Reflecting on his years as a critic, Peter Marks asks, ‘What is theater for?’

In advance of his Helen Hayes tribute on May 20, an invigorating conversation about theater and theater criticism and what he wants to do next.

I was eager to talk with Peter Marks on the occasion of the tribute he will receive at the 2024 Helen Hayes Awards ceremony at The Anthem on May 20. As chief theater critic at the Washington Post for 21 years (he left in December 2023 on a buyout), Peter Marks has had a singular and probably unreplaceable influence on theater and theatergoing in the DC region.

Having read his profile features in print and followed him on podcasts, I knew something of his chops as an interviewer, so I braced myself. I needn’t have worried. When we met on Zoom, he from his home in New York, I found in him a warmth and openness the very opposite of judgmentalism. And so began what became a thoroughly invigorating conversation (edited for concision and clarity) about theater and theater criticism and what he wants to do next.

Photo of Peter Marks courtesy of Peter Marks.

John: Now that you’ve left your post as the Post’s chief theater critic, what do you miss, and what don’t you miss?

Peter: Oh god, John, by the time I’d left in late December, I had been working for editors answering their demands, pleas, and requests since June 1977, without stop. And the sheer pressure of pleasing an editor, or feeling I had to, just became in the end — the relief from that became extraordinary. Not having to report to someone is a wonderful feeling. I anticipated it might be enjoyable, but it’s more wonderful than I imagined. And there were all kinds of other things I thought of doing that appealed to me. Many are theater-adjacent and don’t require me to be on a staff and a voice of a major publication, which limits you in many ways. So that has been delightful.

I miss the people. I miss the interaction with a lot of wonderful people who love the theater as much as I did, and that is a deficit. I try to keep up with people, but it’s a different relationship. They have a job to do in the field and mine is more ephemeral, and that has made me have to keep up relationships in a different way. And the other thing that’s changed — and it is a little bit more difficult —  is understanding my relationship to the theater now. It was very clear-cut when I was a critic. I had a job and people understood what I did. So that’s the area of regrets and difficulties and joys of this new life.

For the last two decades, you’ve had a really unique perch on the theater scene in DC. What stands out for you about how theater in this region has changed?

It’s a huge question that I’ve thought about in big and small ways. When I arrived in 2002, most theater companies in DC were run by their founding artistic directors. They were in spaces they had started in or had moved into early in their growth. And 20 years later, the physical dimensions of this city’s theaters had completely changed. Every major company and even some middle-sized companies had moved into expensive new complexes, huge campuses, renovated spaces, more service-oriented facilities — the change just physically was dramatic. And I think that affected the mindset of the theatermakers in DC. I think it gave them both more confidence and it put them under more pressure.

The Washington Post

There was very interesting theater being done in DC when I got there, John; that’s why I came. I had been to DC as a reviewer from the Times and liked what I saw. My initial impression was that it was a much more daring city than maybe even it imagined it could be. By the time I left the job, the range of material, the people running the companies, the voices being championed in a larger cross-section of the city, was a remarkable development. What I always aspired to in this job was highlighting DC as one of the most important theater cities in the country. I think now that is unquestionably true. I don’t lay that so much at my feet as at the collective energy of the community that perhaps was helped by the energy of the coverage. But you could now hold up DC next to Chicago as a theater town. And I don’t think that was necessarily true 22 years ago.

Theatergoers, it seems to me, make use of reviews in two main ways. One is like Consumer Reports: “Should I go or not?” The other is as a prompt for reflection and appreciation and deeper understanding of, or engagement with, the art and the experience. I think you’ve felt that tension or that polarity. Where do you come down on that, and how do you navigate that?

Well, John, from reading you I know that you understand this as well, and it’s a fundamental tension in our jobs that hasn’t really changed over time. But I looked at the job primarily as placing the theater in a social context more than in the question of “Should I go?” I thought that what could be communicated about “Should I go?” would be reflected in my emotional response — that part of the job of a critic was to somehow distill one’s visceral responses to what you saw on the stage into language. Some people are better at that than others; some writers become much more cerebral about it, and they abandon some of their own emotions — maybe they don’t feel quite as comfortable expressing what they felt in their heart about what they saw. And then other people become completely emotional about the work, and they express it almost as a yes-or-no cheerleading kind of function. So it’s a balance. And for me, it’s always more interesting to be writing about what theater means than it is about whether or not you pay $100 or $70 or $40 or whatever it is to see a show. And certainly, John, you and I don’t want the responsibility of people saying, You told me to go and I hated it — essentially saying, You owe me 120 bucks. That’s the part of the job nobody wants, and it’s strangely a specific charge leveled at theater critics. You never hear people complain an art critic sent them to the wrong exhibition, or they went to the Philharmonic and didn’t like it and therefore it was the music critic’s fault. It seems a singularly weird demand or pressure to be commercially astute that theater critics are given. And I sort of rebel against that. I think I have an obligation as you do to tell people whether or not something is artistically valuable, to what degree it is, to what magnitude, but the idea that I am somehow a consumer advocate for how you see a show is ridiculous.

On that theme, how have your critical values changed over the years? And by that I mean the values — esthetic, ethical, or any other — that you as Peter Marks bring with you to your engagement with and writing about theater. How has that evolved for you?

That’s a really important question, and one thing I’ll say is that if I came to the theater with an understanding of who could be heard and who needed to be heard in live performance, that radically changed from the time I started till now. I always thought I was open to alternative voices, to voices that were not being heard. I didn’t realize how many there were out there that weren’t being heard. And I also realized how much the critic could be someone who validated access points for those people. The theater has always been for marginalized voices. It was always about immigrant communities claiming the stage for their artists, and not just immigrant communities but parts of cities like Washington where it was so divided between white and Black at one time. I think some of those walls have come down a bit through companies like Mosaic, companies like Theater Alliance. So things have changed for me in terms of my sense of who needs to be heard.

American Theatre

In terms of esthetics, I appreciate more experimental forms than I did when I started, and I lament the fact that those are the hardest things to get on the stage. Audiences, I think, have receded over time to demanding more linear stories again. From a time when we were much more adventurous about how stories were told, it feels like we’re in a time when people want the comfort of stories that they don’t have to figure out how many layers they’ve got to get through to understand what’s going on. I say that very generally because sometimes that’s not the case, but by and large, my encouragement of experimental forms, my appreciation for people who are trying those, has deepened even as it’s been harder to find them.

I’m sure you remember four years ago when hundreds of BIPOC theatermakers signed a letter demanding that “the white American theatre recognize its legacy of white fragility and white supremacy.” I’m interested in how you would describe and assess the progress since that action, in programming and hiring, for instance.

Spotty. I think it’s been spotty. I think there have been some admirable attempts to bring more people of color into high administrative positions; at the same time, it’s the most difficult time in the history of the theater to run theater companies. And I think there’s been a lot of unfair pressure put on this generation of theater administrations, particularly women of color and men of color, to correct the situation or figure it out. And then for people to say, You see, it’s not happening fast enough — somehow that disproves the idea of diversity. We’re even going through a period now where DEI has to be redefined because it’s taken on less-than-positive connotations for some people. But I do think that this period has opened up at least an initial gate to writers and creative artists of diverse backgrounds who are getting more time and they’re not just being tokenized.

It’s not just one space in a season — I’m talking in terms of the nonprofit world, and particularly DC — sometimes it’s an entire season or much of a season, and that’s really positive. When I read the [Dear White American Theater] manifesto, I had mixed feelings only because I didn’t know how much of it was really accomplishable. The demands felt like everything but the kitchen sink, and maybe the initial impetus was to over-ask and see what comes up. But there’s been progress made and it’s been painful, and white people have to understand and make room, and that’s not easy either. We’re so early in this process. It’s only been two or three years. It can take decades for things to change glacially in an art form. But I do think that these changes are here to stay. I do think that we’re going to see theater as this welcoming but not always successful platform, and that’s not going to go away. There’s been too much progress made in that regard.

Some of the theaters’ advance has been unconventional, as you say, and has not been within white people’s comfort zone. How do you see the role of the theater critic in aligning new theater work with audiences, bringing audiences along with this progress that you’ve described, as spotty as it is? We’re not privy to box office numbers in DC like in New York, so we cannot tell which new work is selling how well. But it seems to me that there’s a particularly critical purpose in the theater ecology that the critic plays, and I’m wondering how you view that role and responsibility.

That’s another really important question. You’re right. No matter how much a critic sings, you can’t force people to buy tickets to a show they don’t want to see. And that shouldn’t be the only measure by which we think about what a positive review represents. I think that the thing that a critic brings — and it takes time to develop with an audience — is trust in their sensibility in all its permutations. And that’s not necessarily just “Should I buy a ticket or not?” or “Do I agree with this critic’s general sense of the world?”— you can be a generous spirit and see the potential in pieces that may not be complete regardless who’ve written them. You can also, if you’re a nuanced writer and you’ve done this for a long enough time, encode messages into your reviews. I don’t mean like secret codes, but you can give encouragement to a writer or to a director or to an actor in a work that may be embryonic or may not be completely in your own wheelhouse. Certainly with people from traditions and backgrounds that you don’t share, you have an obligation to be open and receptive to those as much as you are to your own history. That’s what a great critic does, I think. A great critic is open to those notions. And a review that raises objections to a certain work — if it’s couched in a compelling way that isn’t derogatory or shaming or revealing one’s own narrowness — can be helpful to that person in the long run. The conversation between a critic and the theater is on a continuum, and hopefully, people are not just doing one-offs. And I hope the theaters don’t give up on people just because they get one bad review, although that often happens.

Another ongoing challenge the theater is facing is one you’ve written a lot about, which is theaters’ recovery from COVID, and the resumption of audience attendance. Knowing what you know now, what advice do you have going forward, and what future do you foresee?

My feeling about COVID is this was an existential challenge to the theater. People came out of that experience different than when they went in, in terms of how they use their time. That was a fundamental effect of COVID, and it had an outsize impact on theatergoing. It continues to, and the challenge for theater — which I don’t think theater has completely embraced in a useful way — is theater has to figure out now what theater is for. COVID opened up that question.

How would you answer that?

I’ll tell you, I’m a consumer now. I am in the position of someone who just goes to find things I want to go to. And I know that my own calculus involves: Do I want to get up and get dressed and get to the theater, fight the crowd, sit around people, possibly somebody who’s talking behind me, and do I want that tension? Will I pay that money? What time will we get out? All those things were absolutely off the table for me as a critic; I just went, because that was the job. Those were the working conditions. Now it’s the leisure conditions. And I find myself making choices, sometimes surprisingly, that say, No, I don’t need to see this. And I think that that goes to this fundamental question of what is theater for.


I was in London recently and saw a production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is not a story I particularly ever wanted to see on a stage again, but I was curious about the actor involved, Sarah Snook from Succession, and it was a version of the show that was, I would say, a post-pandemic piece of work. It was Sarah Snook alone on a stage playing, I don’t know, 30 characters and assisted by 14 videographers. And the work was an interaction between her live and video and taped versions of herself as other characters. She would enter into scenes on the video as a live person and interact with the recorded characters. This went on and on, it was all staged on what looked like a movie set with different backdrops, and it felt like theater’s future, it was so engaging and so alive.

The combination of a great actress doing this and some incredibly inventive storytelling made it irresistible. Not every show can be that. Some shows are meant to be just two people on a stage talking. But I think the more theater thinks about how to bring this to us in ways that are distinctly alive and theatrical, it has not been fully figured out. Maybe I’m asking a lot for a theater that has to do five or six shows a season, but I do think that we’ve got to think about using more of the instruments of modern technology to make these pieces unique. I’m not an AI fan, but I think that’s going to be for this next generation of critics and theatergoers to digest and to figure out.

I took the occasion to ask ChatGPT how theater criticism has changed in the last two decades.

Oh my god, that’s great.

It was a very smart answer, and my next question is derived from it.

I love this.

Since your tenure in print began, the democratization of theater criticism that is now possible online — combined with multimedia options and new platforms for audience engagement and interaction — has been dramatic. Where do you see that trend headed and where do you see yourself in it?

These are the questions that one wants to tackle. In fact, there’s going to be sort of a town hall meeting of theater journalists with the NEA coming up, and I’m going to bring this up. It’s a preliminary before a larger conference looking at one of the issues being journalism and the arts.

I didn’t do anything really differently than I did when I started. I think the environment changed more than I did. I focused on finding ways to put readers in the experience of the show more than I did trying to show how smart I was. Although sometimes you can’t help yourself trying to show how smart you are. Reviewing is fundamentally a print invention. The idea of everybody the morning after a show or a play reading communally or individually the response of somebody designated as the town crier for criticism, which started centuries ago, did not make a good leap to the internet age.


We have not figured out how to make it as vital and as vibrant as it could be for people who use the written word in a totally different way. TikTok doesn’t do it, really. I mean, yes, I know there’s multiplicity of voices. I still believe people want some authoritative response to artistic work. They’re not that confident. We’re not all that well-versed in art forms. The way people like you and I have this arsenal of experiences in our heads, that remains unique. The delivery of it remains a mystery to me. I don’t know how to reposition. I’ve tried a podcast, and that has a limited audience. It’s very hard for that to break out without being a celebrity. And I don’t think that video works very well on a newspaper website for reviews. So somebody’s got to come up with something beyond my experience of how to deliver opinion. And I think we’re still in a period, John, of large organizations that hire opinion writers narrowing the vision rather than expanding it. They’re limiting the number of reviews; they’re cutting back on the length of reviews. Those things have an impact.

I too believe that meaning matters in theater, and presenting that in a way that the reader can understand and relate to matters. These various new media, though, are not really well suited for meaning; they’re for look and pizazz and action.

Yeah,  that’s absolutely right. I started as a critic at the New York Times, which is a ridiculous place to start, because it was the top of the mountain, and the expectation was that your voice would carry weight. By the end of my career, even though I knew I had a following of some decent size within the community and interested theatergoers, I felt much more like I had to justify what I was doing and try to justify the treatment of theater as a serious part of a large newspaper department store’s set of offerings to the point where I did try to show through articles I wrote about other things that what was happening on stage is where theater became a part of those experiences. I was trying to say theater’s everywhere. You can see theater in political events — and I don’t mean the political theater of an idiot like Trump making a mockery of everything that we hold dear. I mean the art of delivering a speech; even in that there are elements of Shakespeare.

Going back to those beginnings, were there critics whom you read who influenced you, mentors or exemplars, and if so who and why?

I loved writers who invoked life. And I mean that in the sense that there was a joy in their language, in their use of language, in how they met the readers of their work with an understanding that those people loved language too, and they loved to luxuriate in interesting conversations about works that inspired them. So Walter Kerr, who was a theater man who became a theater critic, was hugely important to me because he wrote like a playwright. He wrote with an understanding that the language had to explode beautifully, and he engaged in wordplay, and he was an absolute mainstay for me. And Pauline Kael was also a movie critic, so singularly opinionated; her ideas could be carried by no one else. No one else had her esthetic, and it was unpredictable, always interesting, sometimes infuriating, which all worked for me. And I have to say Frank Rich, just by the sheer force of his personality and his desire to make things that he loved or disliked explode for an audience or disappear; he had an epic-sized appetite for it all. Ben Brantley was also important to me. He was a colleague, but I learned a lot from him about close observation and understanding the literary detail that could be extracted from a really good playwright’s work. Those were the people who really inspired me as writers.

To the people who may be looking to you as a model or example, what advice would you give young arts journalists and critics starting out?

I would tell them to write about something else.

Something else besides theater?

I spent the first 27 or 28 years of my career not covering theater. I was a reporter and I traveled the world for papers. I covered politics. I did all kinds of things. And I’d say go to the theater of people who are not necessarily the Ibsens and the Chekhovs and the O’Neills but people who are chronologically in the same age group as they are; really seeking out their work and steeping yourself in what they do are really good fundamental ways to start acquiring expertise and a specialty for understanding where theater is going. People who love the theater have all seen Shakespeare and Ibsen, one hopes, but what’s overlooked is trying to wrestle with who’s writing now, and I mean people who aren’t getting productions at Woolly Mammoth and Studio.

I mean going even farther into communities and trying to understand what’s going right and what’s going wrong with pieces, before you even start reviewing. I think it really comes from absorbing a lot of that. I taught reviewing at GW for many years. I found that some of the best students were the ones who came from other disciplines, who had very little experience with theater but would see things that were unique. And so I think theater people shouldn’t just be seeing theater. You really do need some larger sense of the world. And I would say find any writing job; don’t feel like you have to start being a critic. Many people who write criticism do not start as theater critics. It was the farthest thing from my mind when I started. And an opportunity or two will reveal itself if you’re interested and dedicated.

If you were reviewing yourself as a theater reviewer, what would be your lede?

I think it would be: Peter Marks loved theater so much that he really never took stock of his own impact on the field. It wasn’t something I cared to dwell on. It was the pleasure of the unique opportunity to be heard that made it so rewarding.

I’ve been told you have an interest in acting. Is there any truth to that?


Can you talk about it?

Yeah, yeah. It’s insane. My father was an embittered, failed actor. “Failed” is the wrong word. His mother wouldn’t let him pursue the life he wanted, which was acting. They were a Depression-era family;  she made him go into business; he was a lifelong frustrated man. And I watched that. The good part was he took my brother and me to a lot of theater, and that was lovely. He also gave me a joy of performing. I remember as a five-year-old I’d sit with him and we would do comedy scenes together. We would rehearse them. They were these old vaudeville scenes. We would do them for family. It was really an opportunity for my father to perform. I did it in high school and then in college, and I thought about maybe having an acting career, but I had taken an acting class with Nikos Psacharopoulos at Yale. He was a legendary theater director, and I got an A the first semester, a B the second semester, and a C the third semester, which didn’t bode well. It didn’t say to me: You’re a budding star. So I thought of other things I could do.

That was a long preface to, yes, I was invited recently to perform with a group called Theater of War. They do readings of classical plays, many of them Greek, some more recent for specific audiences built around social issues. The plays are read and then the audience takes over with a moderator. It’s not a talkback, it’s just a moderator in the audience — often military groups, healthcare professionals — and they talk about the issues raised by the work. I’ve done two of these already. I’m doing a third this week, and I’m doing another one in another performance, and I’m slowly moving up the ranks. The artistic director is trusting me more with larger roles.

But you know what I love, John? It’s the thing I’ve watched and you’ve watched for all these years. It’s not so much: Look at me. It’s: I love the idea of being in this room with other people and being involved, being a participant, contributing in a very direct way in a whole different way than reviewing. Maybe there are people in the performing arts who think they could be reviewers. They think they’d love that outside role. I want in. It’s that I really crave; I want to go through rehearsals and I want to see what it’s like. I remember vaguely what that’s like. I’ve got this idea that I won’t divulge too much about, but it would involve more of this for me, and that’s one of the pleasures of not having to work full-time for a newspaper.

Peter, thank you so much. This has just been so moving and informative.

Oh, I’m so glad, John. You’re a good questioner as I knew you would be.


2024 Helen Hayes Awards to be announced May 20 at The Anthem

(news story, April 23, 2024)


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. Terrific interview. Thank you, John, for raising so many interesting, and somewhat off-beat, questions, and thank you Peter, for the honesty and insights that emerge. I love the idea of moving from the critic’s seat to the stage–or vice versa. In the end, we are all storytellers, regardless of the medium.


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