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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Peter Marks

Peter Marks

Today's subject is easily the most recognizable voice of DC theatre. Whether you agree with what he has to say is totally up to you.

Since 2002, Peter Marks has been living his theatre life as the Chief Theatre Critic for the Washington Post. He covers productions in DC as well as New York and recently returned from theatergoing in London where he was "lucky" enough to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Prior to writing for the Post, he worked for almost ten years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as the Times' off-Broadway Drama Critic. If you look closely, you will see Peter (with moustache) in the documentary Try to Remember: The Fantasticks. There's a brief interview with him about the front page article he wrote for the New York Times about the show's creators when The Fantasticks closed downtown.

Peter has also taught at George Washington University and, in 2014, he hosted a three-part summit on DC theatre. It featured many of the area's artistic directors, playwrights, and performers and even got the Internet talking about the lack of women playwrights being produced in DC.

On the non-theatrical side, Peter is the co-author of Good for the Money: My Fight to Pay Back America, which chronicles how one man saved AIG Insurance from virtual bankruptcy.

It is not the job of a reviewer to be loved by all. We can only offer our perspectives. Sometimes Peter loves a production that you might not and vice versa. Read on for Peter's recollection about one very impassioned plea to the Washington Post from a slightly deranged theatergoer.

With Peter's incredibly busy schedule - which includes caring for his family's new pet dog Phin - I want to thank him for taking time out to do this interview. He truly is living his theatre life to the fullest.

How did you come to The Washington Post?

I was recruited in 2002 by the arts and style editors. They recruited me from the New York Times where I had been for writing about ten years. I was a reviewer and arts reporter. I also was a political reporter during the 2000 campaign when they needed extra help with coverage. It was a fun change of pace.

Do you recall what your first DC area theatre writing assignment was?

I actually covered DC while writing for the Times. My first assignment was Studio Theatre's Waiting for Godot, directed by Joy Zinoman, in 1998.

Do you find writing about theatre in DC is different from writing about theatre in other areas of the country (for example, New York)?

No I really don't. I think DC theatre is as diverse and as interesting as anywhere else. It's a smart, probing and imaginative region for theatre.

During the Golden Age of Broadway, DC was a prime tryout spot for shows on their way to NYC. For example, West Side Story started at the National Theatre. The Baker's Wife and Annie 2 died at the Kennedy Center. With the recent exceptions of If/Then and maybe Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, shows don't come here to tryout like they did in the 50's and 60's. Why do you think this is?

The nature of the business changed. Producers want to feel comfortable being isolated from New York. Los Angeles and Seattle became prime spots because producers could work on shows without prying eyes. Regional theatres became interested in having producers put money into their productions. It's changing now. There are more and more varied spots where shows try out. Boston and Philadelphia are coming back as tryout spots. It really depends on the relationships built between a theatre and a producer. DC is on the upswing. Mean Girls [slated for next season at the National Theatre] proves there is a hunger to do tryouts here.

L-R Ford's Theatre's Artistic Director Paul Tetreault , Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith, Peter Marks, Synetic Theater's Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili, Round House Theatre's Artistic Director Ryan Rilette and Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Some DC area theatre companies started really small and have gone on to gain national status. What do you consider to be some of DC theatre's biggest success stories and why?

For artistic success I would say that Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has become a nationally recognized incubator for new work with plays like Clybourne Park and Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Signature Theatre, since winning the Tony Award [in 2009], has really found its mojo. It's one of the most exciting places to see theatre. Also, Folger Theatre in the way they experiment with the presentation of the classics. It's a place where artists want to work.

In terms of small companies, Synetic Theater is widely known for their productions. They came out of nothing. It was the blood and sweat of the creators that made the company. I hope they continue.

The theatergoing public in this area - as with the rest of the country - primarily includes older patrons. What do you think theatre companies need to do to attract a younger audience while still demonstrating commitment to its longstanding core audience? Do any of these actions to attract millennials, for example, have the potential to compromise a company's artistic integrity? Why or why not?

One thing we need to consider is if theatergoing is a habit you have as you get older. When tickets in DC can be over $100 on Saturday night, one has to question if the production is for the older crowd who can afford it. If you look at a place like Woolly Mammoth, they have figured out how to do it [attract younger audiences] with their choice of material and presentation. A younger aimed marketing style is also a plus. Finding the material is always key. At Hand to God at Studio Theatre [last summer], there was definitely a younger crowd mixed with the older regulars. An older artistic director can find material that appeals to the younger crowd, but you have to be in touch with who is writing what.

The DC area theatre community is a very passionate one. What would you say is the most visceral e-mail or comment you have ever had in response to one of your reviews?

There was a letter to the editor that said she had so much contempt for me that she wanted to start a campaign to send me away. I was really stunned that someone would write something like that.

Do those kinds of things bother you or is it just part of the job?

It used to hurt me more back in the day, but you tend to get a tough skin. When someone I really like and admire condemns me it still hurts. When I review, it's always just me and the production. I never write personal attacks or denigrate anyone.

I really don't mind. It shows you have an impact when it happens. I think through social media, passionate folks understand who I am so that helps a lot.

L-R Peter Marks with NY Times head Theatre Critic Ben Brantley and Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal on the PBS program Theater Talk.

What are some of the trends in DC theatre today that most excite you? What are the trends that most worry you?

Over the fifteen years I've been here, the DC theatres are more willing to take risks with the work and take pride in the craft. The community believes in itself. Dramaturgy is at a very high level.

Worry? The necessity of money leads companies to do things to be crowd pleasers.

It still bothers me that Shakespeare Theatre Company does musicals. If they were going to create one, that would be better. Presenting crowd-pleasing musicals just feels like they are leading behind. Some companies are fighting that trend. Round House Theatre is a prime example.

What do you think DC theatre will be like in, say, ten years? Please comment on vibrancy etc.

I hope in ten years there is a constellation of smaller upstart companies - fed by new graduates from American, Howard etc. -that offer a diversity of offerings and communities onstage. The more we hear from the buried groups, the more it will resonate elsewhere.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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