays — some of us saw more — and wrote reviews for three of them. Our reviews were then critiqued by our instructors and colleagues in small writing groups.

You will be writing in your room. Please bring a laptop.

Flown in for the occasion from London was John Lahr, senior drama critic for The New Yorker and the spitting image of his father, Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion from the movie "The Wizard of Oz." We had three sessions with the Lion's son and were assigned to read two of his books and seven of his reviews.

Lahr, who was born into a theater family and spent his whole life immersed in that world, spoke candidly with us, his fellow critics and documenters of the ephemeral art of live theater.

"A critic has to look at theater and he has to look after theater. You have to be involved. It's a labor of love. You have to serve it."

A far cry from the thumbs up thumbs down, quickie review.

Nearly every morning begins with a class, "Actor's Presence," taught by Tom Leabhart, theater professor, Pomona College. It is a brain warm-up, body warm-up to help understand what actors do.

Other instructors included Gordon Davidson, founder and former artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum; Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; Gil Cates, producing director, Geffen Playhouse; Ben Donenberg, founder and producing artistic director, Shakespeare Festival/LA; Sylvie Drake, former theater critic, Los Angeles Times; Erik Ehn, dean of CalArts School of Theater; Steven Leigh Morris, theater editor, L.A. Weekly; Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press; Michael Phillips, theater critic, Chicago Tribune; Misha Berson, chief theater critic, Seattle Times; Travis Preston, directing artistic director, Center for New Theater, CalArts; and Charles McNulty, chief theater critic, Los Angeles Times.

You will not need a car. You have no days off.

What did we 25 critics discover? And what could we bring back to our respective papers and newsrooms?

  • We all have the same guy for editor;
  • Our beat and our jobs — like our newspapers — are endangered species;
  • Theater offers people something of greater value than entertainment;
  • Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world, has 500 live theaters, more than New York City;
  • Newspapers, as they are currently configured, may not be the best place to cover the arts;
  • It would serve the theater (with a capital T) far better to see a show and write a review of it further into the run rather than on opening night;
  • artsjournal.com is a great place for arts information;
  • Sleep is a wonderful thing.

The Institute is about creating a safe place to test all sorts of ideas, challenge yourself and work hard while not having to impress anyone. Editors will be writing, too. This is a level playing field.

And it was over way too soon.