What’s In A List?

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in American Theatre magazine

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Among the things TCG is best known for—its annual national conference, its far-reaching artistic and management programs, its lovely Manhattan conference room—arguably its most popular yearly feature is American Theatre’s “Top 10 Plays” list, which each October gives a snapshot of which shows are slated to receive the most productions in the coming season. Apart from Broadway box-office grosses, it’s the closest the theatre world gets to the Billboard charts or the New York Times bestseller list. Each year, the list quite rightly gets a lot of attention for highlighting trends and rising stars of the American theatre. Next month’s announcement should be no exception, and this year we’re doing something new with this data: On Sept. 16, we’ll preview a Web-exclusive list of the season’s “Top 10 Playwrights” (a hint: Female playwrights seem to have made noticeable gains).

Last year, the “Top 10 Plays” list got more attention than usual when the Wall Street Journal’s indefatigable critic and blogger Terry Teachout decided to look back at the previous 10 years of TCG’s Top 10 lists and do some numbers-crunching of his own. His conclusion was roughly that American theatres privilege new plays over the classics too much. With all due respect to Mr. Teachout, there were some problems with his math and with his conclusions: For one thing, we intentionally exclude Shakespeare from the list, because he surpasses all other playwrights, living or dead, by orders of magnitude (this coming season: 115). For another, the way the Top 10 list is garnered each year is by taking all the season announcements we receive by our deadline from TCG member theatres all over the country (and only TCG member theatres, by the way) and putting them into an Excel spreadsheet. Teachout used the shows that cracked the Top 10 list each year to do his math, but lacking those full season spreadsheets, he was likely to miss the tortoises for the hares: Hot shows that got intense bursts of productions in a few seasons, and hence showed up in the Top 10 lists, were likely to overshadow warhorses that trudged along below the Top 10 year in, year out. I pointed this out on my own blog, The Wicked Stage (where I had also previously used TCG’s spreadsheet to do my own calculation of most-produced playwrights), and my colleagues, Parabasis’s Isaac Butler and 99 Seats’s J. Holtham, also chimed in, while Boston theatre blogger Art Hennessey started doing the math for his hometown theatres—and Teachout stayed involved in the discussion in comments on various blogs, too.

Perhaps the most valuable outcome of the discussion, apart from the fact that it happened at all and included so many voices, was that folks discovered how to harness the TCG database, and started doing their own numbers-crunching. Butler had an interesting post on this, as well as another on the separate issue of what you might call runaway Shakespearean production.

Consider this, then, a preliminary salvo in the rich blogospheric discussion we hope this year’s list(s) will inspire. And if you want to tool around the database yourself, it’s here (a clue if you’re searching for playwrights or productions: “Advanced Search” is your friend).

  • http://twitter.com/aaron_fool Aaron Heinsman

    Theatre and number-crunching…it’s like both sides of my brain just got chocolate on their peanut butter…or is it peanut butter on their chocolate? At any rate, love it and look forward to the list!