jakub | December 27, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Peter Marks, Signing Off From His Post


Peter Marks.

Peter Marks is not originally from Washington, D.C., but he is now forever associated with the city: As chief theatre critic for the Washington Post from 2002 until Dec. 31 of this year, when he will leave the job as part of a buyout, Marks did as much as any of the town’s arts or civic leaders to boost the profile of the city’s theatres, not only in its historic role as an out-of-town tryout spot for Broadway but as the cradle of worthy theatre on its own terms and for its own audiences.

In a way it’s only fitting that the nation’s capital had a theatre critic with eyes on the national scene—though Marks has received his own share of mixed reviews for focusing nearly as much of his attention on New York theatre as on stages in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia). As he told me in an interview yesterday, this broader focus has been welcome at a newspaper which, under the ownership of Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos, has increasingly striven to position itself as a national brand—even as recent financial losses have led to buyouts like the one Marks took. I get the sense from talking to Marks, though, that his curiosity about theatre, which has taken him on the road to Boston, Texas, and London as well as his usual two coverage cities just in the past year, would lead him to seek out interesting theatre wherever he could find it, even without a corporate mandate to do so.

For now, Marks, who was one of our Three on the Aisle podcast co-hosts (with Terry Teachout and Elisabeth Vincentelli), seems ready for a break. When, after our interview, we were chatting and I recommended a show he should see, he seemed hesitant, describing his current relationship to theatre as a “trial separation.” The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.


ROB WEINERT-KENDT: This is bittersweet news, obviously. Congratulations on a great run, but we hate to see you go. As has been reported, this is part of the Post trying to make up for losses by doing buyouts, right?

PETER MARKS: Yeah, they offered specific departments buyouts, in a very complicated formula—they offered all the fine arts critics buyouts, but only one of us could take it. If more than one of us wanted it, it was given by seniority, and I was the person with the most seniority in my little group, which is two art critics, a classical music critic, me, and a film critic. I was the only one who applied. 

You volunteered as tribute.

Right.

The perception from many in the theatre and the press has been that your departure is another sign of declining interest in theatre criticism specifically. From what you’re saying, it sounds like it was the arts department in general. Or was there a little more pressure on you?

No, there was no pressure. In fact, it was the reverse. This is where it gets very bizarre. They didn’t really want me to take the buyout—I don’t want to go too much into personnel matters, but I’ll just say that there’s been a concerted effort to have me work for a continued period as a freelancer, which I’m thinking about; I’m not sold on it. It’s not that the paper doesn’t want to cover theatre. I think they’re just gonna have to figure out what it is they want to cover and how, and that’s an ongoing discussion that I won’t be part of, probably.

So I guess this is question for you, not the Post: Why did you decide to take the buyout? Was it just feeling like you’d done it long enough, after 21 years?

You know, it’s like, how many adjectives do you really have in your arsenal? And it makes a certain amount of sense, at the age of 68, to reflect on what else you want to do in life. I certainly still have energy and stamina for the theatre. I love it. But I don’t think the trend lines are particularly favorable toward theatre criticism. So I felt as if I was getting out ahead of whatever else might be down the pike in terms of this form. I do think there are possibilities of doing other kinds of things.

Things about theatre? I know that’s not all you’ve written about in your career.

No, I have some ideas, some of them I’m still formulating, and I’m open to hearing what the world thinks of them. You know, it’s a weird moment, Rob, when you’re in this kind of this passing phase in your life, where you’re thinking, what will be next? I really don’t know for sure. We’ll see.

When I talked to Ben Brantley a few years ago, he told me that the COVID lockdown was sort of his writing on the wall—it felt like a good time to bow out. Was that ever a thought for you?

No. I was curious, actually, from a journalistic point of view, to see what would happen after COVID. I wasn’t really thinking about, Oh, this is a good time to step away. I will also say, I wasn’t really contemplating this until the Washington Post offered me this delicious buyout, which is two years salary—an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. So there’s just the pure financial issue. But no, the pandemic didn’t do it; I was really curious about how theatre was going to recover, and I certainly wanted to be writing about that, both locally and nationally, and how that might change the community.

Ari Roth, Motti Lerner, and Peter Marks discussing Lerner’s play “The Admission” at Georgetown University June 2016, as part of TCG’s Global Pre-Conference and the launch of the Global Theatre Initiative. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Since you mention the “journalistic point of view,” I’ve noticed that you’ve done a fair amount of reporting as well as criticism. Has that always been a part of the mix for you, or is it because there’s no one else to do it?

Well, the staff has shrunk. We used to have more bodies just covering theatre, and that has declined over time. Newspapers outside of New York—maybe Chicago is an exception—but journalism enterprises outside of New York City and London maybe don’t understand the importance of theatre in the culture. And increasingly, over my 21 years, I wanted to show the paper and the readers—I wanted to demonstrate to them the ways in which theatre affects other parts of our lives, not just in terms of reviews, which don’t get much traffic, except if they’ve got a star in them or some particularly notable thing. I tried to do that by writing in more varied styles and ways, and about other subjects, but always with theatre at the core.

You now live in New York, rather than Washington, D.C. Is that part of why and how you’ve covered more theatre outside D.C.?

For 10 years, I lived in Bethesda. Then, after my daughter graduated high school and my wife got a job back in New York, I shifted to New York and started doing a reverse commute, which is arduous in some ways, and it was controversial—there were a lot of people who felt a Washington theatre critic should be in Washington. But over time, it became an advantage, in terms of what the Washington Post saw itself as, which was not just a paper for local coverage but really wanted to cover the globe, certainly when Jeff Bezos came along. So it became advantageous to be writing from a more national perspective, certainly about Broadway. To include that in the mix became more and more necessary, just in terms of the audience.

How has the D.C. theatre scene changed in the two decades you’ve been at the job?

That’s a great question. I went to D.C. with—I will say it—with a mission. I wanted to make it a higher-profile beat. I wanted people to recognize the value of the city. And I think over the time I’ve been there, I’ve accomplished that to some degree. There is more exchange going on between theatres in Washington and the rest of the country. It’s become a more valuable tryout town again, after a fallow period. And the kind of artists that are now working in D.C., both homegrown and from out of town, and the kind of artistic directors who are now working in theatres in Washington, are a hugely ambitious class of people. I’d say it’s almost a golden age of artistic directors in Washington. There has been no closing of a theatre in D.C. It’s a very loyal theatre community, even though there has been some drop-off. So I think I’m leaving a much healthier scene, and I’m leaving a city that believes in itself much more strongly as a hub for theatre than when I got there.

I saw someone on Twitter tell a story that when you took the job, you were working at The New York Times, and someone said to you, “I don’t even know the name of the Post’s theatre critic,” and you replied, “Now you do.” Can you confirm?

That’s exactly right. That conversation so enraged Howell Raines that he ordered me out of the building. He said, “I want you to leave,” and I said, “You mean now?” And he said, “Yeah.”

Wow, Howell Raines is not a name I’ve heard in a long time. I’m curious, why did you want to elevate D.C. theatre specifically?

It was kind of serendipitous. I had been the second critic at the Times, and one of the ways to try to distinguish yourself in that position was to get out of town and find other cities to write about. Washington was an interesting place to me, so I had been there a couple of times to write about theatre. Then out of the blue, after 9/11, the arts editor of the Post called me and said that I was recommended to him, and did I have any interest? At that moment, I was no longer the second-string critic of the Times; I had gone off to cover the presidential election in 2000, so I had no real anchor in the culture section at the Times anymore. I loved the idea of being a first-string critic; second-string at the Times is a wonderful job, but it also has its frustrations. So I had no particular link to Washington, other than having been there and seen theatre there, and I thought I could have a good time. It was around that time that they were doing the Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center. It felt like there was ambition there.

I last ran into you at the National Critics Institute, where you’ve been an advisor for a long time. So you know there is no shortage of talented young writers about theatre, but the question is, where will they ply their trade? I know it’s a well-worn topic, but what is your sense of the state of theatre criticism?

I’ve thought a lot about this. Daily criticism, which is the heart of what we do, was a print invention. If you go back centuries, that’s what critics did: They went, and they wrote for the next day or the next morning. It was a form really made for print—almost uniquely for print. It was a voice, it was a standard, it was a wait-for-that-morning kind of news. I don’t think that journalism has adapted well, in terms of criticism, to the internet age. I just don’t think it was made for it, and I don’t think we’ve reinvented the review in a way that has made it really saleable to a general audience. I don’t think we ever bothered to try to figure it out. And people just don’t read reviews to any degree; the numbers are dismal in many places. You can see that even The New York Times is cutting back on reviews; there’s been a loss of faith in them. I think it’s partly due to the lack of imagination in American journalism for figuring out how  to convert that print invention into something compelling for digital.

Well, the internet has made it easier to have an opinion in public, in a form that can get you an immediate response, which can be very gratifying, as well as terrifying. But even as a news consumer myself, and someone who loves criticism and grew up on it and still does a bit of it, I often find myself gravitating toward other forms of opinion, including on social media.

You know, this has been talked about to death, the notion that everybody’s a critic now. But I don’t know that that’s the lost opportunity here. I think it has also been on the part of theatres. I hate to make them culprits, because this was our responsibility too. But over the time that theatres have developed more sophisticated communications operations online, they have devoted absolutely no time or effort to making criticism and the people who do it a part of their understanding of what is needed to make this ecosystem work. They don’t link to reviews unless they’re exceptional, which means they don’t really invite discussion on their work, and they don’t link their subscribers to our readers, who are natural allies. They have not opened themselves up to an understanding of what we need and how important we are to them. So the whole thing has disintegrated. I have talked about this with companies before, and it goes in one ear and out the other. You know, a couple of people say to me, “I tell people to click on every review they see,” or something like that. But that’s not really a strategy. There needs to be some kind of major summit bringing together critics, theatre writers, and people who lead theatres to talk about what needs to be done to make them less nervous about promoting criticism, and critics less nervous about some kind of collaboration.

“Dear Evan Hansen” by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, at Arena Stage in D.C. Pictured: Laura Dreyfuss and Ben Platt. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

That’s obviously very close to where we live, as a member-theatre-supported magazine. It’s always a question of whether you can have disinterested writers funded or supported by the institutions they’re writing about—which would include not only criticism but investigative journalism. It’s been a kind of mutually assured destruction, where the press is like, “We have to stay independent,” and theatres have been eager to use online tools to go around the media and talk directly to their audience—which has a certain economic logic to it, but at the huge cost of analysis and discourse and some kind of public record of what they do.

And they’re still 30 percent down in audiences. Now, I’ve had artistic directors tell me that this past year was their best year ever, so there have been exceptions—it’s not across-the-board doom and gloom. But theatres are not winning; they’re not gaining traction in the culture, they’re losing traction. I’m not saying you have to love a critic who slams every show you do. I don’t think that exists anymore. The curmudgeons are gone. We are all too conscious of the fragility of the companies, certainly out in the country, to be curmudgeons anymore. You can be a gadfly to a degree, but really, you’re there to analyze and sort of drum up interest. It sounds almost like you’re a shill, but you’re not, because you still can register objections. But you understand that there is a fine line to walk here in terms of how much of what you write is going to harm.

Changing the subject a bit, as you look back on your time at the Post, can you think of any particular high points? Shows you especially loved writing about and sharing with the world?

You know, the hardest part of this job, or one of them, is remembering. People will say, “What do you recommend right now?” And I’m like, “I don’t even remember what I saw yesterday.” That’s what it’s like when it starts to be so cumulative. I will say that it was a high for me—and this is a personal thing as much as in terms of the art—to recognize when Arena Stage brought Dear Evan Hansen to the stage that it was special. It was done over a summer in Washington for the first time, and a guy named Ben Platt was playing this character in this extraordinary way. To be part of that, to be able to tell the world that this piece was going places—that’s what is memorable to me. It’s not necessarily the great nights of theatre or the most gorgeous productions I’ve seen. It’s having had an impact in a way that other people recognize that you were, to some degree, right. With Next to Normal, I had the same kind of feeling. For better or worse, having the power is not as seductive as what it can do for other people. Bringing pieces forward—that’s the part of it that I remember the most, what gave me the most pleasure. 

And certainly there are moments you can’t replace, meeting these incredible artists and being able to talk to them. One time I had to a talk with Stephen Sondheim at the Strathmore Music Center in north Bethesda, 90 minutes onstage with him talking about his book Finishing the Hat. I met him that morning and he was sort of in a grumpy mood. We were about to go onstage before 1,500 people, and I was scared to death, and as we were about to walk onstage, Sondheim turns to me and says, “You know, the success of this depends entirely on the questions.” I almost had to run to the bathroom! But the next 90 minutes were delightful, because he was so on and so smart, and it didn’t matter what the questions were, really.

With shows that are essentially having their out-of-town tryouts in D.C., do you find yourself writing differently, or do you feel pulled between serving Post readers on the one hand, and, on the other hand, giving notes to producers on how to fix their shows?

You have to hold those two ideas in your head at the same time. You are a play doctor in those situations, and you’re conscious of it, and some portion of your readers expect you to do that. They also go to the show with the understanding that it’s going to New York. Is there a conflict there? Yes. To some degree, you’re helping other people make money. I mean, you are in almost every situation where you’re raving about a show. In this case, you are giving expertise that is going to potentially increase their sales down the line. But you have to think about it in terms of honing a piece of art, because that’s what it is, unless it’s just commercially pandering, and then you know you’re not going to be a particular help anyway. Also, there’s a romance in this country about Broadway that still exists, in spite of everything, and theatre lovers in other cities want to feel part of that process. They want to feel it’s significant that they’re seeing it for the first time.

You’re not on Twitter anymore…

I mean, once the antisemitism sort of started to creep in, and I was conscious of it, it just became untenable.

I get that, but it means that you missed a thread from Anthony King, who co-wrote the musical Beetlejuice, about how your pan of the show’s Washington run of the show got them to change the show, and even though you still didn’t like it much on Broadway, he appreciated that you “did grapple with what was onstage,” and he conceded that ultimately your criticism made the show better.

Yeah, someone else related it to me, and that it ended with him saying, “If not for Peter Marks, Lauren Boebert would be giving handjobs in Hadestown.” I wear that as a badge of honor, for sure.

Peter, again, this is bittersweet. You will be missed at the Post, but it seems like it will good for you. For one thing, you’ll be spending less time on Amtrak.

Never to hear the words “quiet car” again would be my dream.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

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