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Monday, April 30, 2012

Peter Marks! Live and on stage

Sophie Gilbert of the Washingtonian and Peter Marks of the Washington Post don't like being called 'idiots'/Patricia Leslie


Last week he was at the Helen Hayes Gallery at National Theatre with three other local theatre critics to talk about, what else? What they do for a living.

It was all part of the inaugural theatreWeek produced "to build awareness of Washington's vibrant theatre community."

Peter Marks of the Washington Post was surprisingly animated, talkative, and doubtful (at times) about his output and the future, coming close to saying he's going to retire after 20 years of writing about plays.


"I love doing what I'm doing," he said, "but I am conscious I am losing you." The market is shifting, and theatres are more sophisticated in marketing themselves via social media, he said. 

It's up to readers to decide which formats go, stay, and change, and those who cancel their subscriptions to the Post contribute to criticism's demise, Marks said.

 Other panel members were Robert Aubrey Davis of WETA, Sophie Gilbert of the Washingtonian, and Benjamin Freed from DCist.

From left, the critics' panel of Robert Aubrey Davis, Benjamin Freed, Sophie Gilbert, Peter Marks, and Linda Levy Grossman/Patricia Leslie

It seemed to be common knowledge at the event that theatre criticism is on the decline, and to those on the inside, at least, the industry has changed a lot, and not always for the good.

The critics seem genuinely surprised that their reviews can influence theatregoers.  Only a handful of the 40 or so in the mixed audience (composed of many actors) raised their hands when asked if reviews affect their attendance.


Marks said he tries to assign the Post's reviewers "to almost every professional production in the Washington area."   He is "constantly besieged" by publicists. All the Post's theatre critics, including Marks, have other feature assignments which is not "a good system" but "a result of diminishing resources."

A member of the audience asked about "adjectives" and Marks said they were a critic's "best friend and worst enemy...I live in terror" that he'll quote himself, and he uses  a software program to prevent repeats.  

Peter Marks lives in terror at times.  On the right is Linda Levy Grossman/Patricia Leslie

"Compelling" and "glorious" are only two often used words Marks says he tries to avoid, and he "retires" some words for four to six months.

Gilbert uses a thesaurus "a lot" and has found that she has repeated herself. Freed said "sometimes you coin a phrase you're really proud of."   Davis said: "When in doubt, strike it out."


Marks said a review does not make or break a show, but no one likes being called an idiot, which Gilbert said she's been called more than once.  Davis said he has had to make a formal apology to someone who complained to a higher-up about one of his reviews.  Panel consensus was they all try to be fair and balanced. 

Marks doesn't like being misunderstood by readers and "it bothers me not being able to break through….So few people understand what critics do." When he sees a play, he asks what it does to him or for him. Is it a waste of time?

He tries "not to talk down" to his audience like some critics, some of whom are "insecure."

Freed said some writers drop names, an annoying habit. Marks said "I love actors" (he acted in college), but he doesn't want to be "a cheerleader" and "my fear is looking like a 'patsy' and a 'softie.'" He tries to be honest: "I want to be nice" which becomes harder the larger a portfolio becomes.

In the past, reviews came out the day after a play was seen; now, "days and days" go by before one is released and there's more of "a delayed reaction."

Freed said when he writes, he "thinks with my heart at first, and then, I think with my head."

Davis grew up in Washington and has many years of theatre experience, not only as a critic but also as an actor having recently performed in Hairspray.  "Opening night is an artificial experience.  It's horrifying," he said.  The best theatre change he's witnessed over the years in the "chocolate city" has been the influx of African-Americans who are participating.

Answering a question from the audience, Gilbert said she spends between one and a half and two and half hours writing a review.

Freed said the hardest critiques to write are about those plays which leave him with mixed opinions.  The easiest are the ones "you hate or love." He loved Red and wrote that review in 30 to 45 minutes but "hated" Civilization at Woolly Mammoth which Gilbert didn’t like much either (faulty structure) but Marks did like.   (During the discussion that play was mentioned more than any other.)

Other plays cited during the presentation were Clybourne Park (generally loved), Art by Yasmina Reza (Davis:  not good), and Ah, Wilderness! (Gilbert: "It flowed so well.").

Marks said he "still sobs when Biff confronts Willie."

Linda Levy Grossman, president of theatreWashington, served as skilful moderator. 
Admonition to writers: Do not end a sentence with an adjective.

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