When American Theatre published its first print issue in April 1984, the American theatre looked a lot different than it does now. It was whiter and straighter and more male then, yes—though there were portents of change, even in Ronald Reagan’s reelection year. Also in April of that year, August Wilson opened his first professional production with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Yale Rep, kicking off a meteoric and hugely influential career, while David Mamet won the Drama Pulitzer for Glengarry Glen Ross, arguably reaching the peak of his achievement.
Mamet’s play beat out Fool for Love, a signature work by our first cover subject, Sam Shepard—who, despite his butch cowboy image, made his bones on the Off-Off-Broadway Caffe Cino scene of the 1960s and ’70s, an experimental mecca that was countercultural and queer-friendly. Just the year before, Marsha Norman had bested his True West for the Pulitzer with the anguished ’night, Mother. Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, about a drag queen’s quest for love and family, was in the midst of a multiyear run on Broadway. And while predominantly white theatres thrived in most major cities, troupes like El Teatro Campesino, East West Players, Crossroads, and Penumbra were producing full seasons of work by, for, and about communities of color. In short, you could find a hearteningly wide scope of American life onstage if you knew where to look for it, even 40 years ago.
This magazine has always been a good place to look for it. From the start, we’ve shone a light on theatre artists and workers and their work at all levels. We’ve celebrated their triumphs, honored their efforts, lifted their struggles, aired their disputes. We covered the toll of HIV/AIDs on the profession, reported from the frontlines of the NEA culture wars of the ’90s, clocked the recession of the late 2000s, and reckoned with the industry’s painful contraction since the pandemic shutdown.
That last trend we’ve addressed mostly online, as we weathered our own shutdown of sorts, pausing our print publication in May 2020. Now that we’re back on ink and paper, I have frequently been asked: Why now? Isn’t this a counterintuitive move, given the state of the American theatre, let alone of publishing?
One good reason: We published full original playscripts in print (185 in total), and we return to that tradition with Ryan Haddad’s compassionate, complicated Dark Disabled Stories in this issue. (You can and should subscribe by going here.)
But the bigger reason we’re back is that we surveyed you, the readers, earlier this year and got the clear message that you want something to hold in your hands, to contemplate and digest and take your time with. It may not be true of all magazines (hello, stack of New Yorkers on my desk), but a print publication about the ephemeral art of the theatre seems an apt way to place a regular marker amid the churn of openings and closings in a way that the daily drip of the internet, optimized for news and quick responses, doesn’t.
This issue, one of four we’ll print between now and next summer, also features full preview listings for the 2023-24 season across the U.S., as well as two features from our new Chicago office, made possible by the Walder Foundation, which has charged us with putting a special spotlight on that city’s vibrant theatre scene and given us the resources to do so.
In a profile by Rad Pereira, costume designer and human rights activist Qween Jean makes the case for hope and liberation, as does her smashing cover portrait. I like to think that somewhere Sam Shepard—not to mention this magazine’s founding editor, Jim O’Quinn—is smiling.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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