From film critics such as Roger Ebert to online personalities such as the Nostalgia Critic, the ability to offer insight and commentary is a valuable one in the arts. The critical eye of one New Kent High School student has earned him honors from the International Thespian Society, one of only four students in America to receive them.
Christopher Martell is a New Kent sophomore and has been involved in the school’s drama department since auditioning for “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” during his freshman year. According to his drama teacher, Victoria Kessling Councill, Martell quickly stood out for his ability to look at things in ways other students might not.
“Chris is an interesting kid because he came into the theater through the proverbial back door. He wasn’t a die-hard theater kid when he came in, he was curious, gave it a try and stuck around, and he’s been very dedicated ever since,” Kessling Councill said. “I remember when we were working ‘The Laramie Project,’ he actually went out on his own and emailed the actors who have worked on it and asked for tips and pointers. That level of initiative and professionalism is impressive, especially in a student as young as Christopher.”
It was with that in mind that she encouraged him to submit work for the ITS Criticworks program, which is one of four writing programs from the organization designed to encourage and promote original writing by and for high school students. Martell admits that he was intrigued by the contest.
“I’ve always been a passionate writer, it’s just something that came naturally to me, and I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve always enjoyed offering input and critique,” Martell said. “So when my teacher made a post about Criticworks and how they were open to submissions, I decided to at least take a stab at it.”
The contest required Martell to submit reviews of three shows he’d seen, so he did reviews of the musicals “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and “Bright Star”, which he saw at the ITS state conference this year in January, and one of the Broadway show “Waitress” while it was on tour in Richmond.
Martell will be the first to tell you that he is perhaps most critical of his own work, so he didn’t expect to hear anything once he’d submitted his critiques.
“I did a lot of revisions on each of them what must have been a dozen times, and I barely made the submission deadline. Really, I expected that to be the end of it,” Martell said. “Then a month later, while walking my dog, I got an email from my teacher telling me I’d been named a finalist, so if you can imagine me crying next to my dog on the side the street, that was how I first reacted to the news.”
As a finalist, Martell will attend the International Thespian Festival June 24-29 at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. There, he will get to network with industry professionals, participate in several workshops and will work with arts journalist Peter Filichia to further develop his writing skills. At least one of the reviews he’s written will also be published professionally.
In her nine years teaching drama at New Kent, while Kessling Councill has had other students earn various honors from ITS, Martell is the first to earn honors for critique
At this point, Martell doesn’t know if he’ll keep writing critiques or pursue it professionally. He has plans to study law once he goes to college, something he thinks a critical eye will serve him well in — and he says that eye has only gotten better since the contest.
“One of the things about critique is that it’s so much more than just thumbs up, thumbs down. You have to be able to judge a lot of different parts of a production, and be entirely subjective about it,” Martell said. “Every show I’ve seen since I start taking notes in my head on performances or set details when I might not have focused on them before, so it’s certainly had an impact on how I look at things.”
His teacher, meanwhile, hopes his success shows the school there is value in giving students a chance to write where there currently aren’t any.
“At New Kent High School, we don’t have anything like a school paper or a literary magazine or anything for the kids to like to write, so beyond just the theater, it’s a rare opportunity for one of our students to be recognized like this, especially for their writing,” Kessling Councill said. “I hope it finally sparks something here, because we have kids who are interested and they can do great things if we give them the opportunity.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.