The most relentless force this past summer—after labor strikes, climate change, and Barbie memes—was the cottage industry of gloomy takes on the American theatre’s imminent collapse. The coverage was prompted by a gutting new wave of closures, layoffs, emergency fundraising campaigns, and season reductions. But the repetitive framing of the live-from-rock-bottom reporting was exhausting, like reading a dispatch from the world’s most depressing limbo contest: How low can we go?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that theatres across the country are battling intersecting crises: extreme subscriber decline, tapped-out donors, dwindling audiences, burnt-out staffs, long-overdue calls for living wages and pay equity, and inflation. (A friend of mine recently said, on the state of the field’s finances: “The question isn’t, ‘Does your theatre have a deficit?’ but rather, ‘How big is the deficit?'”) As a result, season planning has transformed from an exercise in eclectic puzzle-making to an Herculean quest. How does a theatre balance its ambition, values, and budget in the Wild West of the coronavirus’s senior year?
In her recent essay “Decomposition Instead of Collapse,” Annalisa Dias proposed reframing this tumultuous time as a pathway to new paradigms. “There won’t be a single magic remedy for the whole field,” she writes, “We need to build a solidarity economy of ideas.” Relinquishing the status quo is a delicate, terrifying, and necessary process. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and it won’t look the same for every organization. This year’s season listings at TCG member theatres feature escapist fare and the requisite holiday season cascade of Christmas Carols—but there is also an abundance of artistic dexterity, calculated risk-taking, and glimmers of possibility.
The creative output of Broadway and New York nonprofit theatres has always had an outsized influence on regional programming. The irony is that many of these plays originate at regional theatres, either as commissions, workshops, or readings. This year’s Top 10 Most Produced Plays list showcases several examples: James Ijames’s Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham digitally premiered in 2020 at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (and is headed back there next month), while Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play was commissioned by and premiered at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., in 2018, months before its Off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons.
The year’s lineup is also notable for its commercial bent: Of the nine plays on the list, seven have had recent Broadway runs. The visibility of a New York production can catapult a play into multiple regional seasons, regardless of its initial profitability or the currency of New York Times reviews and Tony recognition. (Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, which makes its second consecutive appearance on the list, also offered live broadcasts during its Broadway run, increasing accessibility to non-NYC audiences—though a comedy by a two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright would generate substantial regional interest regardless of its digital reach.)
Beyond the reliable mix of New York exports and prize winners, American Theatre editor Rob Weinert-Kendt’s analysis of the Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights list noted a preponderance of literary adaptations. Whodunits and mysteries are familiar season elements, and a new thriller joins the ranks of the Top 10 alongside Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and last year’s surprising resurgence of Clue: Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Dial M for Murder. The spin on Frederick Knott’s 1952 suspense drama offers an irresistible combination: a recognizable title, a popular genre, and a five-actor ensemble.
Small-cast plays are obligatory elements in season planning calculus, and the popularity of Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing points to the field-wide trend of programming solo performances. (Several companies—the Huntington, Woolly Mammoth, Theater J, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Playwrights Horizons—are presenting multiple solo offerings.) It’s easy to dismiss the plethora of one-person shows as a budgetary response, but that discredits the range and depth of artistry. Theatres are platforming performers reimagining classic texts (Adil Mansoor’s Amm(i)gone, Bill Irwin’s On Beckett, Lisa Wolpe’s Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender), personal narratives of identity and belonging (Sun Mee Chomet’s How to Be a Korean Woman, Alaudin Ullah’s Dishwasher Dreams, Madeline Sayet’s Where We Belong), and hybrid storytelling (Jenn Freeman’s dance-driven exploration of her autism diagnosis Is It Thursday Yet?; Alexandra Tartarsky’s unhinged blend of clowning and cabaret Sad Boys in Harpy Land; John Jarboe’s Rose: You Are Who You Eat, a “true story of gender cannibalism set to music”). Solo performances centering artists of color, undertold lived experiences, and genre experiments can serve an organization’s artistic mission while accommodating financial constraints.
In addition to smaller casts, many companies reduced the number of productions in their seasons. Last fall, Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced massive cuts to its 2023 season, with five plays scheduled in its regular repertory, down from 11 productions in 2019. (After launching an emergency fundraising campaign this spring, the company will produce nine plays in its 2024 lineup, including four one-person shows.) Other large organizations opted for similar cutbacks: In 2019-20, Arena Stage and Portland Center Stage both announced 10-play lineups; for 2023-24, the two theatres are producing 6 and 8 productions, respectively. Recent reductions have been more drastic, like Center Theatre Group’s suspension of all programming in its Mark Taper Forum, the Public Theater’s elimination of the Under the Radar Festival, Lookingglass pausing performances until next spring, and a last-minute full season cancellation at Artists Repertory Theatre. The ramifications are painful, especially for a labor force debilitated by multiple waves of furloughs and layoffs. But these losses should be reframed as opportunities to interrogate institutional scope, reallocate resources, and build healthier structures for artists and workers.
Despite the myriad contractions, many theatres are gambling on extravagant projects. There’s a notable influx of musicals in this year’s listings, as companies risk higher production expenses in exchange for wider audiences and increased box office potential. But theatres aren’t shouldering the costs alone, as many new musicals are attached to commercial producers. The appeal of enhancement money and future profit-sharing is understandable after years of scant revenue; it’s hard to resist the possibility of a passive income stream if the project becomes a rare runaway hit. (Every theatre would love its own Hamilton or A Chorus Line.)
The cost-splitting strategies extend beyond big-budget musicals. The 2023-24 listings include a wealth of co-productions, with jointly produced work comprising more than half of some theatres’ lineups. Co-productions among regional theatres have been a cost-effective season staple for decades. But over the last two years, there’s been a rise in local co-productions, as theatres in the same city or region pair up to produce, instead of the usual long-distance partnerships. There are countless artistic and financial reasons for co-productions (e.g., collaborator affiliations, the project’s development history, the cost of large ensemble casts or elaborate designs), but as companies struggle with house capacity, pooling resources—and audiences—with a nearby theatre is a tactical move.
The local co-pro phenomenon spans nationwide, with companies jointly producing in Pittsburgh, Boston, San Diego, Chicago, D.C., and Off-Broadway. Theatres are also forging relationships with other arts institutions: Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Opera teamed up for an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, the Goodman’s immersive wrestling extravaganza Lucha Teotl is produced in association with the National Museum for Mexican Art, and Theater Mu in Minneapolis is partnering with the Walker Art Center and collaborative winter festival The Great Northern for its run of Aya Ogawa’s The Nosebleed.
Local collaborations are also reflected in programming, as multiple theatres embrace community stories and partnerships. Baltimore Center Stage’s inaugural Locally Grown Festival celebrates performers, makers, and collectives from a cross-section of artistic disciplines, ranging from puppetry to spoken word. Long Wharf Theatre, which adopted an itinerant model after leaving its theatre space last year, will present a roving production of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in homes and other intimate spaces across the New Haven area. Three years after Penumbra Theatre announced its evolution into a center for racial healing, the Minneapolis company will augment its artistic explorations of Black life with public equity workshops, creative residencies, and culturally informed wellness services for the community. Last month Milwaukee Repertory Theatre premiered Run Bambi Run, a new rock musical about one of the city’s most infamous true-crime sagas, while Kelvin Roston Jr.’s Twisted Melodies at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis explores the legacy of soul icon Donny Hathaway. (Hathaway, like writer and performer Roston, is a St. Louis native.)
Other theatres are deep-diving into hyperlocal neighborhood lore. Tami Dixon’s South Side Stories Revisited is a sequel to her 2012 one-woman show exploring the eclectic lives of long-time residents near Pittsburgh’s City Theatre Company. Three new works by D.C. playwrights anchor Mosaic Theater Company’s H Street Oral History Project Festival, an ambitious venture with the D.C. Public Library to preserve the historically Black neighborhood’s past through interview-based art. Kelly Kerwin, Emily Zemba, and Listen&Breathe’s Of A Mind: Oklahoma City is an audio-guided theatrical walking tour through the titular downtown area featuring local voices, sounds, and music.
The investment in local arts ecologies bets on a new version of the American theatre—one more committed to the idiosyncratic needs of the communities it purports to serve. The dominant narratives of industry-wide despair obscure the imagination and possibilities blooming amid the substantial uncertainty. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the field’s broken economics. The 2023-24 season is a testament to creative agility, as theatres slowly accumulate and test-drive their own remedies in an ever-shifting landscape.
Lauren Halvorsen (she/her) is a dramaturg and writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the weekly theatre newsletter Nothing for the Group.
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