national critics institute

Chris Jones, Director

One of the O'Neill's oldest programs, the National Critics Institute is the nation’s only program designed for arts writers and critics to strengthen their skills in an increasingly competitive and fast-paced industry. The two-week workshop is America's leading boot camp, offering Fellows an intensive course of study for writers of all experience levels.

 Lead funding for the National Critics Institute is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


The National Critics Institute, a two-week residential workshop and conference, convenes concurrently with the National Playwrights Conference and the National Music Theater Conference. Director Chris Jones, critic and columnist at the Chicago Tribune, offers fellows an intensive course of study for writers of all experience levels, especially for those in mid-career. However, each year a small number of young and aspiring critics join the group. The workshop makes unique use of the creative professionals working in and around the O'Neill Center to help writers gain insight into the specialist areas of the arts and to understand arts journalism from all sides. Past fellows have included: Mark Blankenship, Michael Phillips, Suzy Evans, and Diep Tran. The program includes writing workshops in the crafts of reviewing theater, film, performance, and food; workshops in storytelling and analysis; workshops in writing more exciting profiles in the field of arts and entertainment; insights into the critical process with a world-class faculty composed of America's leading arts critics; explorations of the relationship of critics with social media; study of best practices when it comes blogging and other online sites; off-site trips; and many opportunities to network with other critics and other creative professionals. Together, Critic fellows live at the O'Neill in beautiful, newly built cottages, spend a few days in the Berkshires, watch shows, review restaurants, and visit the beach. The range of this historic and prestigious program has expanded to better reflect the needs of the changed profession. This is now the only such major program in America that focuses on arts criticism and reporting, and the faculty that teach here each year are a formidable group. So are the fellows.

director & faculty

Dr. Chris Jones (Director) the chief theater critic and a Sunday cultural columnist of the Chicago Tribune, has reviewed and commented on culture, the arts, politics, and entertainment for the Chicago Tribune for more than 16 years. He also appears weekly on CBS-2 news in Chicago, and on the Tribune's WGN Radio. Before joining the staff of the Tribune a decade ago, Dr. Jones wrote for many years for Variety and Daily Variety, publishing several hundred reviews and commentaries, especially of pre-Broadway tryouts. He also spent a short time as Variety's Broadway critic. He has twice served on the drama committee of the Pulitzer Prizes. His arts criticism also has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, American Theatre magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. He has taught criticism, arts writing and cultural reporting in several universities. He's the author of a new history of theater criticism in Chicago, Bigger, Brighter, Louder. In 2015, he was awarded the George G. Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. Naveen Kumar (Associate Director, NCI '18) is a freelance culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on, Vox, InStyle, and The Hollywood Reporter. He serves as theatre critic for the queer news site Towleroad and contributes reviews to Time Out New York. His theatre features have appeared in The New York Times, L.A. Times, The Daily Beast, Teen Vogue, American Theatre, and more. Prior to journalism he worked on the agency side of the entertainment business, including in the theatrical literary department at CAA. He earned his B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. *** NCI faculty members are the nation's leading arts and culture writers. Recent members include: Mark Blankenship, TDF Stages Ben Brantley, New York Times Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post Peter Marks, Washington Post Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Tejal Rao, New York Times Dan Sullivan, Los Angeles Times

pull quotes from our alumni

"NCI is one of the last bastions of actively and rigorously cultivating aspiring critics to ensure that artistic communities and audiences, present and future, have highly trained and professional guides and documentarians." "NCI changed how I write and how I think about writing about the theater. The top-shelf faculty, lead by Chris Jones, helped me freshen my perspective on how and why we cover theater the way we do, and I couldn't have asked for a smarter, more enthusiastic cohort of fellows." "I am forever grateful for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and the National Critics Institute. The community there is one of such energy, encouragement, and creative development. I'm a much better thinker and writer than I was when I arrived on campus." "Chris Jones did a great job recruiting guest faculty and drawing out their expertise with pointed questions. He responded to our work in specific, useful terms, and he served as an admirable model for what the profession can be." "NCI was everything I dreamed of and more. From the big picture of the state of today's theater journalism down to the most precise punctuation in a sentence, Chris Jones led us through two weeks of intense but fun workshopping... I feel propelled into the career of my dreams, and I have NCI to thank." "My time at the National Critics Institute has without doubt been the most transformative, inspirational, and empowering writing intensive I have ever been fortunate enough to attend. I'm not sure anything like it really exists. To be isolated from the grind of normal life in a cultural oasis with fifteen other brilliant, diverse, and seriously opinionated arts journalists, and to be able to focus solely on writing, is a gift every critic wishes to receive. Two weeks out, the change is noticeable. I've gained confidence. Thoughts come more quickly. Previous blind-spots have been illuminated, and my writing has become more muscular. This is thanks not only to the phenomenal leadership and faculty, but to the presence of the incredible fellows, all of whom I now proudly and enthusiastically call my friends. I am still processing the many things I learned, and still savoring all the memories I hope to never forget." "This program is incomparable. And that's not just a word used lightly -- there is nothing to compare. To have talented colleagues, and access to their views along with exposure to and input from major critical writers on a national level, as well as the O'Neill's own specialist experience, is something very precious. We were fortunate to be there and now fortunate to know one another." "During a time of great distress for arts critics throughout the country, the National Critics Institute is a vital resource for all aspiring critics. It is the only program offering support, mentorship and empowerment for writers who wish to critique and comment on the arts on a professional level. The NCI is in many ways a last bastion for the craft of criticism, and must be supported, even expanded, so that criticism and arts writing stay alive in this country. I offer this from the perspective of a journalist who has seen theater, film, visual arts and music criticism die out in print publications. As a result, communities are suffering because of the lack of critics. The NCI allows writers and thinkers of diverse backgrounds to take the lessons they've received in these precious two weeks and apply them in their own communities, be it through blogs, videos, magazine features, essays and traditional review." "I came to the O'Neill having seen (and even participated in, long ago) plenty of theater, but with little experience in theater journalism. I was seeking practical advice about reviewing plays. I got that. But I also got so much more: an education on the major issues in theater and how plays are developed; useful knowledge about reviewing dance, food, and film; fruitful exploration of how theater and arts journalism are evolving and how we can better serve a changing readership and theater world; and an astonishingly diverse, supportive, and hard working group of faculty and fellow critics that made the O'Neill the Platonic ideal of arts journalism education. As a writing teacher myself, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of expertise Chris Jones applied so conscientiously to every story. I learned more than I imagined possible about writing itself, not just about theater reviewing, for a mid-career journalist. I've participated in the other major arts journalism programs (NEA/Columbia and Getty Annenberg/USC), which were both extremely valuable. But nothing I've seen, except possibly a full-year Nieman fellowship, compares to the rich educational experience provided at the O'Neill. With the demise of the other major arts journalism programs, arts journalists almost never get the opportunity to share ideas, receive feedback on our writing (editorial feedback is almost nonexistent in American arts journalism these days), discuss major issues, and explore how theater works from the inside. That knowledge, which was more commonly acquired in decades past, is essential to making theater journalism useful to readers and to theater makers, so that we all wind up with better theater. Thanks to the O'Neill, I can now be a much more useful part of the theater ecosystem, both to the creators of theater and to my readers. To have access to a faculty with such a high level combination of practical reviewing experience, academic rigor and depth, along with direct interaction with theater makers and hands-on writing experience is tremendously valuable and so rare as to be unique in my experience. I can't imagine a more productive, useful and informative journalism experience, of any kind, in a two week period. I'm grateful to all involved, for what I'll always remember as a magical experience. But more than that, I hope the American theater world appreciates the value they're adding to theater by raising the standards of theater journalism for writers around the country. Ultimately, the benefit isn't to us as critics, but to readers, audience members and theater makers."


Applications to the 2020 National Critics Institute are now closed. Please use the below information for reference and the 2020 Application Preplist. Cost of the session is $2,500. This includes private room, meals, tuition, and tickets to the National Playwrights Conference and National Music Theater Conference. A $500 deposit is required on acceptance, with full payment due June 15. However, due to generous foundational support, scholarships up to the full amount are available for well-qualified applicants, covering the full cost of the week's tuition, room and board. The O'Neill strives to ensure scholarship funding is available for all NCI participants. Merit based scholarship is made available to well-qualified applicants. No financial information is required at time of application. Only complete applications will be considered, which include: 1) an application form 2) additional materials: two writing samples and a letter of endorsement If you have any questions, please contact the Literary Office at or call 860-443-5378 x227.

frequently asked questions

How are admission decisions made? We choose writers and journalists both who illustrate promise and who are mid-career, looking to revitalize their perspectives and experience. We appreciate writers and thinkers who understand what they want to learn from the program, and/or have a profession that asks them to write critically, analytically. Do not shy away based on lack of experience. Our Critic Fellows share a few basic characteristics—they have a passion for critical writing, an affection for analytical thought, and a love of art forms. What sort of plays will I see? You’ll see several new plays and musicals in development at the O’Neill, and many at regional theaters such as Goodspeed Opera House, Ivoryton Playhouse, and Trinity Rep. Tickets are included in the tuition, as is the food at a variety of terrific restaurants you will review. Are there publishing opportunities? The work presented at the O’Neill are staged readings. As the plays and musicals are in process, we use them as a jumping off point for critical exploration. They are not reviewable. Professional, full productions we see off campus offer potential publishing opportunities. Interviews and other topics will be discussed in workshops. Will I have the opportunity to meet others at the O'Neill? We encourage you both to spend time at the campus pub—where artists and staff gather nightly—and to share meals with the wide range of theater professionals at the O’Neill. The National Critics Institute is held concurrently with the National Playwrights Conference and the National Music Theater Conference. Recent summer guests have included Tom Kitt, Judith Light, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Kirsten Childs, and John Logan. Do I need a computer? Yes, by all means. Bring a trustworthy computer, one that is mobile and reliable. What are the living accommodations? You will be living in new on-campus cottages with air conditioning and easy access to your workshops, the ocean, cafeteria, and theaters. Do I have any time off? Dependent on our schedule, we’ll usually take a day off to enjoy the area at the beginning of our second week. Will I need a car? Some Fellows feel a car is helpful should they want to visit nearby towns on their day off or have meals off campus. We often see shows and eat off campus, and the O’Neill offers supply runs so a car is not necessary.

partnership with knight foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. In 2020, Knight Foundation made a three-year, $240,000 commitment in support of the National Critics Institute. Knight Foundation funding will go towards fully supporting participation in the program by fellows who live and/or work in one of the 26 communities where Knight Foundation is investing in local journalism. Interested writers living and/or working in one of the 26 Knight communities are strongly encouraged to apply.

  • Long Beach, California
  • San Jose, California
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Bradenton, Florida
  • Miami, Florida
  • Palm Beach County, Florida
  • Tallahassee, Florida
  • Columbus, Georgia
  • Macon, Georgia
  • Milledgeville, Georgia
  • Ft. Wayne, Indiana
  • Gary, Indiana
  • Wichita, Kansas
  • Lexington, Kentucky
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Duluth, Minnesota
  • St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Biloxi, Mississippi
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Grand Forks, North Dakota
  • Akron, Ohio
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • State College, Pennsylvania
  • Columbia, South Carolina
  • Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
  • Aberdeen, South Dakota.
NCI Director Chris Jones shares: “Knight Foundation has been a key supporter of the National Critics Institute for over two decades, and I am beyond thrilled that they’ve now taken their support to a new level. This funding will allow us to broaden the scope of NCI, add to our already incredible roster of faculty, and most importantly invest in voices that are vital to the future of arts journalism.” “I’m so excited to embark on this partnership with the O’Neill’s National Critics Institute, and to continue Knight Foundation’s commitment to promoting engaged and informed communities through the lens of arts criticism.” shares Victoria Rogers, VP Arts, Knight Foundation. “We look forward to working with Chris and his team to help expose more journalists from across the country to the incredibly high caliber of professional training and networks offered by NCI, and to ensuring this crucial form of journalism remains supported.”

The National Critics Institute is also supported by Critical Minded,  an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color co-founded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation.


Additional funding for NCI is provided by: the Drama Desk, the American Theater Critics Association, The Shubert Foundation, and O'Neill Annual Fund donors. 

Ben Brantley and Peter Marks
Writing Under the Tree
Chris Jones
Writing at a Computer


Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

305 Great Neck Road

Waterford, CT 06385

Administrative Offices: (860) 443-5378



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