An editor, it seems to me, is a bit like a theatrical artistic director. We are curators and hosts, talent spotters and content shapers more than we are primary creators. And much as the palette of an artistic director is the season of plays, musicals, readings, public conversations, and miscellaneous special events they unveil each year, I and my colleagues at American Theatre similarly fill up an editorial calendar with features, reviews, interviews, slideshows, podcasts, and the occasional live event. We too rely on and serve a mix of loyal subscribers and curious samplers.
Every October for decades now, our biggest issue of the year includes a comprehensive preview of the coming seasons at TCG member theatres from Anchorage to Sarasota, Tucson to Providence. And every October for the near-decade I’ve been working at American Theatre, I’ve toted a copy of that fat fall issue along on my morning and evening commute, going through the listings show by show and marking up with a ballpoint pen the shows that look promising for a coming year of potential coverage. It usually takes me a few subway rides to get through the whole list—it’s that big.
I could of course theoretically swipe through a virtual list on some kind of digital tablet rather than lug the actual magazine around. But, much like a season subscriber paging through a brochure of offerings, I still relish the slow crawl through dozens of actual printed pages on which I can hand-circle the stuff that catches my interest.
As with all hard-copy note-taking, especially in our digital age, this may be more of a thought-jogging exercise than a substantive planning practice. We certainly don’t starve for subjects to write about, and I’m hardly the only editorial brain at work on this issue: Managing editor Russ Dembin, associate editor Diep Tran, and staff writer Allison Considine have sizable say in what you read here, alongside a virtual flotilla of freelance writers and sources strewn across the entire U.S. and the world.
And rest assured, we’re engaged in more rigorous surveys of our field than mere margin scribbles. Our annual Top 10 Most-Produced Plays and Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights lists, compiled by Diep Tran, mine the season preview listings for data on the most popular titles and writers. Interestingly, both top spots this year happen to be occupied by names (Shakespeare in Love, Lauren Gunderson) not ratified by major New York productions; by my reckoning this is the first time the top play has hit that spot without so much as an Off-Broadway staging since 2003’s The Drawer Boy.
Our newer annual tradition of tallying both the gender of the writers, and the periods of origin, of plays getting productions also continues apace. The picture that emerges from that data is not heartening: After a jump from 21 percent female-authored plays in 2015 to last year’s 26 percent, the tally for 2017 is…again 26 percent (with 62 percent male-authored, 11 percent co-written by male and female authors, and less than 1 percent by genderqueer/nonbinary authors). But another easy-to-overlook trend continues to offer a shred of hope: The number of new plays being produced again handily trounces the number of classics and revivals, and the gender-parity stats for that cohort of new plays looks considerably rosier.
The stories in this special section aren’t just a collection of dates, names, and statistics, of course. While each year we focus on a different aspect of the coming season, this year we’re going a bit meta: We are focusing on the very season-ness of the theatre season, if you will—on how plays get chosen, by whom, and why. To abuse another analogy, you might think of the artistic director as a kind of chef and the season as their menu. Which ingredients will they favor? Whose palates will they privilege?
The table is set. Dig in.
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