Looking through our top performing posts of 2021, one thing is crystal clear: Our industry must do better. Last year’s top posts included many news items about the industry closing down amid the pandemic and planning its way back, both online and outdoors. This year brought us the one-year anniversary of a pandemic that seems to offer more variants than potential end points. But it also included the continued push for change across the field.
Certainly, last year had its share of calls for more equity and diversity in the theatre industry, and perhaps those early months, especially those following the death of George Floyd, proved the potential strength of solidarity. But across our Top 10 list below—and I’m willing to assume the same is true of many publications that cover theatre—it’s clear that whatever “normal” might have been before, and whatever “normal” might have meant had theatre reopened after a month or two, is long gone. And honestly? Good riddance. If the below highlights anything, it’s that the field has needed this time to start to fully grapple with how deep the problems go.
It’s really wonderful to think there are better ways to do theatre that we’ll reach one of these days (*knocks on all the wood*). At American Theatre, we fully intend to continue covering this field’s lurches forward, examining the problems while championing those who bring solutions. Though this past year also marked the one-year anniversary of our last print issue (we do have plans to return to print, for which all your support is welcome), we still offered these five special themed packages:
- We looked back on the year of COVID closures and pandemic adjustments.
- We worked with an advisory panel of artists from the Deaf and disabled community to create this package on disability justice and inclusion in the field.
- We prepared a series of reports on what seemed like a trend over the summer of 2021: theatres preparing to take it outside.
- We also published this cautious season preview in September, as theatres began welcoming audiences back to in-person programming.
- Finally, we offered this wide-ranging look at how education and education programs have changed (and not) after a year and a half of pandemic and protest.
Throughout this work, we have also been covering the continued evolution of theatre being recorded, broadcast, and live-streamed online—which, much to my personal dismay, is not represented in our top 10 (you can find all or most of this coverage here).
That said, one of our most popular pages, and indeed an addition to the website that we take great pride in, has been our On U.S. Stages listings, which debuted with our September season preview and includes both in-person and online offerings from TCG member theatres across the country. (If you’re a member theatre and you don’t see your company listed, use this form. If you’re interested in joining TCG as a member theatre or affiliate and seeing your company represented, head here for information.)
Now I’m going to present you with a Top 10 list—with the brief caveat that the year isn’t quite over yet and, as one piece below will show you, we’re very much still publishing as we near a holiday break. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 most-viewed stories we published this year, plus a list of stories that we believe deserve another look.
2021’s Most Popular Posts
- Immersive Theatre That Left Scars: Behind the Collapse of Serenbe Playhouse. Jim Farmer dug into the allegations of racism and unsafe working conditions at Serenbe Playhouse under its former leader, Brian Clowdus. Somehow the photo of Clowdus with Jacob Chansley—the “QAnon Shaman” who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for his role in the Capitol riot—is not the most shocking revelation in this piece.
- Boards Are Broken, So Let’s Break and Remake Them. One of the first articles published this calendar year was this column from Michael J. Bobbitt, as part of our What Is To Be Done series. Boards are a crucial part of nonprofit organizations that often go under-discussed, but Bobbitt here offers suggestions for how to approach a group that often has no one to whom they have to be accountable.
- A Teaching Moment for Juilliard. It’s impossible to imagine the sort of shock and trauma experienced by Juilliard student Marion Grey and her classmates during an orientation exercise that included an immersive soundscape of cracking whips, chains, slave auction talk, and racial slurs. Editor-in-chief Rob Weinert-Kendt reported on what Grey called “Slavery Saturday” and the deeper concerns students at Juilliard have around the treatment of the program’s Black students.
- An Offstage Tempest at American Shakespeare Center. Allegations of unsafe working conditions, racism, and overall inappropriate conduct had already led to the ouster of former leader Ethan McSweeny, but this story, which I co-reported with Rob, got into the details with folks on the front lines. As with many stories like these, what shines through is the desire of those left in the wake of a bad situation to see the company and the field in general do better.
- Karen Olivo: Leading by Leaving. When Olivo abruptly announced she wouldn’t return to Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! when it reopened, in protest over what she sees as the field’s exploitative and abusive practices, it sent a shock through the community. In this Q&A with Rob, Olivo spoke frankly about why the push for a better environment and way of producing on Broadway meant they needed to step away.
- Gender and Sexuality on Broadway: You Oughta Know Better. Skyrocketing into the top 10 after being published just last week is Christian Lewis’ look at how Broadway is handling gender and sexual diversity. In 2019, after Christian published another top 10 post, “The Gender Problem Tootsie Can’t Dress Up,” Rob wondered what Christian would say about Mrs. Doubtfire. He got his answer here, along with thoughts on Jagged Little Pill and the Katrina Lenk-led revival of Company.
- Invisibility and Objectification Can Kill: American Theatre’s Anti-Asian Problem. In the wake of the slew of anti-Asian hate and violence happening across the country earlier this year, former senior editor Diep Tran took a deep look at the consequences of the continued portrayal of racist stereotypes and erasure in a still primarily white field.
- A Heart Broken, Also Full: What Sondheim Gave Us. The theatre world lost a giant this year, and many have offered their thoughts in tribute to the life and legacy of Stephen Sondheim. In our online pages, Rob offered his personal reflections, while in this tribute, composer Jeanine Tesori highlighted Sondheim’s incredibly deep love for and dedication to the art form and its practitioners.
- Micki Grant Blazed a Trail, From Poetry to Broadway and Beyond. This piece wasn’t originally intended to be an In Memoriam tribute; it began with Nathaniel G. Nesmith, who’s made a specialty of interviewing sometimes overlooked theatre figures from the 1960s and ’70s, speaking to Grant, best known for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, in early August about her storied career. When, on Aug. 21, Grant died, Nesmith’s Q&A with the award-winning composer, lyricist, actor, and all around theatremaker offered a fitting tribute to a woman who still had much left to say.
- Touch the Wound, But Don’t Live There. “We love trauma onstage,” Sarah Mantell writes in this look into the vulnerable, potentially scary work of performing trauma onstage and the vital work that must be done to keep thetare artists safe. The field has fight choreographers to keep actors physically safe, but who is looking out for theatre workers’ mental health?
ICYMI: In Case You Missed It
We Are All Theatre Ghosts Now, But Poised to Return. As part of both our special package reflecting on a full year of theatre closures and our Dispatches From Quarantine series that grew during that time, Francesca Carpanini offers these beautiful musings on a day from her childhood when she visited New York and Broadway during an electrical outage. A middle school ritual of hers reminds us all of the legacy of theatre, and of the ghost lights that have guided us back to the stage.
Practicing Disability Justice, Honoring Wholeness Onstage. We already mentioned our special package on disability justice and the theatre, but this piece by Lydia X.Z. Brown is a real standout for its wide-ranging look at the inaccessibility of theatre—both in its physical spaces and in the stories told on its stages—for disabled artists, and at the efforts those artists are making to advocate and create space for themselves.
‘You Could Be King’. If the most storied portrayers of Shakespeare’s iconic roles have been white men, how can a young Black man growing up ever hope to see himself in those roles? It’s a question many performers faced growing up, and I had the opportunity to speak with a few, including the legendary André De Shields, about the value of building a legacy of Black representation in Shakespearean work.
Seeking a Director of Color? Now There’s a Database for That. Rob reported on an open-source spreadsheet launched by director/playwright Kareem Fahmy to give artistic directors across the country an easy-to-access list of directors of color, which ideally will eliminate any excuse that artistic leader couldn’t find or didn’t know where to look for a director of color to work with.
Broadway May Be Back, But Who Is It For?. In the midst of a historic season on Broadway for Black playwrights, Kelundra Smith takes a balanced look at what is to be celebrated, and what is to be met with caution. Is this a hopeful sign of change to come, or yet another flash in the pan for representation?
Actors’ Equity Blows Open the Doors. When Actors’ Equity Association announced its Open Access policy, opening the door for any actor or stage manager who has been paid to work on any stage to join the union, the internet was flooded with questions. Rob and I talked to a slew of experts from around the country on how this decision could impact the way the industry functions.
‘Why Is Every Single Thing I Say a Problem?’. Over the last two years, theatre has welcomed a new cohort of leaders of color into its ranks, with artists of color being selected as artistic or managing directors at historic (and historically white) institutions, as well as the addition of a number of associate artistic directors. One of those hires, Artists Repertory Theatre’s managing director Kisha Jarrett, sat down with fellow leaders of color to discuss the challenges they’ve faced from those unwilling to accept their leadership.
The Familiar and the New: Teaching Black Plays in Jewish High Schools. Lonnie Firestone, using examples from both Pipeline and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, discusses the nuanced benefits of incorporating Black work and Black artists into the classroom at Jewish schools, and the clear impact the work has had on students.
Maya Phillips: ‘I Absolutely Believe in Criticism’. Not even halfway through her fellowship with The New York Times, Maya Phillips was brought on full-time as a critic at large. Continuing in his regular series of Q&As with incoming and outgoing critics covering theatre, Rob talks with Phillips about her interests outside of theatre, her thoughts on the role of criticism, and what it’s like being a critic in the age of social media.
The Theatre Industry’s Internship Problem. One movement that has gained sustained momentum during the pandemic has been the one to end unpaid and underpaid internships. Rosie Brownlow-Calkin, using Lift the Curtain’s data from more than 1,6000 current and former interns accounting for over 400 institutions, brings this list of 2021 stories full circle with a look at the kind of just-paying-your-dues exploitation of free or cheap labor that is among the “normal” theatre practices we’re happy to have in the rearview as we end 2021.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!