Tostada Road Trip: How I learned to speak my truth at a New England theater camp

Photo courtesy of John Wenzel. Group shot of the 2022 National Critics Institute fellows at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass., in the Berkshires.

Hola, Tostada Family! Y’all probably been wondering what’s up with Tostada Thursdays these past couple of weeks. I don’t blame you, I’ve missed my weekly dispatches to ustedes!

Well, the truth is, I’ve been away at theater camp. OK, well, not exactly, but pretty damn close to it. I’d been accepted to join an esteemed cohort of 14 fellow culture writers from across the country for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s annual National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. We spent the bulk of our time there watching workshopped theater productions, one starring a Tony Award-winning actor. We piled into vans for an overnight trip to the Berkshires to visit the hallowed grounds for dance theater, Jacob’s Pillow. We witnessed a really bad musical at the Goodspeed Opera House. We reviewed restaurants in Mystic (sorry, no pizza for us). I screamed my ass off in an old-school movie theater during a screening of Jordan Peele’s Nope.

I made fast friends with a dance writer from Seattle, swapped war stories of late-night debauchery in Detroit with an arts reporter from Denver, and marveled at the cosmos on the beach with a film critic from New York and an entertainment reporter from Duluth, Minn. I bawled like a baby when my new mates were shuttled away to the train station.

And as I settled into my aisle seat on the flight home and switched on Viola Davis’ memoir, Finding Me, I finally had a chance to go deep into my thoughts and contemplate the meaning of my being in this space for the past two weeks.

I learned the value of shooting my shot, speaking my truth, of owning my own story.

The National Critics Institute provides its participants with as many access points as possible to give writers like me the opportunity to break ourselves open and just write. No car? No money for an hour-long Uber from the airport to the O’Neill? No problem, there’s a team of drivers for that. Meals are free. And while there’s much to be desired from cafeteria food (hello, sad breakfast taco!), removing distractions like ‘what am I gonna do about dinner’ provided us with just enough nourishment to really commit to a full day’s work.

We had our own rooms supplied with clean linens and towels. We could open the windows to let in the fresh ocean air. We could spend the little moments of free time at the beach or checking out the nearby coastal towns. The campus is spaced out in such a way that you’re forced to walk to get to the cafeteria, to the picnic benches where we held most of our workshops, or back to our dorms. There was no lazying about in our home offices, barely getting any exercise. I learned to reconnect with and listen to my body in all my sweaty, gordita glory. Maybe I’ll start waking up earlier, I told myself daily. Maybe this is the jump start I need to get back on track and feel again like I belong in my own body again.

Our deadlines came shortly after breakfast so many of us had to relearn time management. There was no time for second-guessing or procrastinating. We had to just spill what we had going on in our heads onto pages and hope for the best.

I met skunks and small bunnies and tiny chipmunks that scurried across the stone wall next to the picnic tables. It felt like a world away from the daily dramas and frustrations of living in Detroit.

I imagine I’ll be speaking in “critic” for the foreseeable future, analyzing the otherwise minute details of tv reruns or replacing all my adjectives in my food stories with verbs, similes, and metaphors.

Most importantly, I was reminded of the importance of an arts education, and by extension, arts journalism. As a kiddo, I played violin, saxophone, and trumpet — I was obsessed with creating sounds. I abandoned that love too young when confronted by childhood trauma and was forced to play the survival game instead. On one of the few quiet nights at the O’Neill, I was sitting on the porch of a rehearsal space with a couple of other fellows when I overheard the melodramatic sounds of a violinist, Jorge, who was rehearsing for an upcoming musical theater performance. I ran into him the next morning during breakfast and shared that I too was once a violinist. On one of our last nights on campus, he introduced me to his partner, also a writer, who’s done work for Sesame Street, a show that I’ve daydreamed working on for years. The week prior, the director of a still-in-the-works play sat down with us for a moment and explained that without an arts education, our society loses its ability to contextualize our human experiences through storytelling. And when we lose that, we’re more susceptible to being influenced by the narratives of those who wish to cause harm and chaos (ahem, recall all those trolls who spread mis and disinformation and who threatened the outcome of the 2020 elections?). For years and years as your faithful chingona-in-chief, I’ve struggled to articulate just why food and culture journalism matters. These experiences ran mini shockwaves through my system, resuscitating my desire to maybe pick up a violin once again, or perhaps apply for the Sesame Street Writers Workshop… Or at least to write from more of a place of curiosity and vulnerability.

And that, mis amigos, is what I hope to continue contributing to our local food culture.

For more information about the National Critics Institute, click here.

And click here for more insights from fellow NCI fellow, Jay Gabler.


Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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