I supposed I am not easily impressed by numbers. I credit this to my skeptical attitude towards statistics and the ways in which they can be altered so as to be appetizing for an potential audience with potential money. While that skepticism can be useful, I find it increasingly difficult to get excited about progress in the theater, mainly because I know that there is always so much more work to be done. This is why I was both excited and, a little bit skeptical, when reading American Theatre Magazine this weekend.
Every year American Theatre Magazine posts the most produced plays and playwright of the year. This year out of 2,159 productions at 386 theatres, Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar sits at the top of the list with his play being produced 18 times and he as a playwright being produced 21 times. This is amazing for many reasons. Disgraced deals with issues of race, gender, class, and the ever controversial topic of the war on terror that sprung from the 9/11 attacks. It is also sits in the modern moment so audiences can easily reflect on its potency and how their own life can be related to the characters. While this is a triumph for the american theater scene to have a playwright of color at the top of this list I think there are some more statistic that are worthwhile to look at.
Of the 2015-2016 top produced plays Disgraced sits at the top followed by a list of plays by two women, August Wilson, and the rest white men. This is only the third time a playwright of color has been at the top of the list. Not included on this list, because they are done so much, is Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet and Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Of the top 20 playwrights produced this year the list includes three playwrights of color, two females, and there rest are white men. While there is nothing wrong with programming white men in our theaters, it is important that we understand that this list reflects how theaters are dealing with the modern moment and using theater as a vehicle for change.
Based on these numbers I have to say that I am just as impressed. Our theatrical society seems be made of “exciting exceptions full of diversity” for a hot minute and then go back to a comfortable stasis of white old male playwrights. To truly launch american theater into a standard that reflects the times we must be more aware and start acting on the impulse to challenge our audiences. Artistic Directors and programming committees need to be optimistic about their audiences ability to take theater that is difficult and process it. There is nothin wrong with Tennessee Williams but the reason why he was so potent during the 40s and 50s was that his work was reflecting the society in which he lived. We need to do the same. It’s not enough to just program Disgraced but further create seasons about the modern moment.
So, although I am still not impressed by numbers I can say am impressed by progress. Looking back at the top 10 lists from previous years I can understand how far we have come from only producing old white men in our theaters to at least flirting with the idea of programming plays and playwrights that reflect the modern moment. I care about the ways in which theaters are responding to the world and challenging their theater goers. I think the programming of plays is an amazing place to start and I look forward to reading more lists in the coming years.
Check out the Top 10 Lists and hash it out yourself!