I’m surely not the first theatre lover who has noticed a family similarity between dramaturgs and arts journalists/critics. Both of us are called on to reflect, contextualize, and frame the art onstage rather than shape it ourselves, and we use some of the same skill sets: research, reporting, cogitation, analysis, self-interrogation.
So I always feel a twinge of kinship, not only when I talk shop with dramaturgs (or follow them on Twitter), but when I see the public work many of them produce in theatre playbills, on websites, and in public forums. Many write with incision and circumspection about the art form, and talk to the same folks on the same subjects as my colleagues and I do. And the affinity is sometimes not theoretical at all, as my colleagues and I occasionally appear on panels and write for theatres’ in-house publications, and conversely, a fair number of the writers we’ve published have training or employment in dramaturgy.
Among the best at this game in New York City are Lincoln Center Theater, whose LCT Review programs are always keepers; Soho Rep, which makes a point of offering scripts of their plays for sale at the theatre and which has curated a rich channel of content online and in person under the name Feed; and Playwrights Horizons, the Off-Broadway powerhouse that has helped launch the careers of everyone from Albert Innaurato to Lynn Nottage, from A.R. Gurney to Annie Baker (and has been no slouch in the musicals department either, i.e., Falsettos, Sunday in the Park With George, Grey Gardens, A Strange Loop). Alongside this solid onstage programming, the company also consistently produces some of the most engaging content about the plays on their stages, both online and in their live symposium series, which in my experience are a distinct cut above the usual talkback drudgery.
Now, in part due to the downtime of the pandemic and its related exigencies—the need to connect, and the chance to reflect—PH is getting into the magazine business, in a way, with Almanac, a new publication that has already begun to put some of its first issue’s content online but will have a full release as a full PDF, designed by Jordan Best, during the week of Feb. 8 (with an actual print edition still reportedly in the offing). In an introductory essay, “Making an Almanac,” incoming PH artistic director Adam Greenfield calls the magazine “a snapshot of artistic thought in a time of seismic change.” Put another way, in a wide-ranging dialogue with fellow writers about the future of the art form, playwright Brittany K. Allen says, “I am so curious about what other people’s brains look like right now.”
Almanac peers into the craniums of a number of fascinating playwrights and theatremakers—Will Arbery, Mia Chung, Raja Feather Kelly, Sylvia Khoury, Clare Barron, and Rodrigo Muñoz, among others—and also offers reflections on the legacy and history of the theatre itself, from its scrappy founding in the famously seedy Times Square of the 1970s, detailed in a lively essay by May Treuhaft-Ali and illustrated in an idiosyncratic multimedia collage by designer David Zinn, to its contemporary prominence.
Strikingly, there’s also an essay by Almanac editor-in-chief and PH dramaturg Ashley Chang (she/her) looking back at the theatre’s 1987 premiere production of Driving Miss Daisy through the lens of demands by the We See You White American Theater movement, among others, not only for greater representation but for a redress of past injustices. “If a play we produced has caused harm,” Chang writes, “then how might we make repairs?”
Chang is the reason the magazine exists, Greenfield (he/him) said in an interview last year.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were having such robust conversations in staff meetings about how we felt and how the world was responding,” Greenfield recalled. “I remember at one point, Ashley said, ‘I think we need to start a magazine,’ and I said, ‘Okay—and you’re gonna be the editor-in-chief.’”
Though she was relatively new to her post at the theatre when the shutdown began, Chang wasn’t starting entirely from scratch. PH already had a strong content game, as mentioned above. What’s more, Chang pointed out, it’s a building positively teeming with wordsmiths of various kinds. Almanac, she said, “feels of a piece with how the theatre works: We have so many writers on the literary staff and the artistic staff.” That means, in addition to the many playwrights and artists who’ve contributed essays and playlets and other pieces, “a sizable chunk” of the writing in the magazine is by PH’s own staff, from contributions by Chang and Greenfield to literary manager Lizzie Stern’s reflection on the “rules” of art-making and institution-building.
Chang said she saw Yale’s Theater magazine as a model for Almanac, but she also had another antecedent in mind.
“This is a deep cut, but I think another touchstone piece might be Hamburg Dramaturgy by G.E. Lessing, the granddad of dramaturgy, from the 1700s,” Chang told me. She described Lessing’s influential work as “a series of essays about introducing audiences to new ways of seeing and thinking about theatre. I think we’re doing something similar here by inviting artists to share their thoughts, but also inviting folks on staff to meditate on the work that they’re doing. What does it mean to be a literary manager? And how do you account for movements like Black Lives Matter in your work and in your practice as an arts administrator and producer?”
Indeed, at a time when “artists and theatre artists and playwrights have a lot of questions, and rightfully so, about institutions, how do we as a theatre institution open that up and create a place where that kind of dialogue can happen?” Chang mused. She thought about the callouts and social-justice organizing that has been happening on social media , and while she hailed Twitter as “a really essential venue for politics and for agitation,” she wondered, “How do you slow down some of those conversations and expand upon them, especially for us as a theatre company?”
It’s a natural avenue for a theatre company to explore, as plays themselves can have a similar slowing-down-and-expanding effect on the subjects and stories they dramatize. I think of my colleague Helen Shaw’s lovely formulation, that theatre is where we go to “think the long thought” (and feel the long feel, I might add). And I think of what Adam told me about his own intimate connection to the work of the theatre he has barely had the chance to take the reins of as these multiple challenges have arrived.
“I’ve always been interested in the ways in which I personally learned valuable lessons from plays, and took those lessons into major life decisions that I made,” he told me. He thinks of Playwrights Horizons, he said, as “not just a place where you go see plays; it can also be a center for the exploration of the ideas around new work.” For now, in lieu of bodies onstage exploring those ideas for bodies eagerly assembled in theatre seats, having a beautiful magazine in hand—well, that’s a consolation prize I well understand.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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