"Where are all the female critics?"
That question -- raised more than seven years ago as part of a panel discussion sponsored by the Association for Women Journalists -- inspired more than a debate. It inspired action.
After reading about the discussion, Willa Taylor, director of education and community engagement for Chicago's Goodman Theatre, called her longtime friend Cheryl Corley, an NPR correspondent and AWJ board member. Taylor suggested they establish an arts journalism training program for high school girls from Chicago and its suburbs.
Corley and the AWJ board agreed. and the Cindy Bandle Young Critics program was born. Seven years later it is a resounding success, attracting bright, articulate high school juniors like 16-year-old Ariel Majewski, who says participating in the program has improved her critical thinking.
"It's a great challenge," said the Algonquin native, an aspiring journalist from Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, who mostly wrote formal essays and research papers in the past.
Two Saturdays a month, the theater lover and aspiring journalist rises early and takes the train from her home to the theater where she and 32 other high school juniors participate in writing workshops, interview theater professionals, write features and review Goodman plays. They receive one-on-one coaching from adult mentors, including working critics, reporters, editors and journalism instructors.
Nina Wilson of Grayslake says her initial reviews consisted of free-flowing thoughts. She discovered that wouldn't work.
"I realized I need the structure of a thesis," the 16-year-old home-schooled student said, adding "it's a great exercise to be able to articulate why you like something."
Program coordinator Corley and the other AWJ mentors don't expect every participant to become a critic or pursue a career in journalism.
"The goal of the program is to help young women think critically about what they're seeing and be able to write well," Corley said. "It's also to help these young women learn about and enjoy theater."
In seven years, 143 young women have participated in the program, which begins in October and is named for Goodman's longtime press director, who died in 2005 after battling breast cancer.
"People often give high school kids short shrift," Corley says. "These young women are smart and capable. That's how we approach them to begin with."
Maya St. Clair of Mundelein says behind-the-scenes glimpses into what it takes to put together a production have been eye-opening.
"Nothing happens by accident onstage," said the 17-year-old Mundelein High School junior and aspiring dramaturge, someone involved in the research and development of a play.
After spending a few minutes playing theater games, the girls break up into small groups to discuss their work with mentors.
Huddling in a cramped cubicle, Columbia College Chicago instructor Susy Schultz reminds her protégés that even though a review is an opinion, it must be rooted in facts. She also encourages them to capture readers' interest through the use of imagery.
"Paint the picture for them," she says.
But Schultz and the other volunteers offer more than writing critiques. At a time when some women still hesitate to do so, Schultz and the others urge the girls to "speak loud."
"Use your voice," she says.
By the end of the session, they do, Corley says.
"Being in the program makes them more confident," she said. "Journalistically, it makes them better writers."