Critical Thinker

By Allison Engel

The film reviewer has been at USC for 11 years (bringing his own apple a day to class), and can’t imagine life without teaching.

Photo by Philip ChanningPhoto by Philip Channing

Twenty-four years ago, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan began an oral history of theatre impresario Joe Papp. After Turan turned 10,000 pages of transcripts into a manuscript, the volatile Papp changed his mind and refused to have it published. Finally, in 2009, with the approval of Papp’s widow, Free for all: Joe Papp, the public, and the greatest theater Story Ever told, was published by Doubleday to wide acclaim. (The paperback edition comes out in November.) Turan has been at USC since 1999, teaching nonfiction writing each fall in the Master of Professional Writing Program and critical writing each spring at USC Annenberg. He spoke with USC Trojan Family Magazine’s Allison Engel, who is one of his past students.

What was it like to have the manuscript sitting in your closet all those years? It nagged at me constantly. I never forgot about it. It was like a low-grade infection. I felt it was too significant to let die, but not because of what I did. It was that all these people had spoken to me. they often had spent hours and hours and really been very candid about difficult, significant portions of their lives. a lot of them now have died – roughly 40 out of 160 I spoke to. they aren’t going to be telling these stories to anybody else.

How did Joe Papp, without formal training, become such a force in the theatre world? He came from a generation when there were really, really good public school teachers. there were teachers he remembered to the end of his life. that’s how he discovered Shakespeare, that’s how his speech patterns changed. public education did what it’s supposed to do in his case. It changed his life.

Once Free for All was published, what was the reaction? David Hare, the playwright, wrote me: “If I didn’t work in the theatre already, I would want to after reading your book.” It feels like I’m talking about someone else’s book because I wrote it so long ago. I end up saying, “this is really good,” which I usually don’t say about my own work. but I feel like this is someone else’s work, in an odd way. This is a guy I was 24 years ago.

Why do you teach? I certainly don’t do it for the money. I really find it very satisfying to help students. It’s great to see people improve over the course of a semester, and mostly, they do. Everyone has ability, and ideally what the writing school structure does is allow you to make the most out of your ability. You don’t make terrible writers into great writers, but people improve within their range.

You seem to have found a way to give criticism that is pointed and honest, but not ad hominem. It’s on my mind: What’s the best way to talk to people so they can take it in? I’m only there for one reason. I don’t need to hear myself talk. I don’t have a lot of spare time that I want to fill up. I’m there to help the students write better. It’s one night a week, but I’m reading papers all week. It takes all my lunch hours to read the papers.

After you finish your reviews, you are known for proofing them multiple times. I try to read them in different visual formats. I read them on my computer screen and then I read them again as printouts. If there’s time, I’ll read them on the paper’s screens, which is yet a third format. and each time I read it, I’ll catch something.

Do you get tired of being asked for film recommendations? I never get tired of being asked, because if you care enough about films to be a critic, there’s really kind of a proselytizing aspect to it. you want to share the good news. there are so many good ones out there, it frustrates me that people are not seeing them. I’m talking about films that people have not heard of, that they will really like.

Give me some examples. like Children of Paradise. My favorite films often are French films. Children of Paradise is one I really love. another is the French film The Earrings of Madame De. … it’s a romantic film. I tend to like romantic films.

Why is that? I don’t know. I just like them.

Hear Kenneth Turan’s reviews on KUSC’s “Arts Alive” program at