Amongst the treasure trove of material hosted on the American Theatre Wing website, the archive of four decades’ worth of Working in the Theatre episodes is, perhaps, the crown jewel. Though its format has evolved over its history, the central focus of the Wing’s classic series has remained unchanged: learning about the process of making theatre directly from those who do it.
In 1973, then-Wing President Isabelle Stevenson began hosting a series of informal post-performance talkbacks in theatre lobbies under the name Working in the Theatre. By 1979, the series had evolved into a more formal panel discussion held bi-annually, and CUNY-TV began recording them for broadcast. Since its inception, the program has featured approximately 1,500 of New York’s most exciting theatre artists, including performers, producers, playwrights, directors, designers, choreographers, composers, agents and many others.
In 2005, the Wing began the exhaustive process of archiving nearly the entire series online at AmericanTheatreWing.org. This online archive currently receives nearly 60,000 cumulative views a month, reaching a daily audience that’s roughly equivalent to a large Broadway theatre’s sold-out house.
In 2014, more than 40 years after Isabelle Stevenson introduced it to the world, Working in the Theatre underwent its most significant format change to date. The Wing decided to revitalize the series, in an effort to dig even deeper into the craft of live theatre. The panel discussion format was dropped, and a documentary film series was born.
For Wing President Heather Hitchens, the change was about more than just shaking things up. “Because we were working in a visual medium—television/video—and because we have access to such interesting people and things—it just seemed natural to move to a format that would allow us to show and tell,” says Hitchens. “The result is that we are able to go deeper and our audiences are able to learn and absorb more by seeing and hearing.”
The new format also meant the series could document theatre outside of New York City for the first time, which it began doing in 2015. “We are the American Theatre Wing and there is so much interesting theatre happening all over the country,” Hitchens points out. “The impact is that our archive will be fuller, richer and more reflective of what’s happening in theatre not only in New York, but nationwide.”
Film crews were able to document and highlight regional work and artists from coast to coast. A recent series of episodes follows the “Rolling World Premiere” productions of Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts in Maryland, the Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Dallas Theater Center in Texas. It offers viewers an unprecedented look at the play’s development over successive productions, along with showcasing the challenges of transforming a production to fit in entirely new spaces.
It seems the new documentary format is striking a nerve. Working in the Theatre’s traffic and social media engagement numbers have seen dramatic increases since the format shift in 2014. The Wing saw a 60 percent increase in followers on Twitter, a 145 percent increase in Facebook likes and a staggering 2,248 percent increase in Instagram followers. As for the video content itself, the amount of cumulative minutes watched on YouTube increased 273 percent.
In fact, the series is doing so well that even people outside the theatre industry are starting to take notice. Working in the Theatre was nominated for a 2016 Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences for Online Video—Documentary Series. The nomination means that Working in the Theatre has been named one of the five best online documentary series worldwide, beating out entries by PBS, Time magazine, CNN and VICE Media that were not selected for the voting round. For any web series, the nomination is quite a coup. For a theatrical documentary series, the honor is unparalleled.
“It is always gratifying when your work is recognized,” Hitchens shares. “We had a gut instinct… a vision for this series that we felt was right and forward thinking, but you never truly know if you are right until you try it and see if it works and how people respond to it. So, the Webby Nomination and the increase in our engagement numbers together make us feel really good about what we are doing on behalf of the American theatre.”
Fans of the original format will be happy to know there is still a place for conversations among artists about theatre. In April, the Wing held its first ever Working in the Theatre–Live panel, a complement to the documentary films and a return to the format of the classic episodes. Frank Rich moderated a conversation with playwright Stephen Karam, director Joe Mantello and the entire cast of The Humans on the set of the current Broadway production. And of course, the discussion was captured on video to be included in the series’ online archive.
Working in the Theatre has the unique ability to both preserve the past and keep its gaze firmly towards the future—quite an achievement and, more importantly, an invaluable asset to the artform.
“Theatre is the most ephemeral of art forms,” Hitchens says. “Working in the Theatre allows us to preserve so many wonderful moments in the theatre that would otherwise be lost to history.”
Logan Culwell is a theatre historian, Playbill’s manager of research and curator
of Playbill Vault.