What does American Theatre write about when there’s no theatre happening?It turns out we’ve had no shortage of things to cover and consider in a year dominated by a pandemic lockdown, protests against police violence and systemic racism, and an unsettlingly precarious election. One big takeaway as we looked at our most popular posts: News stories generally fared better than in most past years, probably because this was a year that was, sadly, not short on news, most of it terrible.
Among the bad tidings close to home: American Theatre announced that it will be online only for the time being. There were, of course, a few COVID-free months in early 2020, and we managed to publish issues in March, April, and May/June, though that last issue’s planned focus on theatre in Arizona—timed to coincide with TCG’s planned June conference there—was preempted for a big story on the shutdown and what it might mean for the future of a live art. (We did still run David Dudley’s fine overview of Arizona theatre.)
We also published a series of special issues this year, both in print and otherwise:
- A look at the changing state of playwriting training
- A package on the effect of climate change on theatre practice, and vice versa
- Reporting on the necessity for more caregiver-friendly policies across the entire field (not to mention the society generally)
- A tribute to the fine-grained art of theatrical costume design
- A survey of the state of the theatre in every U.S. region in the face of COVID and a resurgent anti-racist movement
- A special issue on trans and gender non-conforming theatre artists and their challenges and triumphs in the field
When lockdown began, we also started a popular and prolific column, Dispatches From Quarantine, which in 34 entries over a few months touched on everything from grief to idealism, from life hacks to wild speculation to satire. Among other things, these columns provide time capsules from a fearful, disorienting time. (As are the stories we tagged with COVID-19 news.) More recently we started a column focused on dreams and plans for a post-COVID future, What Is To Be Done; look for more of those in the coming weeks and months.
But which stories did you, dear readers, click on most in 2020? Here’s a list of the Top 10 most-viewed stories this calendar year, followed by a list of stories from this annus horribilis that we think deserve another look.
2020’s Most Popular Posts
- Survey Shows Audiences’ Reluctance to Return to the Theatre. This April report on a study by Shugoll Research, one of the first in the field to measure theatregoers’ attitudes about COVID and safety, got a lot of anxious readership. Though its main findings—that roughly half of theatregoers surveyed wouldn’t rush back, even after reopening—don’t seem as earth-shattering this many months later.
- Guthrie to Stay Closed Until March 2021 Mini-Season. Likewise, this report from May about this large Minneapolis theatre doesn’t seem so remarkable in hindsight, but at the time it was a sobering bellwether for the field. (Even this March mini-season has since been scrapped.)
- An Open Letter to the Senators of the 116th Congress: Fund the Arts. This impassioned advocacy from Matthew-Lee Erlbach, a core member of Be An Arts Hero movement, dropped in July, and though there wasn’t immediate movement on this issue, there are promising signs that someone in the Biden campaign may have been listening.
- The Ground on Which I Stand. August Wilson’s rousing 1996 speech about Black self-determination and cultural self-sufficiency, which we republished in a 20th-anniversary package in July 2016, was the subject of fresh interest and inspiration this year, with a renewed focus on systemic racism, not least within the theatre field. It doesn’t hurt that the year is closing with a stunning film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the documentary Giving Voice.
- Actors’ Equity Announces 4 Guiding Principles for Reopening Theatres. This report from May attracted attention from a field searching for answers from the union for actors and stage managers—answers which, despite this rollout and the hiring of a former OSHA official, Dr. David Michaels, are still in many cases forthcoming.
- Theatre and Last Pandemic. When COVID hit and the culture buckled as we all stared into the abyss, we turned to theatre historian Charlotte Canning in March to find out what went down during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Spoiler: It was bad—especially the second wave.
- Time for a Change: What If We Cut the Long Hours? Among the many demands detailed by the We See You, White American Theater movement over the summer, the call for less punishing working conditions was one that got a lot of traction, at least among the folks who spoke to associate editor Jerald Raymond Pierce for this August piece.
- When the Students Have Notes for the Teachers. We See You, White American Theater wasn’t the only anti-racist movement to rise up this past summer, as Ciara Diane detailed in this August report on the efforts of theatre conservatory students at a number of institutions, including Rutgers and Asolo Rep, who spoke their truths about racial trauma back to administrators and faculty.
- The Air Is Humming: Why Did ‘West Side Story’ Hire a Boy Like That? Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival of this musical theatre classic was mired in controversy, both before and after opening, but no choice received quite as much public heat as the production’s decision not only to hire dancer Amar Ramasar, who’d been accused of sexual harassment, but to stand by his hiring even after protests materialized outside the theatre.
- The Zoom Where It Happens. First, is that a world-class headline, from senior editor Allison Considine, or what? Second: This story, about how acting training programs were adapting to the pandemic lockdown, was published on March 23, back when many of us weren’t sure how long this would last. Little did we know!
2020 Stories You May Have Missed
- Zoe Caldwell Taught a Master Class Every Time She Stepped on a Stage. When this stage empress died in mid-February, there was no other choice to write her tribute than playwright Terrence McNally, to whom she had been a muse. We published this beautiful eulogy, the first of many this year, on March 4—and then McNally himself succumbed to the coronavirus just 20 days later (and we published two tributes to him, one from Jeremy O. Harris and one from Peter Rothstein).
- ‘The Detention Lottery,’ Where You Do Have to Live Like a Refugee. In a piece reported and filed before the pandemic (though it ran in April), Seattle correspondent Misha Berson reported on a sobering interactive theatre piece that gives audiences a visceral sense of the absurdities and inequities of immigrant and refugee protocols in the U.S.
- It’s Business as Unusual for Theatres’ Finance Directors. In addition to our regular updates about the impact of COVID on all aspects of theatrical life, in April Allison Considine spoke to the folks in the back office struggling to make the balance sheets work in the face of an unprecedented and unforeseen crisis.
- The Actor’s Life Goes On, Minus a Script. Also in April, Jerald Raymond Pierce covered the uniquely harrowing challenges faced by performers, some of whom had caught COVID in rehearsal and/or given it to their loved ones, and many who had gigs still on the books but were scrambling to rearrange their housing, travel, and finances.
- If You Build It, Will They Come? With the help of some theatre architects, Kate Mazade imagined what theatre may look like—and feel like—in a post-COVID future in this April piece.
- Tired but Not Daunted in the Twin Cities. Jerald Raymond Pierce filed this report on June 1, roughly a week after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, about the responses to this outrage by the city’s theatres and cultural workers, from grief to protest to strategies for radical repair.
- Where’s the Orchestra? A Lockdown Requiem. This moving Shrishti Matthew piece from late June profiled Broadway and orchestral musicians as they struggled both to make ends meet and stay sane in the face of joblessness and wild uncertainty. One lifeline? Music, of course.
- She Just Won’t Give Up: The Life, Times, and Tenacity of Vinie Burrows. Among many lively Q&As we did this year with writers, performers, and administrators, Nathaniel Nesmith’s frank and free-ranging July chat with an Off-Broadway legend stands out for its widsom and vivacity.
- Me Here, You There: What Happens Between Us in the Dark. We don’t want to play favorites, but among the many beautiful personal essays we published this year, this one by Crystal Finn stands out as a deeply meditative and piercing testimony to the unique intimacy of live theatre, made all the more excruciatingly poignant by the current absence of that connection.
- Theatre in Belarus: We Will Never Be the Same. In August, after Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko violently cracked down on protests of his deeply suspect reelection, thousands of protesters took to the streets in resistance, including leaders of the nation’s typically apolitical state theatres. Playwright Andrei Kureichik’s defiant essay in defense of freedom of speech and assembly has lessons for anyone in solidarity against oppressive state power.
- How I Broke My Theatre Fast With a Celebration Called ‘Quince.’ Also in August, Allison Considine reported on her first live theatre experience since March: a festive outdoor gathering a mere bike ride away from her Brooklyn apartment.
- Masked and Raging, Ohio Students Make a ‘Spring Awakening.’ Finally, while we published a lot of stories this year about theatre folks, both students and professionals, finding innovative ways to make Zoom or quasi-live theatre work against the odds and reach new audiences, we especially relished the telling details captured by Andrea Simakis in this November report about Ohio theatre students who pulled off a hybrid film-and-stage production of their big fall show.
Till next year: Read on, and tell us what you think!
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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