My calculations are necessarily imprecise, but as best as I could tell 2019 lasted roughly a century. Or at least a few decades. I mean, was it really less than a year ago that the government shut down in a spat over funding for a purported border wall? Was is really just 10 months ago Green Book won Best Picture? And has Hadestown really only been running on Broadway since March?
The U.S. theatre has mostly not been in the same state of rolling crisis that afflicts our internet-fueled news cycle. In fact it’s been in a state of historic leadership turnover that gives more cause for hope than for concern, and there are arguably green shoots of positive change even in the commercial theatre, even as the nonprofit theatre consolidates. American Theatre spent the year reporting, reflecting, and reconsidering the landscape of stage craft and theatre business in this oft-benighted country. Herewith, our look back on the pieces you all read the most—and the ones we think deserve a second look.
Our 10 Most Read Posts From 2019
The Gender Problem ‘Tootsie’ Can’t Dress Up
This Broadway musicalization of the hit 1980s film got mostly good reviews and its share of Tony attention, and many even gave it credit for addressing some of the original’s dated sexism. What the show didn’t address, as writer Christian Lewis pointed out in this well-argued essay, was the inherent transphobia of the show’s relentless man-in-a-dress jokes, and the unexamined gender panic underlying them. (Wonder what he’ll say about Mrs. Doubtfire…)
The Top 20* Most-Produced Playwrights of the 2019-20 Season
We like to think that people loved this year’s list not just because they’re data nerds but because it continued the trend of the last few years toward greater gender and ethnic diversity, with Lauren Gunderson again topping the list, followed by Lauren Yee , on a roster with better than gender parity and nearly a third filled with writers of color.
The Top 10* Most-Produced Plays of the 2019-20 Season
L.A.’s Samuel French Bookshop to Close
In an unwelcome sign of the times, this mainstay of L.A. entertainment culture—like its New York counterpart, Drama Bookshop, not just a bookstore but a vibrant hub and hangout—announced its closing in February. Unlike Drama Bookshop, though, no angel swooped in to resurrect it.
‘Hamilton’ Under the Weight of the Puerto Rican Flag
This extraordinary report by Vanessa Garcia captured the almost eerily resonant premiere of this epochal musical in the Caribbean, with the great luck of following a couple who won the lottery to see it. Worth reading all the way through, but in particular for the moment when Lin-Manuel Miranda, onstage in the land of his parents’ birth, is nearly overcome with emotion as he launches into “Hurricane.”
The Tragedy of John Simon
The death of New York’s most infamous theatre critic, whose poison pen ruled the pages of New York magazine for several crucial decades, occasioned a fair amount of equivocal eulogizing, but none so thoughtful, empathetic, yet devastating as in this piece from his colleague Michael Feingold.
‘Slave Play’: Racism Doesn’t Have a Safe Word
Jeremy O. Harris’s provocative play, a kind of comedy/drama about sexual and racial trauma, has carved a swath through New York theatre and the national discourse ever since it premiered in late 2018 at New York Theatre Workshop. It continues to fill houses, and spark conversation, in its current Broadway run. Between these two runs, AT had the great good fortune to publish the play (still available here), and Harris had the inspired idea to have Broadway powerhouse Tonya Pinkins do the interview. The online version is long and illuminating, and almost as much of a ride as the play itself.
A Tale of Two ‘Little Shop(s) of Horrors’
It was an irresistible opportunity, and all it took was a dip into our travel budget: Ashman and Menken’s 1980s cult classic Little Shop of Horrors was getting major, and wildly different, revivals on both coasts. Our intrepid senior editor, Diep Tran, trekked to the Pasadena Playhouse for Mike Donahue’s relatively gritty, stripped-down, and diversely cast Little Shop, and back in New York took in Michael Mayer’s more traditional (within the wacky bounds of the material) revival at the Westside Theatre, and came away preferring the more revisionist L.A. rendition.
Why ‘Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’ Is Obsolete
Nicole Brewer contributed this broadside against institutional theatre’s tendency to talk the talk around diversity and inclusion, while leaving much of the hard work of dismantling white supremacy undone.
The Mueller Report Is the Surprise Hit of the Summer
In this instance, the national news seeped into our coverage, as theatre was pressed into service as a kind of town hall for concerned citizens in the months after special counsel Robert Mueller completed his 448-page report on the Trump/Russia investigation, but it wasn’t getting read by many Americans, let alone dramatized. Tag-team readings of the entire report were galvanizing events in June and July, well before Mueller himself was called to testify, with less than electric results. Maybe he should have taken some pointers from some of the actors who’d read his report, from John Lithgow to Alfred Molina.
Some 2019 Stories That Deserve a Wider Audience
In Class With Professor Kennedy
It was a bit of happy synchronicity that the great Helen Shaw, before New York mag snapped her up as lead critic, pitched this retrospective piece on playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s influential teaching at Harvard in the 1980s at precisely the same time we were getting ready to publish Kennedy’s most recent play, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. That led to us publishing a whole tribute issue to this overlooked and under-produced American master, all of which is worth reading, but it was anchored by this lovely, circumspect consideration of the ways a great artist can also be a great teacher of artists.
The Sober Reality for Theatremakers in Recovery
This sympathetically reported piece by our fall/winter intern Amelia Merrill depicts the struggle many theatremakers in recovery face making work in a world in which the local bar can be an essential networking site, gala fundraisers run on booze, and sometimes the content of the work itself can be triggering. It’s such a good piece, in fact, that we decided to put it in our January/February print issue.
Black Theatres in the U.S.: Building, Surviving Thriving and We’re Going to Need a Bigger Table
Our March issue on the state of Black theatre in the U.S. was anchored by these two comprehensive survey pieces. The first, by Kelundra Smith, took stock of the theatres run by and largely for Black folks, and the second, by Jerald Raymond Pierce, engaged several of today’s most significant African American playwrights in a conversation about how their work is meeting the moment, and what the future of the form holds.
Summer of Scam: Wy Did a College Prep Program Stiff Its Teachers and Students?
Some folks think American Theatre never does (or should do) investigative reporting. But the case of David Petro, who ran a summer training program called College Break Thru that never seemed to pay its teachers, and which seemed to be bilking students too, cried out for a thorough account, and associate editor Allison Considine hunkered down and got the story.
How an Indie Theatre Scene Took Root in Columbus, Ga.
As a New York-based staff trying to cover the whole nation’s theatre, we are often only as good as the freelancers who come to us and give us the 411 on their local scenes. When Natalia Temesgen came to us with a pitch about the scene she’d help foster in a town 100 miles south of Atlanta, we loved the story—and not only because the town of Columbus, not to mention its arts scene, wasn’t anywhere near our radar. Her piece is also an inspiring portrait of connection building with clear application beyond rural Georgia.
The Long Goodbye
Oh, how we relished this one. Playwright Itamar Moses came to us with the idea of writing about how he’d struggled to “lock” his play Completeness, which bowed in 2011 at South Coast Repertory and Playwrights Horizons but only found its final satisfactory form in 2018, at Philly’s Theatre Exile. If you know Moses’s work, you may anticipate the layered, iterated wit and thoughtfulness of his prose; but this essay’s real gems are its insights into the writer’s mind.
Laurie Metcalf and Her Double
This Illinois actress has long been one of the nation’s best, but now that Broadway audiences are getting a yearly dose of her in leading roles (A Doll’s House Part 2 last year, Hillary and Clinton this year, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? next), it seemed well past time to look at why she’s so good and what we might learn from that. As I’d had the good fortune to see her onstage at L.A.’s Cast Theatre back in the ’90s, and have followed her career avidly ever since, I jumped at the chance to (attempt to) pull the disparate threads of her unique stage career together.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job (No, Really)
This pitch on a pressing and timeless theme came from playwright Kari Bentley-Quinn, who wanted to write about how having a day job isn’t just a dirty secret or necessary evil of many theatremakers’ careers—it can actually be an enriching, honorable, and balanced way to move through a creative life. Though, as she notes, it would be a much better world if theatremakers didn’t have to find subsistence work to support their artistic efforts, there should be no shame in making ends meet—indeed, it should be celebrated as a kind of superpower.
Everything Going His Way: My Dad’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Accessibility Journey
Managing editor Russ Dembin had this piece in the works for a while, and it came off beautifully. Inspired in part by the fact that Daniel Fish’s radical new take on the Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut included wheelchair user Ali Stroker’s scorching turn as Ado Annie, Russ wondered if he could arrange to take his elderly father—a Parkinson’s sufferer and stroke survivor—to the show, and whether that visit would point up unique access challenges and opportunities. It did that, in spades.
Backstage at ‘The Ferryman’
When illustrator Michael Arthur came to associate editor Allison Considine with the idea of sketching the backstage world of this epic Jez Butterworth play on Broadway, we weren’t sure what that would look like. Well, this combination of reported anecdote and illustrations looks great, right down to the goose. We should do this kind of thing more often.
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