Theaters around America appear to be staging fewer shows than they were before the pandemic, but a lot of the work they are doing is by Lynn Nottage.
An annual survey by American Theater magazine, conducted this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic, found that Nottage’s sandwich shop comedy, “Clyde’s,” will be the most-produced play in the country this season, with at least 11 productions. The survey also found that there were 24 productions of Nottage plays planned this season, which ties her with the perennial regional theater favorite Lauren Gunderson for the title of most-produced playwright in America.
“Clyde’s,” which had a well-reviewed Broadway production starring Uzo Aduba that opened late last year, is peopled by characters who previously served time in prison, and its mix of laughter and social commentary, plus Nottage’s stature as a two-time Pulitzer winner, apparently appealed to those who program theater seasons. Among those staging the play are the Arden Theater Company in Philadelphia, the Arkansas Repertory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theater, Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and TheaterWorks Hartford.
“‘Clyde’s’ just hit the sweet spot — it has a multiracial cast, it addresses issues of incarceration and racial tension, it’s a comedy, and it’s really smart, and it’s by a Pulitzer winner,” said Rob Weinert-Kendt, the editor in chief of American Theater and an occasional contributor to The New York Times. “It’s a comedy, but it’s not turning away from the world.”
Nottage, in an email, said she was pleased the play was finding an audience.
“‘Clyde’s’ is a play about people trapped in a liminal space. It is also about community, healing, creativity, mindfulness and forgiveness,” she said. “I’m really quite humbled to be back on the most-produced list with this particular play, which speaks to the moment, as it is about the process of resurrecting one’s spirit and finding grace in the simple business of living.”
The finding that fewer productions are being mounted is troubling, though not surprising — artistic directors around the country have been saying that they were ramping back up slowly after the pandemic shutdown because audiences have not come back in prepandemic numbers. The American Theater lists are based on a survey of theaters that are members of Theater Communications Group; in the 2019-20 season, respondents reported planning to stage 2,229 full-run shows; this season, even with the first-time addition of audio and streaming shows, as well as productions on Broadway, the count is only 1,298.
The survey, which counts both plays and musicals but excludes work by Shakespeare and variations on “A Christmas Carol” (because there are so many productions they would swamp everything else), finds more diversity than in the past: Six of the 13 most-produced plays are by writers of color, and nine of the 22 most-produced playwrights are writers of color.
Notably, though composers are not tracked by the survey, work with songs by Stephen Sondheim is experiencing a spike in popularity since his death last year, with at least 19 productions planned around the country. (In New York, there are three: “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway this summer; “Merrily We Roll Along,” running at New York Theater Workshop this winter; and “Sweeney Todd,” coming to Broadway next spring.)
After “Clyde’s,” the other most popular shows include some crowd-pleasing entertainments — a stage adaptation of “Clue,” the musical “Once” — alongside more challenging fare, like Nottage’s play “Sweat.” After Nottage and Gunderson, the most-produced playwrights are Matthew López, August Wilson and Dominique Morisseau. The complete list is at americantheatre.org.