features + interviews

Critics In Conversation: Mark Cofta

[article originally published at Philadelphia Dramatists Center site, October 26, 2009.]

Mark Cofta.

Mark Cofta.

About Mark Cofta:
Mark Cofta has been a theatre critic for Philadelphia City Paper since January 2006; before then, he wrote for The Main Line Times and News of Delaware County for over 15 years, as well as serving as Back Stage: A Theatre Weekly’s Philadelphia correspondent, 1993 – 2001. His theatre background includes a Masters Degree from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and numerous professional, college, and community theatre directing credits — most recently, PDC member Quinn Eli’s “The Sex Tape Play” for Philadelphia Theatre Workshop’s PlayShop Festival, March 2010. He has also dramaturged, stage managed, produced, acted, and designed sets. His short plays have been produced by The Brick Playhouse, City Theatre of Wilmington, DE, and many other theatre companies. He lives in Ridley Park, PA, and teaches General Education courses (writing, Theatre Appreciation, public speaking) as a permanent fulltime instructor at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

Interview with Mark Cofta
26 October 2009

CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Mark Cofta, Theater Critic for Philadelphia City Paper
Martha Wade Steketee, Resident Dramaturg, Philadelphia Dramatists Center
Tom Tirney, Board Chair, Philadelphia Dramatists Center

SETTING:
Tom and Martha meet Mark in the Wilma Theatre studio October 29, 2009, late afternoon. The room is crowded with tables and a rehearsal piano off to the side.

TOM: Mark, I haven’t seen you in a while. I don’t even see you at opening nights anymore.

MARK: I’m not crazy about opening night. I feel a little under the spotlight in a way. Everybody knows the critics are there but the premiere tends to be for funders and families and friends. So you feel like the ostracized uncle who shows up at the family reunion but nobody wants to talk to him. I much rather go to performances that are typical performances. So that’s why I don’t show up on opening nights.

MARTHA: Tom knows a little bit about you but I don’t so tell me a little bit of your background and how you came to be a critic.

MARK: Well, a lot of people don’t know these things about any critic so it’s nice that you’re asking these questions. It’s flattering but I also think it might help people in the theater community and I hope it can reach a wider audience [than PDC] with this project.
I actually wrote a play when I was in 5th grade. A librarian in my elementary school gave me a box of puppets and asked me to do something with them. They were barnyard animals mostly and I got a friend to help with funny voices. So I wrote a script. I got into it more as an actor and by the time college came I really wanted to direct.
I spent a year at the University of Buffalo and saw people interested in directing who took a directing class and do a scene from a one act and that was it. There were no other opportunities for them aside from that. I knew someone there who had mounted a theater piece on her own and directed it and her teacher didn’t even come to see that. He was too busy. That was discouraging to see her experience and say that’s what I have to look forward to. Somebody whom I don’t remember recommended go to a college where there isn’t a theater program but where there is an active theater group because then you could do everything! Go to a place that has no BFA, MFA, BA…and there is no BS! You can just do your thing.
I was at the University of Rochester when I got my English degree. They didn’t have a theater major.
I acted, I directed, I stage managed, I helped run the group. Considering that it was an all volunteer group, we had a $10,000 budget and put on 5 main stage shows in a school year. It was a great training ground.
From there, I went to Rutgers and got a Master of Theater Arts. At Rutgers, I did a few things for the Rutgers newspaper but it wasn’t something grad students did. I arrived in Philadelphia in 1988 and started looking for directing work but also worked as the dramaturg and literary associate for the Philadelphia Festival Theater of New Plays which doesn’t exist anymore. It was an equity company that ran out of the Annenberg center. I worked in the literary office and at times ran it. We had a slush pile of about 1,500 scripts a year. We paid people to read. And that was part of my income. They did four productions a year but the chances of them coming out of a slush pile was nil. They also had a reading series.

MARTHA: How long did you do that?

MARK: Two and a half or three years.

MARTHA: I actually enjoy reading plays like that.

MARK: I do too. I miss it. I don’t read as much as I used to.
There is nothing to replace it for a sense of how people are writing and what they’re writing about.
And the good things are very inspiring and the bad things have valuable lessons. That was a good experience. And from there, Michael Hollinger (now a playwright) I worked with, he heard the Main Line Times needed a critic and I basically pestered the editor until he let me write for them.

MARTHA: And he hired you as a full time critic?

MARK: No. Like most critics, you’ll talk with the editor and do some work and get assignments. But gosh, I don’t think any critic in Philadelphia is full time. It was more of a part time thing but I got to see a lot of shows.

TOM: You knew from that early an age that theater was it.

MARK: Yes. One thing that was tough throughout the 90s for me was wanting to direct. And I found a home at the Brick Playhouse—another company that doesn’t exist anymore—I think right now the old store front is a florist. We lost the space in 2003.

TOM: For all kinds of reasons, many critics try to have a distant relationship with the theatrical community but that’s not the case with you.

MARK: But it’s strange, I ran into a playwright at a show last night and she said “Oh, have you directed before?” And why should she know? But for a lot of people they don’t know my background. So I find myself very much a part of the Philadelphia theater community in spite of my role as a critic. David Anthony Fox who also writes for the City Paper is like that too.

MARTHA: Where does Philadelphia theater fit in the national theatre scene? And could you reflect on where you think its going?

MARK: I wish I knew. It would be really nice if the money and time were there to tour the country and see a whole lot of other theater. I go to the Shaw Festival every summer in a religious kind of way. I don’t feel like we’re noted or noticed. For instance, only recently, the ATCA (American Theater Critics Association) have been able to nominate Philadelphia theaters for the regional Tony’s.

TOM: How has the Philadelphia theater community changed when you first got here and how?

MARK: I don’t think we have the stature we should have. The missing piece is probably having a big theater artist come out of Philadelphia. Like a Tracy Letts going to Broadway. Or a play like Wit which came from Seattle after getting rejected from all around the country and then it became a Tony winner and a movie. We haven’t seen anything like that come out of Philadelphia and then when it does, it puts Philadelphia on the map. We should be considered though because there has been good quality work done here. When I got here to Philadelphia 20 years ago, most theaters seemed all to hire in New York. But since then we’ve seen Philadelphia rise as a base for people to stay instead of having to leave–as many actors do—to New York. For playwrights, the challenge is to find the production opportunity. But there shouldn’t be unlimited opportunity. Competition is a good thing. For instance, if every member of PDC got every single one of his or her plays produced, I’m not sure that would be a good thing…I can feel the hate mail coming already. But it would be nice to have more opportunities. And that’s where the bigger theaters have not been so much resistant as oblivious.

TOM: It has to be difficult for subscription theaters to produce new stuff all the time because of how they bring in money, don’t you think?

MARK: Take the Arden for instance, they say “new play” and it’s either Michael Hollinger or Michael Ogborn. That’s it of local playwrights. InterAct produces Seth’s plays.

MARTHA: I have to fit this in: InterAct is doing The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety!

MARK: Which was huge in Chicago.

MARTHA: Huge! And they’re having a simultaneous open in both cities. I can’t wait to see it.

MARK: Another growing theater is the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater. It’s been a real gift to small companies to open that space up to rentals. It’s a nice thrust stage with 120 seats and they’ve opened up to other theaters. InterAct is there and 11th Hour has done stuff there. Although it can be confusing to people when InterAct is down the street at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater and Theater Exile which is at a variety of places will be playing at the main stage at the Adrienne. Funny thing about the Adrienne, it used to be old Wilma. And then when the Wilma moved, that space became three theaters. Little things keep happening. Still, I think it’s really exciting that despite the economy and despite the feeling that constant feeling in theater that “Oh no! It’s all going to collapse” that it doesn’t. Little theaters and companies keep popping up.

MARTHA: How did you come to City Paper and how do you arrange for coverage?

MARK: I stepped into it. Once Toby [Zinman] moved to the Inquirer, the second I heard about it I went for that job. I was writing for Main Line Times and News of Delaware County and it wasn’t a happy situation. It was the beginning of the whole newspaper crisis.
I started with City Paper in January 2006. It was a fortuitous opening and I jumped in. The system they set up is a schedule by season: fall and spring. The Fringe is its own separate project for the paper. David and I agree to divvy things up. And now recently, it depends upon the space that City Paper has which shrinks: reviews used to be 450 words and we ran 4-5 reviews per week. In August, we sat down and my editor said “September through January, I have room for 12 reviews” and (don’t cry for us but) we’re getting paid less as are all full time people at City Paper. It’s been real tough. You know before, we had freedom to find room for things when a small theater company opened up or something interested came our way. Now it’s the opposite.
Personally, I would like us to cover small theaters more. It used to be that the alternative weekly goes to everything and now the Inquirer beats the hell out of us. They run more reviews than they used to. When I was very involved with producing at the Brick and writing for suburban papers, we would beg the Inquirer to come to shows at the Brick and they’d say no. That was when they sent critics to Broadway. Now, they don’t do that and cover Philly more.

TOM: Do you have a blog or an online outlet for countering this problem?

MARK: We don’t for City Paper and I haven’t started my own. I know a few critics who have tried and Wendy [Rosenfield] has a very active one but it’s more large scale commentary and not really reviews.

TOM: But that could be an avenue for City Paper if they have content on the website that is different from the print edition. You could add space many columns, including theater reviews.

MARK: I think there is still a perception with people that the paper-paper is the real paper and the web isn’t real. And sometimes we would bump a review to a box in the paper that says “Go To The Website And See The Review.” The theaters don’t tend to like that and they don’t seem to get the same response. The City Paper is also unwilling to pay for web-only content. It sounds like I’m bashing my employer but I’m not. I love my job. And I wouldn’t set myself up to compete with City Paper on a private blog. And David and I wouldn’t say “Hey, you don’t have to pay us anymore. We’ll do a blog for free.” That’s awkward to do.

TOM: What do you think is going to happen with newspapers and theater audiences? Do you think newspapers will survive? Will there be another medium? Production companies ought to be very interested and be pro-active about it because newspapers are how audiences find theater.

MARK: Theaters are taking a lead on this right now. From what I’ve seen, they have more web presence and mailing lists and other types of promos like Facebook accounts. I’ve been astounded lately (not being technologically savvy) when I see little video clips of productions on YouTube. You can cultivate that relationship. I notice the Wilma made their magazine program smaller and put the special content online. It’s a great example of an audience and theater interacting. They are coming to discussions and stuff. I’m not sure where that leaves critics. Newpapers need to catch up but they haven’t figured out how to run the business with the web. That is true of the news side as well as the features.

TOM: They are nowhere near to solving that.

MARK: For the City Paper, the web is just an extra thing. We do it because everybody does it. But are we committed to a primary connection being the web? I don’t know. I don’t think it pays for itself. Can theaters use the Internet to converse with the audience and reach out? Publishing a website is a lot cheaper than buying advertising. Theater critics….I don’t know. I ‘d like to think the economic upswing and…you know…all these papers will recover and have more space. I think that their response to productions and the information that isn’t from the theater itself is still relevant and useful. A range of voices is important. But all the voices are getting softer and softer as the paper shrinks.

MARTHA: Tell me about writers and playwrights that inspire you.

MARK: From both categories, I’d have to start with Shaw.

MARTHA: What is it about Shaw, obviously he’s smart and funny…

MARK: Smart, funny…and brave. Willing to say things that people are unwilling…and unable to say. A great playwright that’s against the trend of audiences sometimes and only a handful of playwrights that made smart and funny and dramatic all go together. Stoppard is another one. Where people can be both emotional and intelligent? I bristle at the notion that Shaw’s plays are all talking. The passion is in the ideas and the arguments. I like playwrights that remind me of Shaw. Some do more than others. You’re going to push me to name names and I’m going to get stuck.
Also, Shaw was willing to be critical of theater and be a part of it. Critical of himself without renegotiating or compromising his ideals. He was willing to learn. And I think knew that being a critic doesn’t mean he’s infallible but has an opinion. And there is a reason for it. Some people feel Shaw is egotistical too.

MARTHA: As a playwright or a writer?

MARK: As a writer. I find him so not concerned about himself so much as ideas or values.

MARTHA: That is refreshing, animating…exciting.

MARK: I think you can question things without being insulting.

MARTHA: Making people laugh on their way to a revelation.

MARK: A lot of inspiration in my life comes from Shaw.

MARTHA: Hence your pilgrimage to the Shaw festival.

MARK: For a while, he only wore natural wool in the middle part of his life. Whole back to nature kind of thing. Hmm…Shaw’s spirit, Shaw’s passion of things…his willingness to engage in the debate…he’s part of the reason why I’m interested in criticism. I wish we had more debate now. Have you seen the Theater Alliance ListServe? There were debates on there. Like during the Presidential primaries.

TOM: That was a street brawl.

MARK: There was also brawling about critics. I think a lot of people get afraid. “Oh no! Angry voices!” Oh no!” And now the Theater Alliance has a “We Will Reject Unpleasant Exchanges” policy.

MARTHA: There is a role for a moderator. I engage in many online communities.

MARK: Not so much a moderator. But it just clamped own. People saying “I just want job listings, I don’t want debates.” Or “Stop sending these to me!” No one seems to understand that you can take yourself off the emails and blasts. I mean fifty emails would go over the List Serve saying “Remove me from this list” and there’s actually a part of the email on the bottom that says exactly that! You know City Paper readers can respond to every review on the website and you know what? No one ever responds. And I’ve given up looking. I get notified too. One time somebody spammed the system and I got that. But that was it. When I write a review, whether it seems kind or unkind, positive or negative, I’d like to have that feedback instead of no discussion. I think that’s unfortunate. That’s one of the great things about the website. Going back to question, “What is the future of this?” One of the funny things could be the City Paper has a review. If you don’t like it, you don’t’ have to write directly to the critic, you can write something that appears with the review.

MARTHA: Right. It’s a conversation.

MARK: It happened a little bit with the Fringe reviews. I participated in that. Back and forth with people about individual shows. The Fringe reviews were on the web. I think that’s why most reviews are still in the paper. And they read it…it’s yay or nay and they put it aside. I don’t know.

MARTHA: It’s got to be comfortable. Other cities have done it. Whether it’s training folks to look there, people need to know to look there and there has to be a response when you post. Or it has to build audience. I don’t know how one does that. As a community.

MARK: Well, I should remind my editor to write a little note under reviews to say respond on line.
Some critics may not want that discussion. But it’s fun. It would be interesting. What seems to happen is that every couple years discussion forums boil over. And this is what happened on the List Serve. There was a tirade that came out against all critics. There was a lively discussion that is until it got completely shut down.

TOM: How do you see your role as a critic? How do you approach it? When you sit down to write a piece, what are you thinking?

MARK: To express an informed opinion about a production. And to relay that to people who have seen the show and those who haven’t. It’s something that is a companion piece to the production in some way. It might help somebody to decide to see it. But I don’t see THAT as my job. I don’t like that idea of the reviewer where you behave like a consumer advocate person who says “Yes! Spend spend your ten dollars on this thing” or “No, don’t.” I don’t see it that way. I don’t like the thumbs-up or thumbs down grading or stars or that kind of nonsense. City Paper does that with movies but they have not approached us about that with theater reviews. And I think David and I would say no to that. That makes no sense to us.

MARTHA: Do you see your audience as you are crafting the piece? The informed theater goer? Do you think about the producers or those involved in the production?

MARK: No, no. By the time the play opens, the vision is set. Nothing I say or do is going to change it. Nor should it.

MARTHA: They could always tweek it.

MARK: Being on the other side of it, there was a critic who is now retired and he would review several of my productions. He would inevitably describe a play and the production and as a grand wizard writing about how these things were wrong and what could be changed to make it perfect. It was pompous and obnoxious. I try not to do that or write with that in mind.

TOM: Do you think about the competing interests of the audience when they have all these other things to do like movies, videogames, and such?

MARK: It’s there yeah. Certainly there are shows where I’ll say don’t miss this it’s really worth it. Don’t miss it! There are other times where I’ve not written but implied you could miss this. Or you may not find this satisfying. Or this is not an engaging or exciting experience. I try not to come out and pronounce that as a final judgment; more as an expression of an opinion. I try to be clear with saying I really feel this is worthy. I try not to do it in a consumer-is it worth eighteen dollars-way. I think that is hard to measure.

MARTHA: It’s a simple question but not an easy answer.

MARK: It’s something that every critic is dealing with all the time. I could get comfortable with having more personal responses. For 15 years at the suburban papers, I worked with editors who didn’t want too much of my own personality. They wanted synopsis, adjectives, blah-blah. Sneaking a little more insight into things or making a larger point was often a challenge because it had to be done in such a way where I didn’t use the word “I”. It felt like at times writing for high school.
Now, I teach full time at the Art Institute of Philadelphia—theater appreciation class, English, public speaking and some literature classes—and I don’t discourage that. But I’ve heard schools generally don’t want the kids writing in first person.
It’s hard to be sincere in a personal way. I think I have the opportunity to take it and don’t take it enough that as a 49 year old white heterosexual male, this is what I get out of it. You might get something different. Whenever I see David Fox do it on the same page, who’s a white homosexual male, I’m always impressed. It’s worthwhile to relate what you say about the play to who you are instead of acting like the font of all knowledge. Which we are not.

MARTHA: It can provide additional information about the lens through which you view the production. It’s all about sharing the experience having been in that realm, at that time, for that production and exposing who you are more.

MARK: You’re making me want to rewrite the review I finished this morning on Coming Home. I could have said it more personally concerning relating the struggles of a South African woman who feels that all the doors are closed for her and then goes back to where she started. I tried to convey that but didn’t do it as personally as I could have. I don’t know that experience; because of who you are, worlds are closed off to you.

TOM: because of your job, you (and other critics) tend to see more theater and know more about theater than the artist they are often reviewing. It occurs to me that critics have a lot to teach theater artists and yet there is the animus that exists between playwrights and critics and I think it comes more from the playwright. Can you talk about that?

MARK: I think there is a lot of misunderstanding that leads to animosity. There is the fear of being judged and being misunderstood. That’s happened to me by the way. I’ve had plays reviewed and not always well and haven’t always felt the critics didn’t see what I saw or what I was getting at.

TOM: So, you see it from both sides in your work?

MARK: I do think critics have a lot to offer and are putting it out there. Not to put it all on one side or the other. But playwrights always have doubts about critics writing sincerely or evaluating their work honestly. And frankly, I think critics have the same complaint. Every time a critic writes a review, the critic and the artist are getting together. There’s another 400 words added to the back-and-forth discussion. After the critics have spoken, my impression: a thumbs up or thumbs down consensus forms in the mind of the artist or the audience. An easy answer. For example, I’ve had reactions to a review along the lines of “You really ripped that play in your piece.” And I go back and the accusation…it’s just not there on the page. It’s astounding. They’re not even reading the words on the page with any sort of openness. If there is no praise that a person isn’t the greatest actor of all time, then the review can be read as a failure. They’re personally hurt. Sometimes. I can’t guarantee that every critic watches every play with an open heart and open mind as they should. When you’re seeing My Fair Lady for the 20th time, you can get jaded. You don’t want to be there in some ways. On the other side, people in theater reading reviews (not only of themselves but those involved in a given play), are they reading all the other ones too?

TOM: Do you think writers can read critical material on a daily basis and find that reflective of what audiences want and like?

MARK: I don’t think critics are necessarily speaking for audiences all of the time. That’s a piece of it of course. I’ve actually read reviews of John Simon collected together in a book just for entertainment.
I like reading Frank Rich, John Lahr too.

MARTHA: I love Robert Benchley. There’s a man who can use the personal pronoun.

MARK: There’s stuff to learn there but you can’t say that a guy like John Simon writes for the general audience. Last night, I saw a play and sitting next to me were three people about my age. Very pleasant. And they whispered to each other a lot during the show. And one of them at the end of the show asked what the heck it was about. It wasn’t a tough play and I explained to them what I thought it meant. But if they were the typical audience, then reading me is not going to help them understand that. It was a satire of slasher movies and if you’ve never seen one, it’s going to be hard to get. But how can you reach the age of 50 and completely miss horror flicks?
Students are like that too. But I find you give them five questions and at the end of the interrogation, they understand it but their initial reaction was that they didn’t think they got it. Sometimes audiences find theater intimidating. I find it exciting.

TOM: Is that because audiences don’t know what they are getting when they buy a ticket for a new play? There they are in the theater with all the others, and if they don’t like it, they can’t get up and leave or do anything until the play is over.

MARTHA: As Kerry Reid [Chicago theatre critic] says, “You can’t dance ironically to a bad play.”

TOM: Is that a reason why audiences are intimidated by new theater? It can’t be because they’re dumb or illiterate?

MARK: I think a lot of them are intimidated, yeah.

TOM: Or if theater offers them more than that immersive experience with the stage—if there was a bar in the back or there was something else going on?

MARK: Have you ever been to Allen’s Lane? It’s in the Mt. Airy region in Philadelphia and it’s a dinner theater set-up. It’s the end of Lincoln Drive. It’s cabaret style seating and it makes an enormous difference. If I had lots of money, I would want to run a theater that had a cabaret style setting and do thoughtful plays with food and drink. The sad thing about dinner theater as an experiment, it became bad musicals and bad comedies and bad food. It has a terrible name now. Not far from here, we have the country’s only non- profit equity dinner theater: New Candlelight. But all they do is musicals and Christmas Carol and that’s about it. They did do Lend Me a Tenor. They’re productions are pretty good but it pigeon holes them. Allen’s Lane resembles a dinner is a dinner theater with higher aspirations. Audiences can take more serious fare in that kind of setting. I’m convinced of that. Years ago, I directed Brimstone and Treacle there. We staged the rape of an apparently brain dead girl a few feet away from people drinking wine, having dinner, and eating cookies and it did just fine. We could have that kind of situation. Sitting in a darkened row and not being able to open candy…that’s too bad.

MARTHA: Have you seen Broadway: The Golden Age? It’s a documentary with interviews with people who worked in theater in New York City during the late 50s and early 60s. Elizabeth Ashley in particular bemoans exactly what you are talking about. Sitting in a theater not being able to drink or smoke Audiences must be still and solemn but it’s artificial.

MARK: We can go too far in those situations.

MARTHA: I draw the line at nachos.

MARK: As long as the audience displays discretion about opening their can of beer. We can be very civil. It’s a pet dream of mine. It exists for music. There are places you can still go and sit down and drink and have a snack and listen to great music.

TOM: It’s a nascent trend with movie theaters where you can make a night of it by sitting and drinking with friends in lounge chairs. But that is a tiny part of the market. Movies have their own crisis now.

MARK: The viewing of movies is overwhelming nowadays. It’s not communal because of the sound and visual experience. You can be with a group but it’s just you alone in that chair experiencing all that stuff. In plays, you’re in a roomful of people. You will react and the performers will hear your reaction and react to your reaction.

MARTHA: What is it that turns you on about this job?

MARK: It’s the responsibility to think through what I’ve seen and then respond. If I don’t talk to somebody about it, the chance to formally put a response out there is very satisfying. I wish there was more feedback from the audience. I would love to get a pat on the back more often. “Hey, I read that review, great job.” Or even somebody saying, “I read that review and thought you were completely off.” I appreciate that too. People can still be civil.

MARTHA: Ahhh civility! You like the dialogue.

MARK: Always.

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