This is part of a season preview package.
Until not too long ago, the arrival of fall was marked not only by the return of students to school, the yellowing and orange-ing of autumn leaves, and the ever earlier introduction of pumpkin spice. Each October for decades, American Theatre would survey the theatre field for its season programming plans and publish a fat preview issue crammed with our findings: what shows people were planning to put on their stages, which plays and playwrights would receive the most productions, what a cross section of the field was most looking forward to and why.
The 18 terrible months of COVID-19, in whose grip we are still squirming even as liberation beckons, may by now feel so much like a slow-motion quagmire, a chronic condition that is now the state of our world, that it is almost hard to recall how suddenly and abruptly the “before times” were cut short. Along with the production plans and school curricula that were shelved or repurposed since March 2020, this magazine temporarily ceased publishing print issues and focusing our efforts entirely on this website. This was not because, as we quickly discovered, there was any shortage of things to write about—as it turns out, a field in crisis, upheaval, contingency, and reckoning has more than enough going on that cries out for journalism, reflection, and commentary.
There was, however, no fieldwide 2020-21 season to speak of, and hence no season preview issue. There have been, of course, outdoor and roving performances, drive-in cabarets, and a rich array of virtual offerings, from Zoom to Twitch to radio plays and podcasts; many theatres have already returned to indoor performances and even mounted the equivalents of full seasons of programming. Indeed, as the summer of 2021 unfolded and vaccines rolled out, a light at the end of the COVID tunnel seemed at last to be gleaming, and there was accordingly a rush of planning for a triumphant return of the theatre season for the fall 2021. We responded with an unprecedented plan of our own: to produce a season preview issue akin to the once-thick print editions of American Theatre, entirely online.
The result is an embarrassment of riches, if we may say so, starting at the top with our first comprehensive online listing of national season plans (of all the TCG member theatres who managed or found time to submit them). It’s not quite the same as flipping through print listings—it might be better? Mileage may vary. (And yes, for those who remember TCG’s old Theatre Profiles and its Advanced Search feature: Our new listings are not yet quite as nimbly searchable as those, but now that they’re up and running, we are planning improvements.) At press time, the listings comprise 994 entries from 210 TCG member theatres. To compare that to a “normal” season, our 2019 listings comprised 2,229 entries from 385 member theatres. Clearly the U.S. theatre, at least as represented among TCG theatres, is not quite roaring back to pre-pandemic levels—and who would expect it to? (Note to latecomers: The list is live and can be added to via this form.)
We’ve also got a series of check-ins with a variety of theatre workers and emerging leaders, and in-depth examinations of topics that likely would not but probably should have been on the agenda of fall previews in any other year: the opportunity for the expansion of the theatre audience and artistry created by the past year-plus’s spate of digital productions; the related possibilities for more responsive and diverse digital criticism; and the deep-seated skepticism, vying with guarded optimism, of many theatre workers of color as they contemplate their return to a predominantly white field that has been challenged to change by the past year’s racial reckoning but remains a work in progress, to put it mildly.
Also a work in progress: the whole concept of a theatre “return.” Even as the Delta surge has scrambled some plans and dimmed the incipient triumphalism of early summer, there are threads of hope to cling to: Broadway has begun to reopen with strict vaccine and mask requirements, and as yet has seen no cancellations or closures (unlike the vaccine-agnostic, mask-optional West End), and theatres in many major cities have followed suit. And while some theatres have indeed pushed or scratched production plans, on the evidence of the sprawling listings in this preview package, there’s no gainsaying it: Theatre is already happening all over the place—including on screens and in earbuds, let’s not forget—and despite strains and stresses, shows remarkably few signs of folding in the face of the pandemic’s crushing uncertainty.
Is this persistence stubborn denial or blessed resilience? The reluctance to abandon the sunk costs of best laid plans, or the leap of faith we will need to make it to other side? Are we rushing heedlessly back to “normal,” or have we internalized the lessons and reflections of the past year-plus? I go back and forth on all these questions, honestly. One thing I am as sure of as ever, though: As long as this drama continues to unfold on U.S. stages, you’ll read about in our pages.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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