FOR A LONG TIME, I’ve held onto this quote: “Critics are just artists who never made it.” It took me until two months ago — following my first experience with theatre from a journalist’s perspective — to stop believing it to be true.

Theatre journalism is something I never considered dabbling in until last August, when I enrolled in a film appreciation class at my Texas high school. It was the first time the class was offered, and it was led by one of University High School’s theatre directors, Katy Davis (who is amazing, by the way). I knew the minute she mentioned the idea for the class that I wanted to be part of it, especially because I intended to major in film and digital media in college.

Tyler Mitchell, far right, with fellow cast members at the district One Act Play contest.

Tyler Mitchell, far right, with fellow cast members at the district one-act play competition. Photo courtesy of Tyler Mitchell.

After learning the course would have a major focus in analytical writing, I thought it would prepare me in all the areas I needed to be successful as a screenwriter or director. What I wasn’t expecting was how the class and subsequent experiences would change the way I view theatre as an actor.

Though I had never participated in theatre journalism before, I have always been a writer. I began writing short fiction stories in fifth grade, and I drafted a full-length novel by the time I was 14. My interest in theatre came later. As a member of my middle school’s prose and poetry team, I performed an excerpt from the novel Lord of the Flies for a competition. As a result of that performance, I was asked to audition for my high school’s theatre company as an incoming freshman.

I hadn’t been interested in acting, but I remember thinking that even if my audition went miserably at least I would have tried. (I assumed it would go miserably. I went home and Googled what a monologue was. Then the panic began.) My mental health was at a terrible low, the worst it had ever been and has ever been to date. Yet, I wanted to believe that this opportunity had the potential to change my life. To my surprise, it did.

Acting in this company gave me a release, an escape, and a home. Being in theatre completely changed the direction of my life, so much so that I didn’t stop at acting. The summer after my freshman year, I worked on a production of The Wizard of Oz building sets and being part of the running crew for my community theatre. I returned the following summer to work fly rails for Matilda. Then, during the second semester of my sophomore year, I student directed in one of the higher-level acting classes at my school. In just three years of theatre, I’ve experimented across the board.

Still, when I began writing reviews for my film appreciation class, I struggled to provide analytical comments about the different acting and technical aspects of the films we watched, despite having worked in comparable theatre areas. I had acted, but not on screen. I knew the basics of cinematography, but I had never worked on a film set. So, I was surprised when my director suggested I apply to the Thespian Criticworks competition at the Texas Thespians State Festival in November 2019. It took no convincing on her part; I submitted my three reviews and left it to time to tell.

For my Criticworks entries, I was in the strange position of reviewing my school’s productions — which, in some cases, meant reviewing my own work but from the perspective of an audience member. Still, I found theatre easier to comment on than film because I felt I knew it inside and out. I wrote about the stories of the plays, how our interpretations of those stories differed from previous productions of them, and how our delivery was received by audiences.

I found it even easier to review shows I was not involved in because I could take off my blinders and not worry about possible biases that came from being involved in the process and performance. At the Texas festival, I got to watch, review, and interview the lead of Rare Birds, a one-act play by Adam Szymkowicz performed by Mesquite High School. It was this experience that made theatre journalism click for the first time with the actor in me. I had the opportunity to discuss — with Julian Wrights, an actor my age — the material, his research, and his approach to his part. In our interview, he talked about how, as an extrovert, he had to be intentional about studying his character. Because he had no experience connecting him to the character he was playing, he took it upon himself to discuss with his introverted friends the ways their personality affects how they interact with different people in their lives.

Mitchell and other University High School students on their way from Waco to a play clinic in Houston.
Mitchell and other University High School students on their way to a one-act play clinic in Houston. Photo courtesy of Tyler Mitchell.

This approach resonated with me — not just as a theatre journalist, but as an actor. At the time of the interview, my director was casting our one-act play, where the main character loses his mother to cancer. The script was hard to wrap my head around, as I have never lost anyone that close to me to sickness. When I earned the role, I knew it was important to find something to connect those feelings to, whether something personal or the story of a friend who could offer insight on the turmoil a child faces when witnessing life lost. I used the example set by the actor I’d interviewed and applied it to my role.

Acting can be a very personal art form, and theatre journalism is just as personal to me now. That might sound improbable to many students reading this, especially if your only experience with something like theatre journalism comes from essays your high school English teacher made you write the day after watching a movie or show — the ones that made you hate English class. But, ironically, I found that in combining these two hobbies of writing and theatre that I once viewed as separate, both have become more meaningful. The kind of analysis I use when writing about theatre has become part of my acting process when I do theatre.

To be a well-rounded theatre journalist, you must be well-versed in all areas of theatre — from acting to designing to directing, even storytelling generally. So, to say a critic is an artist who never made it is not true. A critic is an artist — perhaps the most seasoned of them all — who has made it, just on their terms.

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