Interview: A Voice for DC Theater and Beyond Says Goodbye.

After 21 years as the Chief Theater Critic for The Washington Post Peter Marks' incredible reign will end on December 31st.

By: Dec. 29, 2023
Interview: A Voice for DC Theater and Beyond Says Goodbye.
Peter Marks. Photo by The Washington Post.

If you have been around DC theatre for any length of time, you are very familiar with the writing of Chief Theater Critic for The Washington Post, Peter Marks. He has been the definitive voice of theater for the DMV and beyond for 21 years. On December 31st, Peter Marks’ stunning reign at The Washington Post will come to an end. After almost 30 years reviewing in DC and elsewhere, one of the most important voices in theatrical journalism will be absent from print. That is not a good thing!

Before coming to The Washington Post, Peter was the second-string theater critic for The New York Times. When The Fantasticks closed downtown after a record-breaking 42-year run, Peter wrote a feature on the show’s creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. It ran on the front page of the publication.

Peter Marks will always be considered one of the most influential voices in theater to be sure. I can’t think of another reviewer who ever got mentioned in a Tony Award acceptance speech. It happened to Peter when Dear Evan Hansen, which premiered here in DC at Arena Stage, won for Best Musical.

You can never agree with everything a theater critic writes. Everyone’s tastes are different. As you’ll read, Peter’s readers told him what they thought of his writing and the opinions ran the gamut.

It is very rare for a critic at a prestigious publication like The Washington Post to give interviews to another publication. I have been lucky enough to have interviewed Peter three times over the years. I consider myself extremely fortunate.

Thank you, Peter Marks, for being a champion of DC theater and theater in general. Thank you for your always perceptive insights in the world of the arts. Thank you for always being approachable to interview or for a brief chat at a show. Your writings will be sorely missed by many. Thank you for your service to our community.

When you started at The Washington Post, did you ever think you would be in the same position for 21 years?

Absolutely not. You don’t think that far ahead in a job. It’s a question of feeling out the community and the community feeling out you – in the sense of is it a fit? Are you going to enjoy covering this community? Is the community going to feel as if what you're saying makes sense to them, and is it important enough to help as opposed to hurt? And so, I didn't have any timeframe on it. I didn't know how open-ended it would be, but I certainly didn't think two decades, and a year would be my tenure.

Do you recall the first production you reviewed for The Washington Post? Was it a rave, pan, or a mixed review?

I don’t recall the very first one, but I remember one of the very first shows I reviewed was something called Recent Tragic Events at Woolly Mammoth. It was about 9/11 and I loved it.  It was a really powerful piece. I remember that Nehal Joshi and other really fine local actors were in it. It confirmed my decision to come to Washington, DC because it was powerful, well directed, and had deep meaning. It was just excellent.

Back in the day, reviewers like Frank Rich, Clive Barnes, and the king of vitriol, John Simon, pretty much said whatever they wanted in their reviews. In some cases, their reviews were legendary. With political correctness and maybe hyper sensitiveness nowadays, do you think reviewers can still review with their true feelings, or is there a push from editors to tone things down?

I have never had an editor tell me to change something to soften the impact. I have, over time, developed a sense that what is required of the job – and to survive in it – is to have some sense of perspective that allows you to grant some generous understanding of what's being attempted. That doesn't mean that you can't write a delicious pan once in a while. And it doesn't mean that you can worry every time you write about all the people who might be offended because that will drive you crazy.  You have to have values. Strong values. And you also have to have a recognition that there is a diverse community you're writing to, and that there are feelings that get hurt, or even worse, offended, if you are not sensitive to all the differences in the culture. So, the answer is as you, hopefully, mature as a critic, you understand that there are ways to object to certain works of art in ways that aren't going to subject you to the accusation that you are unfeeling, vicious, or worse, prejudiced. That takes personal moral strength. Sometimes people will read into things no matter what you write, but if you feel like you have done that, then you've done your job well. If you've considered all the possibilities, and then of course you have editors to back you up and to say – in the cases where maybe a word is the wrong choice – that they can help you. But I have never felt that there's been any attempt to muffle me or make or make my words less my own.

I imagine you have received a lot of fan and hate mail. What would you say was the most memorable message you received from a reader in both of these categories?

I remember when I was at The New York Times, as the second critic there, and I had written a story about actors who had replaced other actors in shows, and someone wrote to me and said, “I guess that's the same as if one is expecting Ben Brantley to review your show and you get Peter Marks.”  I remember being pretty hurt by that. It felt like a truism and that was shattering.

One of the greatest letters I ever got – in the days when people wrote letters – was one from Hal Holbrook whose famous show was Mark Twain Tonight. He did it in Washington at The National Theatre. I wrote a very affectionate review. He had been doing it for years and years and years at this point. He wrote me this beautiful long letter. It’s not the only one I've received from actors over the years, but it was so heartfelt, and it was so comradely – as if we were two fellow travelers. It just made me feel so included and it touched me that he had read it and loved the review. I still have it in my box of letters.  It was a lovely moment.

What would you say are some of the biggest changes in DC theater, and theater in general, from when you first started reviewing for the Washington Post?

I think there is a confidence level in terms of DC understanding itself as a theater town. The artists were always here in DC, and the organizations were intact, but I think there's also a psychological dimension to theater to feel as if you have an impact on not only your community, but on the culture. And I think that has grown over time. 

I also think some companies – Signature, for one – have become ever more vibrant and creative about how they produce plays. I think Round House is another company that has really blossomed. I think Olney Theatre Center, under Jason Loewith, has become a much more of a powerhouse and is much more interested in having influence beyond the county it's in. I think that has happened time and again. I think that's partially because the leadership of the companies are very strong across the board. You look at a place like Mosaic and a guy like Reginald Douglas who has huge aspirations and really sees that.

I also think what's grown is a sense of a theater of a city that has more than one ethnic dimension. I think that there is much more understanding that the Chocolate City has a huge potential for creative contribution, and that's begun to be felt, and that has changed dramatically since I came. And also, just physically, the city looks nothing theatrically like it did in 2002. Almost every company moved into a glittering space, of one sort or another, that was different from where it started. And that alone has been kind of a symbol of the prominence of theater in a town that really does like its theaters.

With you leaving The Washington Post on NYE and you not reviewing the second half of the 23/24 season, can you please tell us what you would have been most anxious to review in DC theater and beyond?

I’m disappointed I did not get to review Swept Away because I was out of town. That sounded like a significant piece. I did get to write a feature on it though. I’m really interested in Private Jones at Signature Theatre, which is a musical about a deaf private in WW1. Another one is Unknown Soldier at Arena Stage which is another WW1 musical that was done in New York pre-pandemic. Another one is Neil Patrick Harris directing tick, tick…Boom! at Kennedy Center. It features Brandon Uranowitz, who recently won a Tony Award, and was seen here at Studio Theater in Torch Song Trilogy. And of course, Macbeth at Shakespeare Theatre Company with Ralph Fiennes.

Can you please tell us what 2024 has in store for you now that your nights and weekends will be more open?

That’s the cliffhanger. I have no clear idea what the new year looks like. It has not been that way for me in 30 years. It’s a brave new world and that’s very exciting for me at my age.