The end of 2019 brought a double whammy of cultural ‘best of’ lists: not just best-of-the-year rundowns, but also assessments of the best of the decade.
When reading such lists, it’s important to keep top of mind that they are mislabelled. The lists are not ‘the best’ – rather they are a critic’s ‘my favourite’ list, since you’d be hard-pressed to find a critic including a work of which they write: “It’s utterly brilliant, though I didn’t care for it at all.” The other problem with such proclamations is that they aren’t legitimately comprehensive in all but a very few cases, given constraints of time and geography.
This comes to mind as, for the third time, I take a moment to look back at what I have seen in the previous year. I can report that my theatregoing has rebounded a bit, from a surprisingly low 88 shows in 2018 to 108 in 2019. That count doesn’t include multiple productions of Our Town, which I saw as book research, and felt weren’t representative of my typical yearly theatregoing. My total is also a bit surprising given that a severe back problem kept me out of theatres for nearly a month.
Statistics of where I saw theatre are rather unsurprising: 29% of my theatregoing consisted of Broadway, while 62% was Off-Broadway. The remaining 9% was split more or less equally among a handful of regional productions, London productions and those that are hard to pigeonhole, such as a musical at Sing Sing prison. More than two thirds of the work I saw was new, and that doesn’t include new adaptations of existing material or return visits to new work I’d seen in the past year or two.
What remain unchanged, even with 20 more shows under my belt, are the percentages of work I saw that were written by women and by artists of colour. They are static in comparison with 2018: 30% of the work I saw was written by women and 25% by artists of colour, even accounting for fractional participation on collaborative work. In all cases, I have made my best guess, since race and ethnicity is not always evident. I saw only two pieces by artists with a disability and none so far as I know by trans authors.
My mind rushes first to the excuse that my theatregoing reflects the major work on New York stages, and that is certainly a factor. Work offered by Broadway producers and the largest subsidised companies dominates my roster, and I can attribute that to trying to stay current with the work that might be most appropriate to consider in this transatlantic column. I can claim that I am merely reflecting the tastes of those who bring work to the stage, but from another perspective, I am complicit because I cannot use my platform here to discuss work I didn’t see. And there’s so much out there.
However, my theatregoing didn’t just stick with my own tried and true. The past year introduced me to nearly two dozen artists whose work I had previously not experienced, most of whom are early-career playwrights. That list includes, and I’m sure I missed a few, Will Arbery, Jaclyn Backhaus, Aziza Barnes, Eliza Bent, Christopher Chen, Jordan Cooper, Isaac Gomez, Dave Harris, Michael R Jackson, Nambi Kelley, Matthew Lopez, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Rehana Lew Mirza, Anaïs Mitchell, Liliana Padilla, Abby Rosebrock, Tina Satter, Alexis Scheer, Crystal Skillman and Amir Nizar Zuabi. They contributed to a very rich year of theatregoing and I look forward to seeing more of their work.
My inability to diversify more fully the range of voices I hear is something I feel I must improve upon in 2020. But as I continue to lay bare my personal statistics in this regard, I challenge others – general consumers, freelances and staff professionals – to do so as well.
Even if not everyone publishes their analyses, it becomes something they know for themselves. Individual responses to such an enumeration will hopefully help shift ingrained habits and ultimately strengthen the support for diverse works in which we all can share.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/