Just One Asshole With An Opinion: Theater critic Mark Cofta on the art of reviewing and observations on Philly’s theater scene
“I see 150 to 180 plays a year, and still always regret missing a bunch.”
Mark Cofta has been covering theater in Philadelphia for more than 20 years, currently penning reviews for the Philadelphia City Paper. While he is also a director and a playwright (and teaches at The Art Institute), Mark’s strongest connection to theater is that of a fan: he sees more than 150 productions a year. In addition to learning about the ins and outs of how he approaches reviewing, we also wanted to get his views on the theater scene as a whole from someone who has truly seen what’s out there.
FringeArts: How long have you been writing theater reviews and criticism?
Mark Cofta: I started in college at the University of Rochester, 1980–83. I wanted to write for the Campus Times—even though I was also very active in the student theater company as an actor, director, and producer—and pitched a weekly column called “Stage Directions” that would be my features and reviews about local and campus theater, and I got to see lots of theater in the greater Rochester area. I used clips from this experience to introduce myself to the Rutgers University paper when I was a grad student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts there and wrote a few reviews, and used them again when I applied for my first paying review job with the Main Line Times in 1989.
FringeArts: Do you have a specific approach to the actual writing of a review?
Mark Cofta: The writing starts when I’m in the theater, simply by being attentive. I’ll have a pen in my hands but don’t use it much, maybe just to scribble a quotable phrase or a single-word reminder for later, especially if I don’t have the script at home. I’m a little more alert and focused when I know I have to write about a play, so this part is mental. I don’t rush home to write, either; I like to let an experience stew for a while.
Ideally, my reviews succeed at describing an experience and relating it to the reader: what is this, what is it like or not like? Out of that, of course, comes the answer to “is it good?” but that’s not really the point, since what’s “good” to me might not be “good” to anyone else. If I do go there, I try to explain what I mean by my judgment of value; I have to explain what “good” is to me. Hopefully, my description not only says what this experience is in an accurate way, but how and why, with a little of what it’s worth—all in 375 words.
FringeArts: There seems to be a wide gulf between practitioners and critics, yet you would think doing a better job engaging in a dialogue could only further the art. Can you discuss about this dynamic?
Mark Cofta: The gulf is much too wide. I’ve had otherwise smart and savvy theater professionals tell me that they want a dialogue with critics but are afraid of retribution in print, as if I would retaliate months later for some conversational disagreement or moment of frankness. I would not do this—yes, I have integrity! Why do they think I don’t?—and can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing this either.
Over the years, I’ve had people try to bar me from participating in the Barrymore Awards when everyone else—not only theater artists and management, but casual audience members—was invited to become voters. I once had a writer-director offer to take me out to dinner to tell him to all my criticism, if only I would write a favorable review of his New York-bound (he thought) show—as if I had no self-respect whatsoever and would want to break bread with the spineless creep! There’s a prominent director in town who simply refuses to make eye contact with me, whether in a theater lobby or on the street. Ever. To some, theater critics are The Enemy—and yet, those same people will twist a positive quote out of a review and claim that I’m “raving” about their show, as if my opinion matters. Incredible.
I wish theater professionals saw critics as people who are very interested and invested in theater, people who enjoy hearing about how it’s put together and what it feels like to do what they do. That’s who we are. Believe me, we’re not in it for the money. I see 150 to 180 plays a year, and still always regret missing a bunch. Theater artists: the only person who’s seen your work more than me is your mother, and I probably have a lot more interest in it than she does.
Like most publications with an online presence, City Paper has a simple mechanism for commenting on reviews, an easy way to start a conversation. No one uses it.
FringeArts: Are there any theatrical trends that you’ve noticed emerging in Philly in the recent past?
Mark Cofta: First of all, just the growth. What recession? Philadelphia theater never got the memo. Since 2008, we’ve seen new companies, new spaces, new artists, and new combinations of artists. That’s the second one: that Philadelphia works as a large company, not a series of small ones. No actors, directors, writers, or designers “belong” to only one company. No one hits a glass ceiling like they used to, not even the Equity/non-Equity divide. Good work is rewarded with more work. I don’t detect much jealousy or competitiveness; I think everyone’s figured out that people who visit one theater will go to another and another, so that one show doing well does not hurt, and even helps, the show next door.
Artistically, I think we’re slowly seeing more original work and more plays new to Philadelphia. Moreover, there are more companies creating work as collaborative groups (not starting with a finished script), which seem to be an outgrowth of the Fringe Festival. Look at Swim Pony, Applied Mechanics, and The Beserker Residents, or the more established Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories.
We’re also seeing the Fringe mindset—plays of any length in unusual places at unusual times —seeping into the rest of the season, though that could still happen a lot more. Tiny Dynamite’s A Play, A Pie, and a Pint is the best example: individual one-acts running less than an hour, performed on weekday evenings at 6:30 pm. It’s been a huge success, though conventional wisdom says that 45-minute shows won’t succeed.
FringeArts: What are some of the most common mistakes you might see that might cause you to go “oh no” five minutes into a performance?
Mark Cofta: The biggest mistakes come from the audience, frankly. TURN OFF YOUR DAMN CELL PHONES! Don’t talk. Don’t text. Don’t shine that eerie light just to check the time. Don’t fiddle with cellophane candy wrappers. You’re not on your trailer park sofa shoveling Cheetos into your drooling maws; LIVE ARTISTS are in front of you working their hearts out. Show some fuckin’ respect. I’ve lost all patience with rude and ignorant audience members. I’m there to enjoy what the play offers, and I’m there to do a job, so I really hate those fuckers.
Otherwise, I don’t see a lot of obvious “oh no” mistakes. Occasionally, a new play just won’t be ready, but that’s a matter of opinion. Some productions could use music and sound more creatively; with modern technology, it isn’t that hard. Any company that doesn’t publish the playwright’s bio in the program instantly annoys me, as does any company that doesn’t proofread the artists’ bios. Sorry, I’m always a little bit the English teacher, and details matter.
FringeArts: How has the Philly theater scene compare to what it was 20 years ago?
Mark Cofta: When I arrived in 1988—thinking I’d just stay for six months helping out a buddy by subletting, then emigrate to Toronto—Philly actors were establishing fake addresses and voicemail numbers in New York City so that they could audition for local theaters without revealing that they lived here. To be a New York actor was everything; to be a Philly actor was to be an amateur. There were a few professional companies that had little connection to the city and could have been in anywhere in the US.
Now, we have a thriving community of theater professionals. People even move here to work in theater! That’s huge. The rest of the country doesn’t know us yet, however. We also have a thriving layer of small companies in small spaces, which I think is really what makes theater special today. If audiences need amplification to hear and binoculars to see, the space is much too big; I think the best experiences are found in the 100-seat theaters, as the area’s new spaces (Theatre Horizon, The Off-Broad Street Theatre, The Adrienne’s SkyBox) show. For people numbed by watching screens all the time, the feeling of being in the same room with what’s happening is really special.
I’d still love to see more flexible spaces, though. More plays in the round, or with audience on two sides, sometimes called “alleyway.” I love walking into a theater and being totally shocked by the arrangement of the space.
Unfortunately, theater coverage has not kept up with Philly theater. Journalism was hard hit by the recession, and we’re in a period of transition in which the culture says to move online, without explaining how we can continue to get paid. Right now, there are no full time theater critics for any paper or outlet; we’re all “correspondents,” freelancers who not only don’t get paid much and have no benefits, but who can be let go at any time and have little say in long-range planning or editorial philosophy. Though my editors at City Paper are, I think, an exception—they include David Anthony Fox and me [in editorial discussions], and care about our opinions—the fact is, I have absolutely no job security, and neither does anyone else covering theater. We could all be gone tomorrow.
FringeArts: What are some tips to writers getting into reviewing and covering theater?
Mark Cofta: A collection of don’ts, culled from reading many reviews, much practice, and good teachers and editors: don’t try to fix what a production did, as if you have all the answers. Don’t presume to be the final authority—you’re just one asshole with an opinion. Don’t use empty judgmental adjectives, I particularly dislike “excellent.” Don’t show off, especially just to be mean, and especially at others’ expense.
And some commonsense do’s: Do be honest, whatever the supposed damage. Do give credit accurately. Don’t ruin the story for would-be audiences. Write in first person and present tense. And for heaven’s sake, get the review in on time! Procrastination is my downfall.
Plus some typical advice to young writers: See lots of plays. Read lots of plays. Read reviews, histories, and biographies. And don’t do this if you’d rather do something else; writing reviews isn’t a “fallback career” or a hobby.
FringeArts: Can you name a couple recent shows you really enjoyed, and maybe a couple you’re looking forward to?
Mark Cofta: I’m on record as loving Bruce Graham’s funny and gritty North of the Boulevard at Theatre Exile and the area’s most under-rated, overlooked theater venture, Bobbi Block’s truly inventive and unique Tongue & Groove, which continues to explore realistic improv despite audiences who expect punchlines. People’s Light & Theater Company’s “family discovery” series is always a treat, and Y York’s recent adaptation of Gerry Spinelli’s Stargirl was no exception. I think 1812’s It’s My Party was better than my colleagues thought; its curse was the word “comedy” as in “The Women in Comedy Project,” which conjured a tribute to women in stand-up instead of the soul-baring exploration of how women find humor in life’s struggles that Jen Childs and her ensemble created.
I’ve also seen a few shows that slipped under most people’s radar: the Philadelphia Young Playwrights’ delightful show Time Machine: The Lost Hour in the otherwise unthrilling PIFA, and a smart, sexy production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights at UArts.
Coming up, there’s nothing I’m dreading! I’m very curious about EgoPo’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I hope the reverse-race casting doesn’t obscure the story or its cultural importance—and I’ll be reviewing it for City Paper. Barcelona at People’s Light and Venus in Fur at Philadelphia Theater Company look like intense two-person plays that I’ll enjoy.
This summer, there’s a ton of Shakespeare once again: Measure for Measure and Henry VIII at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, The Tempest in Clark Park, Macbeth and The Complete Works from Commonwealth Classics, Two Gentlemen of Verona at Delaware Shakespeare Festival, and The Two Noble Kinsman at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. Whew.
And then the Fringe! And what I know of next season looks exciting, even though I say that every year. Finally, I’m taking my annual trip to the Shaw Festival in Ontario soon to see nine plays in rep, not to write about them, though I would love to, but just as a fan of great theater. Because that’s what I am.