Ronald Reagan, miraculously recuperated from an assassination attempt, was gearing up his second Presidential campaign – against a Democratic ticket with a woman, no less, in the V.P. slot. Los Angeles was sprucing up for a XXIIIrd Olympiad summer extravaganza. Glengarry Glen Ross was a gleam in the Pulitzer committee’s eye, but The Real Thing was selling more tickets on Broadway. The evening news was rife with images of disasters in Bophal, Beirut and a California McDonald’s, but Hill Street Blues and Cheers offered a measure of reassuring familiarity on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Roseanne still had a single-syllable last name, and nobody had ever heard of Beavis and Butt-head.
It was April 1984,
American Theatre’s first issue appeared that month on U.S. newsstands with an American icon – Sam Shepard in cowboy hat and flannel shirt, brow furrowed against the sun’s glare, cigarette dangling – on its debut cover. The new publication was feted with champagne, cheese and good-humored comments from publisher Peter Zeisler (the issue was in his hands, after all, oozing Shepard mystique!) at the New York Department of Cultural Affairs auditorium on Columbus Circle. Among the celebrants that day were three members of the fledgling magazine’s board of advisers – John Hirsh, John Houseman and Alan Schneider-who would not be present to contemplate its 10th-year anniversary this month.
There have been 109 editions of American Theatre since Shepard glowered from that first cover, and while many elements have remained constant – Zeisler’s prickly editorials, the trend-revealing compilation of national theatre schedules, a savvy eye trained on Washington and the politics of arts patronage – the issue you now hold bears evidence of changes, large and small, made over the years,
Perhaps the most dramatic came in June ’92, when a full-color cover and a sleek redesign, supervised by New York-based graphic designer Michael S. Aron, gave American Theatre new visual and editorial impact. A new Individual Charter Membership program initiated last year has increased the magazine’s steadily growing circulation by more than 25 percent, creating an estimated readership of more than 80,000 in the U.S. and abroad.
Other changes have been incremental. American Theatre evolved (during a year-and-a-half planning and production process) from Theatre Communications Group’s 11-year-old monthly newsletter for theatre professionals, Theatre Communications, which by early 1984 was bursting at the seams with information and feature material, Although dance, opera, classical music and other art forms had their own national publications, there had been no general-circulation theatre magazine in the U.S. since the fondly remembered Theatre Arts folded in the 1960s. Zeisler and his TCG publications team – deputy director Lindy Zesch, publications director Terence Nemeth and me as editor – saw the transformation of TC into AT as an undertaking whose time had come.
The inclusion of playscripts was planned from the magazine’s inception, but it was more than a year before the expensive and time-consuming process of play selection, editing and publication began. With eventual funding assistance from the California-based Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre, the playscript series has given readers first access to a remarkable range of new works and has become one of the magazine’s most valued features.
From the beginning, the list of writers contributing to American Theatre read like a who’s who of notable theatre critics and commentators – among them have been Eric Bentley, Misha Berson, Eileen Blumenthal, Robert Brustein, Roger Copeland, Richard Eder, Michael Feingold, Elinor Fuchs, Richard Gilman, Mel Gussow Jonathan Kalb, Jan Kott, James Leverett, Todd London, Charles L. Mee Jr., Benedict Nightingale, Julius Novick, Marc Robinson, Gordon Rogoff, Scott Rosenberg, Richard Schechner, Don Shewey, Alisa Solomon, Jan Stuart, Ross Wetzsteon and Matt Wolf.
Nurturing writers to follow in such distinguished footsteps soon became a priority, and with the advent of an innovative Affiliated Writers program created in tandem with The Jerome Foundation, the magazine began to offer support and mentorship to a new generation of theatre writers – resulting in such memorable articles as Robert Coe’s “Verona, Mississippi,” a powerful account of Cornerstone Theatre Company’s interracial production of Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Miss., that may serve as the basis of an upcoming Steven Spielberg film. Writer-development assistance from The James Irvine Foundation, in the form of a California Commissioning Fund, supported essays on the impact and after-math of the Los Angeles riots by on-the-scene commentators Allan Parachini and Susan Albert Loewenberg.
But the magazine’s profound impact on the nation’s theatrical culture cannot be evoked by citing individual articles from the hundreds that have appeared in American Theatre’s pages. A clearer measure of its indispensibility may be the fact that many readers (not to mention editors and staffers) find it hard to conceive that the publication doesn’t predate Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination speech, Glengarry Glen Ross or Hill Street Blues. “I’ve been reading American Theatre ever since I was high school,” an actor well into middle age recently confided by way of a compliment, “and I’ve saved every issue.” “That’ll be valuable collection one day,” I assured him.