Months before world events made 2020 a remarkable—and remarkably difficult—year, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and I had a conversation about something that happened in 1997. That year, The Paris Review dedicated its Spring issue to the theater. The team assembled a tall stack of Art of Theater interviews and held a contest for verse drama. (According to George Plimpton, plenty of submitters were unaware of the verse stipulation, but the editors considered their work all the same, and lucky for us: one of the winners was a young Martin McDonagh.) They published three plays and five interviews, and a magazine that fairly adamantly avoids themed issues had, if not a theme, then an organizing principle for the quarter.
As 2020 began to take its unfortunate shape, I called Branden again. While The Paris Review went remote with relative ease, I could not help but worry for our peers in the performing arts, groups of creatives in NYC and elsewhere for whom the new workflow of VPNs and videoconferencing meant their work couldn’t flow. Though a magazine can’t replicate the experience of the theater or protect our dramatic peers from the pandemic/recession, we can reaffirm and support this admirable art form, in the way we know best: by publishing it. George had worried that “often the lines of a play feel flat on the page without the agency of actors to give them life.” We, too, encountered plenty of brilliant plays that will need actors to truly sing. But these three excerpts—of a verse drama about race in America by Claudia Rankine; of a shape-shifting, time-erasing “ghosting” about the musician Oscar Levant by David Adjmi; and of Kirk Lynn’s latest, which animates the threat and beauty of the natural world—hold their own on paper as bold, compelling pieces of literature.
This bounty of plays and the completion of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Art of Theater interview (after several years of conversation) signaled that a sequel to the ’97 theater issue was finding its form. Then the auspicious alignments started: Erin O’Keefe’s photos evoke the joyful sleight of hand so often apparent in set design; the protagonist of Jack Livings’s “River Crossing” is a playwright. These resonances and others felt equal parts coincidence and kismet. So, with a respectful nod to TPR’s history, and a hopeful one to the future when actors can take the stage again, we hope you enjoy the issue.