News & Politics

“I’m Not Dead Yet!”: Peter Marks on Covering DC Theater, Leaving the Post, and What’s Next

The longtime theater critic will receive the 2024 Helen Hayes Tribute Award

Photograph courtesy of Peter Marks.

On Monday, the Helen Hayes Awards—an annual program that celebrates professional theater achievements in the DC area—announced this year’s honorary “Helen Hayes Tribute Award” will be going to a somewhat unexpected recipient: former Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, who spent his career critiquing the people who usually accept these awards. 

Originally hailing from New York, Marks became the Post’s chief theater critic in 2002. For 21 years, he reported on local, national, and international performances, and offered insight about what theater can teach us about our politics, our media, and our everyday lives. The release announcing his award—along with the other 2024 nominees—noted his ability ability to report with “respect, relish, and generosity”, and said “his work contributed immensely to the artistic vibrancy of our region.” 

Although Marks said the Awards usually feel like a “wonderful party that doesn’t need” him, he was surprised and honored to receive a call informing him of the honor. “A theater critic is such a loaded position,” he told Washingtonian. “People have so many preconceptions about who a ‘theater critic’ is, and you often have to overcome the obstacle of those impressions. So the outpouring of affection I’ve received since my departure has been a lovely turn of events for me.”

Marks thinks that part of the sentiment behind giving him this award is the “nostalgic” feeling that he is one of the last in a dying breed of drama critics. At the start of this year, he left his position as one of the Post’s many takers of buyouts. In his send-off for the publication, Marks bittersweetly discussed the dwindling market for theater criticism, while still offering hope for the DC theater community. 

When asked what he would miss most about his time at the Post, Marks described what he called the one “pure joy” of wielding the unique “power” of a theater critic: “the ability to make life a little better or easier for someone in the performing arts. It’s only when you leave a job like this that you find out what the significance may have been for people.”

When they blurb nearly your entire review. Photograph courtesy of Peter Marks.

Entering what he calls his “second act,” Marks emphasizes that he’s not ready to take a career curtain call. “I feel like singing that song from Spamalot: ‘I am not dead yet!’” he says. “I feel this wonderful sense of freedom. I have worked at daily newspapers every day since June 1977. I’ve not known what it’s like not to have an editor asking me: ‘What’s the slug on this story?’ or ‘What time are you filing?’” 

Released from the chains of deadlines, Marks says that he may have some time to try on other hats in the theater community—including that of playwright or actor. “I’m interested in the idea of a critic being a performer,” he says. “I’m not sure where that will take me, but I’m really wondering about what it’s like to read someone else’s lines on the stage.”

Marks will still be in the audience, too—only instead of taking notes and brainstorming headlines, he’ll be reconnecting with what drew him to the medium in the first place. “Now, when I go into a theater, I’m looking to relive the wonder I felt the first time I ever saw theater,” he says. “I can go back and touch that feeling—and when I feel it, everything else goes by the wayside.”

The Helen Hayes Awards will take place on May 20, 2024.

Omega Ilijevich
Editorial Fellow