Always a Critic.

It is the weekend and you are considering taking in a new movie or play.  You have one in mind however your date is not sold on the idea.  To change their mind you grab the paper or go online and pull out a review.  The jury has decided and it looks like you will be ordering in tonight.

People rely heavily on the review.  It makes or breaks their evening or holiday.  Essentially, people are in need of assurance that their choice of entertainment (among other things) is correct.  However, have you ever stopped and thought, “Who are these Guiding Lights of the Night and why do we trust their word?  Why do these people go out of their way to give us the inside information?”  It is not about taking a film course in college; it is because of much more than that. 

Ernece B. Kelly was not trained in the art of the review.  In fact, she has her BA, MA and PHD in literature.   She also taught for 40 years at CUNY (City University of New York).  She explains that after college she experienced a lot of trouble getting her reviews published. With persistence and determination, her Broadway, off Broadway and Off-off Broadway play reviews have been published for over 15 years.  She currently writes reviews for the New York Beacon, an African-American newspaper that focuses on matters of truth and justice both locally and nationally.   

Why does Kelly write reviews?  She describes her childhood, explains that was raised in an urban community and going to the movies with her father and sister was a highlight for every Friday.  They would talk about every movie they saw.  “My father acted like the children really had an opinion that mattered and were encouraged to speak their minds,” she says.  She always felt like her opinion was important.

Kelly points out that there are three main reasons for her reviews.   “The first,” she says quick and simply, “is that I like getting my viewpoint out there. I enjoy going to a play and writing about it and knowing it is available for other people to look at.  I don’t care if they agree or disagree; I just want them to read it.”

“The second,“ Kelly continues, “is as a reviewer I get invited to previews and we see the drama before the public does. It can give the reading audience a heads up for something they might want to see.”  She then gives a quick flash of her press pass “I practically work for free.  I average about 5 cents a review and about 30-40 plays a year.  Having the press pass is the pay off.”  Kelly explains that it has been tough lately to get a new press pass as they are “like gold” and a rarity.  For now she relies on her Rolodex of the names of publicists and theatres to get her in.  

Kelly’s final reason for writing reviews is the most complex and most personal.  “The third reason, “ Kelly continues, “is that I enjoy writing and clarifying.  “I enjoy writing.  This is a quick, dirty way to write and re-write. I like going to the theatre, going home and writing. I’m not objective.  I don’t feel I have to be objective.  I’m trying to talk about what I experienced.”   She says she always tries to bring a friend with her to the plays.  She enjoys bouncing ideas and thoughts off of someone else as well as discussing any points she may have missed, “I need pushback to help me clarify,” Kelly explains. She also has her partner edit her first draft.  She adds that rewrite and the clarification is just as important to her as the original review, “As I continue writing and get deeper into it I realize it isn’t everything I thought it was and it’s a very selfish purpose for me”.  She then notes that she usually reaches her limit after the second re-write.

Does Kelly ever get the chance to enjoy a play or film without the task of reviewing?  She pauses for a moment and laughs, “I do enjoy the theatre without reviewing and I have mixed feelings because sometimes I just want to talk about how great or awful it is and sometimes I enjoy not having to write down. I feel being more critical helps me understand the play more.”  So, are there any notable plays she suggests to see?   Kelly could not think of anything right away.  She lists a few plays which she felt were notable but boring or insulting; The revival of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Scottsboro Boys”.   This must be her critical side speaking. 

Therefore, the next time you have a date, time off or just feel like taking in some drama, do not hesitate to pick up that newspaper or log onto that website.  Chances are that critic has a lot of experience and genuinely cares about what they have written.   They know we do not want to be disappointed.

“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind,” ( is the first line on the history page of the Burning Man website.  Clearly attempting to uncover the mysteries of the festival, which is held two hours away from civilization in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, was going to be more difficult than originally anticipated.    The only solution is to seek out some the mysterious attendees of the festival and discuss what exactly the whole thing is about.  

Meet Jack and Robert Arnow.   What is most interesting about these two is that they are father and son attendees.  Jack, a retired math and science professor, and Robert, a 33 year old graphic designer, appear to be regular guys living an ordinary life.  However, they have made over 14 trips between to two to the hot, dry desert of Nevada at the end of August to partake in the Burning Man Festival.

“People don’t feel they are in normal life,” says Robert, “It feels like everything is in that moment and everything else is irrelevant”.  One of the first things Robert describes are the art cars that look like giant cats, dragons or floating boats that drive around the desert letting people jump on and off.  Out of this world are a few words that come to mind immediately.  In fact, the burning of a 100-foot, man shaped structure made of wood and lights marks the end of the festival.

Robert had been attending the festival for a couple of years before introducing it to his father.  Robert describes the festival as a community of 50,000 people that gather in the desert and create “conceptual but not conceptual” art pieces of all sizes and genre, “There’s a lot of emphasis on community and people connecting”.  The weather can be harsh with hot days, cold nights, and dust storms.  Robert explains that this also creates intense experiences that help people connect with each other.  Jack adds that the sense of community is even felt outside the festival.  He becomes emotional as he retells a story of his truck broke down on the way to burning man and there were people in a junkyard in Reno who helped them fix everything for free. 

Robert describes a year where he and a friend created a 1950s style diner and served grilled cheese for whomever wanted one.  He also has helped create a 25 foot seesaw and a vehicle he describes as the “Snuffalupabus”.   Anyone who attends the festival has to make sure they have all the supplies they need before entering the desert.  There is no money in the desert and everything is free.  People can rely on one another in case they run out of food and water, as there are no stores in the middle of the desert.

A little less reserved than his son, Jack has immersed a large chunk of his life in the Burning Man. “The attack on your sense is overwhelming and endless” explains Jack, “Your senses are constantly on the go.”

Jack used the internet and found a group of people his age that were going.  He explains that he is what the community at Burning Man an elder because he is one of the oldest attendees of the festival.  Jack and his fellow elders camp together.  Elders are looked up to and constantly sought out for help and even counseling. Younger peoples look to elders for someone to listen and share stories.  The elders have more in common than all the youth.  

When asked about his first trip to Burning Man, Jack says, “I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in.  An older person who doesn’t party, do drugs, or dance”.  So to give back to the Black Rock Desert community he does magic card tricks and gives massages.  He proudly states, “I’m not shy at all, and hands out several photos of himself wearing very little and wearing hand made costumes while at the festival.   Robert blushes and seems a little uncomfortable about his father’s scantily clad adventures.   Jack notices and says he doesn’t do anything around his kids he isn’t comfortable with, and when asked about his wife he says, “My wife doesn’t go, it would be her nightmare.  It’s too hot and she’s more laid back and likes her privacy.”

With a little of the Burning Man mystery now dissolved, the obvious question about drug use arises. Both father and son agree that there is a lot of sex and drugs at burning man. “People might be having more intense experiences because of drug use and some of it could be better appreciated on drugs, but you can have a good time sober,” says Robert.  Jack adds,  “Do whatever you want to do because you want to do it, don’t do it because anyone else wants you to do it.  It’s what you make it, but you could make it almost everything. Anything you plan to do, don’t count on it.”

“here, with my view of the creamy peach sunset
off this highway
even    the    vowels
drip between consonants
the way that hammocks are slung between trees
and the Spanish moss, antique lace in the air,
makes a breeding ground
of the breeze.”

-Excerpt from ”Louisiana, Route 82” by Samantha Barrow

Meet Samantha Barrow, or Sam as she prefers.  Sam is a 35 year old poet who currently splits her time between New York City and Martha’s Vineyard with her wife.  Sam has her undergrad in writing from Eugene Lang in New York City and is currently working on her Masters Degree at Columbia University.  She is an avid motorcyclist and prides herself in her humor and sassiness.  However, things haven’t always been so easy.

Sam has experienced many of the same experiences that many artistic students and young adults go through in order to get by with their trade.   She has taken demeaning jobs, moving to a new city in order to afford rent, and struggled with promoting her work.  What makes Barrow stand out from the rest is how she has succeeded in turning negatives into positives for her poetry and helping others heal themselves through creative writing.  She is determined to bring creative writing and the medical industry together.

Why poetry? “I feel poetry is the first thing you reach for before the story of what is actually happening.  Culturally we don’t have a very good relationship with poetry. At the end of the day I am able to go home and know myself intimately and most people I know don’t know themselves in the same way,” Sam explains.  After finishing her undergrad, Sam moved to Philadelphia to save money, “Cheaper rent lets you figure out things you like to do rather than making money.”  She was involved in a freak pop band drumming for four years and was waitress at several different restaurants.  She says she was fired for not wanting to wear lipstick. 

Sam involved herself in Lady Fest, a music festival based on a post punk feminist movement. Lady Fest promoted concerts and D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) movements for women.  She learned how to arrange events and use a soundboard.  She felt that being involved with lady Fest gave her an informative experience she could never have in college. 

Like most of us in our lives, Sam went through a very difficult break-up.  This prompted her to embark on a cross-country motorcycle tour. Put out her first chap book, a 30 to 68 page book that poets publish between other manuscripts. She made at Kinko’s and sold while she was on tour in order to afford the trip.  She took notes and stories from the tour and wrote a book of poetry, “Grit Tender Memories”.

Back in Philadelphia, Sam began with children and adults with their writing and started Sound/Body/Love/Poem, an erotic writing workshops for survivor of sexual abuse.  It was during this time she realized that she realized she was hitting a wall and needed her Masters of Social Work in order to have credibility.  She just wasn’t equipped to work with important companies.  That’s when she discovered the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia, “I’ve been able to enroll in the program and think about different ways to tell stories and how to be more responsible with issues like trauma,” she explains.  

Is this a pseudoscience? Sam is firm, “People know the system is broken. The way we think of the body and illness isn’t working, technology is expensive and diagnosing hasn’t improved.  If it [narrative medicine] didn’t come from the medical community it would be considered pseudoscience.  It is still looked down on” by some, but it isn’t exactly a pseudoscience.  Body and illness aren’t only made up of numbers.”  Because of this, Sam is driven to make a difference with patients and wounded soldiers. “I want to bring the story back into the illness instead of it just being a series of biological events.  Some people report that the person is in the way of the biological problem that needs to be fixed,” she says, “There is money coming from the Veteran’s Administration and there are a lot of wounded soldiers needing help so it [the medical industry] needs an intervention with working in groups.”

Artists struggle to find their voice in the world.  The key is to be able to motivate others to see the artistic abilities in themselves.  “I have an obsession with the body, illness, trauma and resilience and I think that poetry is desperately needed in these fields,” Sam states. She believes everyone has the ability to write poetry and write creatively.  “A simile is a good thing to pay attention to and they can be exercises to start a comparison,” Sam explains, “We need magic and we need the imagination which we’ve been taught to take out of our lives and healing.”