what were the 2010s?

The Decade in Theater: Six Closing Thoughts

From Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz. Photo-Illustration: Illustration by Ari Liloan; Photo by Paula Court

Trying to sort the last ten years into some kind of cycle, some sort of neatly designated Age, has been driving me loopy. Are there trends in our plays? Sure. Does the theater hold a mirror up to nature? Of course. Yet while nature herself shifts from the meandering Holocene into the smash-and-grab Anthropocene, some things are still so slow to change. Mountains still stand, and, hey, for comparison, here’s the last ten years of Tony-winners for Best Play: Red, War Horse, Clybourne Park, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, All the Way, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Humans, Oslo, Harry Potter, The Ferryman. A few powerful plays in that list, though it’s largely middlebrow guff. American theater tastemakers clearly love the imprimatur of tradition: Five are from Britain, and nine reach backwards, in source material or in concern. The Humans is the only one written about a contemporary group of people, without obvious referent to an earlier work of either history or art. And you can draw your own conclusions about how the filter for Broadway Snob Hit (trademark: William Goldman) seemed to select only for white men.

But if you look away from the awards podium, there was a sea change. Our theatrical decade was split in half, actually, with the last comforts of the 2000s dying and the age of austerity rising. One New York era faded (of experimental collectives) and another began (the Influencer Playwright); we lost and then regained our belief in documentary theater; we dealt with major habitat degradation and resource-diversion; and we’ve suffered a crisis of confidence in theater’s purpose, which, based on our near-hysterical insistence on the “importance of stories,” you can tell is still at low ebb. A decade of macerating in social media has given us that loneliness-in-a-shouting-crowd sensation. But theater has been there, plugging along, reminding us how actual crowds function and think.

1. Let’s start positively!

The era was flush with wonderful plays and musicals, some of which vaulted over the low wall between the Theater and the Rest of the Culture. Sometimes, this happened for…not good reasons. For instance, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was such a disaster-vortex that it gave gifts that would feed some of us rubbernecking ghouls forever. In 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton were the ambassadors of a riotous, accessible, Shakespearean experience. The Broadway performance was still reserved to those who could afford its stratospheric prices (which in turn changed things about the show itself), but the wider impact of Hamilton was a Renaissance for the form—the re-cool-ing of theater, the free “Ham for Ham” outdoor performances, the reach of the score, the spread of some of the stars like Miranda and Daveed Diggs into cinema, the fusion of sounds from Broadway and hip-hop. No one has managed to imitate it yet, but perhaps its descendants are just offstage. You can, though, see the increasingly youthful and diverse audience at musicals as a tribute, as well as the political gumption of seemingly unrelated pieces like A Strange Loop.

That flow between theatrical and popular culture kept some people paid: Playwrights went from making money in television in 2010 to making money in television in 2019, though now they’re sometimes also showrunners. As television kept getting stronger at “thinking the long thought”—once the purview of serious theater—these writers came back to the stage to explore impulses too creepy (Tom Bradshaw) or language too dense (Adam Rapp) for TV. Wide-scoped culture writers who also wrote about film or television wrote truly important pieces of performance criticism. On stage, the drama took back some of its wild physical beauty, thanks to rising design-forward producer-venues like Ars Nova, which rocketed through the decade from strength to Broadway to big new Off Broadway space; the now-powerful Park Avenue Armory, which brought glorious European spectacles that encouraged everyone to re-embrace ’80s design maximalism; and the once-scrappy Clubbed Thumb, which started transferring its most successful productions into longer runs (Men on Boats, Constitution). And more nonprofits followed Roundabout and Manhattan Theater Club into Broadway production. Second Stage bought the Helen Hayes Theater, which has been punching hard from its first season—Lobby Hero, Straight White Men—and New York Theatre Workshop, even without a theater, has become downtown’s most-represented uptown success, with many superpowered transferring productions, like Once, Hadestown, Slave Play, and more.

2. Then there’s all we lost.

The 2000s were brutal financially for the New York performance scene: first the massive granting organization Altria ($7 million per year to local artists) left town in 2007, and then the financial crisis struck in 2008. These body blows took a few years to hit the theater; budgets kited along for a few years and then crashed in this decade. The 2010s were also poisonous for print theater journalism: By 2018, the Times had given up on tri-state coverage, The Village Voice was dead, the Post and News had dumped their critics, other outlets were thinned down to shadows of their former selves. Each wound seemed unacceptable at the time, but it’s hard to remember what’s missing once it’s gone.

We also lost a number of the theatrical collectives that had made the best art of the decade. Some still sort of exist but have lost their main constituent members (Waterwell, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Hoi Polloi); some left the city (Banana Bag & Bodice, Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, Witness Relocation, Jay Scheib & Co., the Builder’s Association), some couldn’t sustain the costs of a repertory company (the Pearl Theater). Those that have survived in place (the Debate Society, Elevator Repair Service, the Mad Ones) have been hanging on in the gale wind for the whole long ten years—and no new theater collectives have risen to anything like their prominence in the latter half of the decade. The 13P project, in which thirteen playwrights banded together to produce work as their own artistic directors, deliberately ended in 2012—and though it left behind a how-to manual, no other well-received gang has followed their blueprint. Even the unkillable heroes the Wooster Group had to raise funds via Kickstarter earlier this year: No group is safe.

As for the avant-garde and work from abroad, since the international circuit has faded and funding has dried up, we’ve lost several important festivals like the glitter-fabulous dance festival American Realness, the January fests Other Voices and COIL, and the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. We lost the Off-Off hothouse P.S. 122 when it rebranded as Performance Space New York (it produces just a few shows a year now, many of them talks or one-night-only showings), and the places that share the old 122 sensibility—Abrons Arts Center and the Skirball Center at NYU—have modest programming schedules, with weekend-long runs (Skirball) or short seasons (Abrons).

Venues, though, are mostly replaceable. People who are not: María Irene Fornés and Neil Simon and Ntozake Shange and Marin Mazzie and Hal Prince and Jan Maxwell and Edward Albee and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Roger Rees and Liz Swados and Marian Seldes and Fred Neumann. Still, the death of composer-lyricist Michael Friedman (The Fortress of Solitude, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Gone Missing), an artist just entering the full stride of his genius, is, for me, the most painful bereavement of this decade. He was going to be one of the defining artists of the century; his writing, already wildly inventive, was getting fiercer and deeper with every show. The sorrow of losing him as a person alternates with the fury of losing everything he was going to make. Michael told me once that he had a whole book of things to say about musical theater—how it works, how it works on us—but that he didn’t want to write it down while Stephen Sondheim might still read it and disagree. That unwritten book still wakes me up in the middle of the night.

3. So what were the big middle-level institutions into this decade?

Physical improvements! Lots of places got a glow-up, like the new zhuzhing of Classic Stage, which has turned its grotty old ex-stable into a very fancy ex-stable; St. Ann’s Warehouse finally stopped ping-ponging around DUMBO and settled into an exquisite space in the old Tobacco Factory. Theater for a New Audience built its own handsome Polonsky Shakespeare Center in 2013; the Flea built a multi-story spot in the Financial District; Brooklyn Academy of Music added the BAM Fisher to its suite of theaters, many of which got a full redesign in 2019. When Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Annie Baker—theater’s biggest playwriting stars of the decade—did a public talk at the Center for Fiction this year, they were asked what they saw as the biggest change for young playwrights. Both praised the flourishing of new microspaces inside larger institutions, particularly LCT3 (completed in 2012) and the minuscule Roundabout Underground, which opened in 2007. Certainly it’s been the place to find Roundabout’s best stuff, like Bad Jews and Usual Girls. Fewer daily critics meant less critical attention paid to other stand-alone small spaces like the New Ohio, so centralizing the fringe and bringing that level of programming “in house” put many playwrights in the public view who might otherwise have been missed downtown.

Every New York story is a real estate story, and New York is always in a struggle for her soul. She’s so desperate to be pretty, to be world-class, to have shiny elevated parks and glitzy mall-slash-housing complexes, and she uses art as a way to claim that these luxuries are actually for everybody. But are they? Two grand openings from 2012 reveal the warring impulses of all this renovation and expansion. 1) Jim Houghton (now also much-missed) opened the Pershing Square Signature Center, home to the Signature Theater, a sprawling, no-frills concrete café and bookshop with dozens of tables free for work and meetings, occasional zero-cost live music, and subsidized, low ticket prices. 2) The Public Theater’s glowing new makeover, still lovely seven years later, features a gorgeous lobby with difficult-to-spot seating upstairs, a luxe and expensive second-floor bar called the Library, a snazzed-up Joe’s Pub, and no apparent ticket initiative. I’m torn. On the one hand, the gilding of workaday venues to comfort rich patrons is galling, but also it was ever thus—the wealthy have been underwriting theater since Pericles. Both places are crucial in our theatrical ecology, and I would never wish the Public ill. But … what sort of theater bar is it where the actors can’t afford a drink? What message does that send?

4. When people gather to talk theater, they spend 10 percent of their time on the art and 90 percent on the gossip.

The scandal that defined New York theater in the 2000’s was the 2006 My Name Is Rachel Corrie dust-up, when New York Theatre Workshop pulled its production (about a woman who died under Israeli bulldozers in Gaza) after pressure from Jewish groups. So many things about that mess are purely 2000s-specific—it was largely discussed in the New York theater blogosphere, for instance, which no longer exists. But we still hear its echoes. When more than 6,000 people signed a petition to take down Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play last year, the Workshop already knew what it felt like to cancel a hot-button drama—and it wasn’t interested. Instead, Slave Play moved to Broadway, Harris invented both the Black Out and ticketing-as-reparations (patrons can pay it forward by sponsoring a less wealthy person’s ticket), and Rihanna showed up. New controversy has only fed the show’s legend, with fights reported in the audience and a furious talkback comment going viral on Twitter, and now Harris is a late-night-TV sensation and literal cover model for Out magazine.

Harris simply…refused to be canceled. This doubling-down in the face of public embarrassment also worked for MacArthur fellow Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins, whose turbulent decade began with a truly bizarre scandal in which an actor in one of his shows e-mailed out some insults about it, which were then picked up as a kind of news story by the Voice. Jacobs-Jenkins went to Berlin and was prepared never to come back, or so he said in his Center for Fiction talk. But Sarah Benson at Soho Rep pestered him for the play; he rewrote it; and that version of An Octoroon went to the moon. An Octoroon might well have been the finest play of the decade, but I’m not willing to make all the plays fight.

I’m such a weenie about listening to fights, in fact, that I’ve only ever skipped through the audio of the signature 2010s scandal: Ira Glass retracting a 2012 episode of This American Life that had featured selections from Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Glass was furious that Daisey’s show had contained dramatic elisions and fictional elements when Glass had believed it was fact-checked journalism, and he asks Daisey point-blank in this episode about whether or not the showman had been deliberately misleading. The excruciating … pauses … in that piece of radio are my idea of hell. It’s rare that a controversy about a show in New York gets so much national attention, and once it went wide, the conversation got very flat very fast. We never really reasoned our collective way through it. Daisey was wounded, both apologizing and insisting that he had the right in a theater to make a piece of theater (a place where lies stand for truth all the time); Glass was wounded because his own credibility was on the line; the audience was wounded, since they’d been made to feel foolish for assuming that Daisey’s confessional man-at-a-desk delivery meant that the details were accurate. And the political purpose of the show, to expose the human cost of Apple products made in killing conditions in China, was swamped completely—outrage at Daisey, rather conveniently, let everybody stop worrying about child workers and keep their iPhones.

It was this diverted purpose, really, whatever the ethics of the situation, that seemed to have a chilling effect. Would there have been more documentary-style theater in the 2010s without this debacle? Would audiences have listened to the verité performances they did hear—Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field, for instance—and leapt more readily into action? You can’t prove a negative; I can’t show what’s not there.

But two major pieces of political theater of the late 2010s did respond, either consciously or not, to the Daisey chain of events. Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down asks audiences to meditate on the black person most recently killed by police as they participate in her play/ritual—the fact that she doesn’t have to tell us a name because there is always a new one lies like a stone on our hearts. Harris refuses to be precise, and thus she’s always truthful. At the other extreme, we have Tina Satter’s Is This A Room, the stunning production that closed out the decade at the Vineyard Theater. Taken verbatim from an FBI transcript, the play lets us listen to three officers confront the NSA contractor Reality Winner in her own front yard; we watch in real time as she realizes that she’s been caught leaking a classified document about Russian hacking. There isn’t a lie anywhere in the play…just, you know, the big one that squats in the center of our body politic.

5. Theater is “conversation at a distance.” Theater is “thinking in public.” So what happened to conversation and thinking?

Well, the 2010s have been the everyone-has-a-smartphone-and-an-Instagram-and-a-Twitter-account decade (I got mine late), which is another way of saying we all moved into the New Dark Age. The human brain tends to deal with too much information in the same way that it deals with too little information—it sorts it all into “useless” and turns, in desperation, to superstition. The more we learn, the more we’re sure that the greater part of the truth is hidden.

So we become conspiracy fans and Serial addicts, and, in the theater, we steered increasingly into the Weird. I’ve seen two plays in the last two months about young women joining witchy covens; my favorite show of the decade, Sasquatch Rituals, looked with seriousness at Big Foot theorists; the Performa festival in 2017 opened with a crystal healing workshop. (“They’re like the jewels of the earth,” our workshop leader said both accurately and hilariously.) We believe everything all at once; we hear mysterious rumblings under the earth; we wonder what we’ve summoned out of the deep. Anne Washburn, the playwright who broke through into national consciousness with her Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, started the decade with a one-act called The Small, a brilliant bijou about someone discovering an uncanny object in an organic grocery store, which oozes slightly and might bring down the whole order of things. I think of it often.

Telephone brain also made us need to engage with attention as a vanishing resource. Some shows got extremely brief—Constellations on Broadway was so short I’m still irritated about it. I am going to need you to stretch to more than 70 minutes, guys. But then there’s the show that was this decade’s patron saint, not least because it kept showing up whenever we needed a miracle. The six-hour-long Elevator Repair Service show Gatz, in which an office grunt (Scott Shepherd) reads out the entirety of The Great Gatsby as an ensemble acts it out around him, arrived at the Public Theater in 2010, and then went on tour, and then came back to the Public in 2012, and then went again on tour, and then returned to the Skirball Center in 2019. The show has basically occupied the city for the entire ten years. If the 2010s theater has a flag, it’s probably a tatty blue button-down.

Purely aesthetically, Gatz is a hell of a show—the writing’s pretty good, you know—but it has been more that that. The alchemy of marathon production turns into the cure for our decaying ability to focus. Every time I thought, this time information overload has broken me, I don’t know how to pay attention any more, the show arrived again, a boat pushing against modernity’s current. In its fundamental nature, it demonstrates the value of dedicated attention—and then it holds us steady for long enough that our own attention heals. I hope it comes back forever.

6. The arc of the 2010s was characterized by a growing sense of fearfulness and powerlessness.

The decade was, for many in the theater, a great surging hope broken in the middle by a terrifying disappointment. The “discourse,” which is a term that has come to mean almost nothing yet makes everybody anxious, is both loud and disconnected from how the country actually makes its decisions.

There’s a question that we’re all asking ourselves, all the time. Is theater pointless? Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day (his 1985 first play, rewritten and revived this year at the Public) is an extended meditation on how creativity can counter fascism, and he comes up with zero, bupkus, the big goose egg. Michael Chabon quit his position at the MacDowell colony with an inarguable essay about realizing art doesn’t actually make a difference in a burning world. These are careful thinkers. How can they be wrong?

So, these days, I’m taking spirit from The Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Yep! A book of essays about, among other things, how black academics can decolonize the university makes me think that the theater might be worth a little something after all.

In their writing, Moten and Harney reject immiseration. They reject defeat. Above all, they call for study as a means of revolution. Prepare for what will come, they say, so that we can be “embedded in the with and the for” of the revolution rather than in the institutions that restrict us. Most of society is dedicated to fitting us to purpose: Work and school grind us into the proper shapes for further grinding. But study can set the mind free from these old forms and tyrannies. Study can teach us how to jam the machines. Even further, Moten and Harney ask us to seek out wilderness that isn’t simply “left over space” but rather a self-propagating wild, a “call to disorder.” Now—that sounds familiar.

The theater is a kind of wilderness. No one owns it. It’s hard to make money on it, so you can get pretty far in without seeing any big developments. People have always seen theater people as destabilizing outsiders—actors were once buried outside churchyards and sometimes, like vampires, at crossroads. The mind in a theater seat is at its most free and ungoverned; the rules that are supposed to moderate normal life aren’t useful there. Theater isn’t tactful, isn’t honest, isn’t right, isn’t a map to a better world, isn’t well-planned, isn’t fair and balanced, isn’t a good campaign strategy, isn’t careful, isn’t kind. It doesn’t stand up to examination. It doesn’t offer a step-by-step. It doesn’t reveal its sources.

What if we thought of theater as big wilderness corridors, cutting through all the polite, useful, domesticated stuff that makes up most of life? What if we stopped trying to tell people what not to do in the theater? What if we just abandoned all talk of how silly it is to spend time there instead of at a protest? Ecologically, we already know that we need wilderness so the world can breathe. Purposelessness is itself a kind of sacred purpose. A theater is a place for chaos, thievery, destruction, misrule, recklessness, imagination, adventure, courage, provocation, and possibility. Throw your MFAs into a bonfire! Forget the rules! The wilderness has always been the place for wild beasts—but also hermits on their pillars. Don’t despair if you don’t find an obvious mission there. Go back into the wild. It’s where saints go to study.

The Decade in Theater: Six Closing Thoughts