On a tip from Sheila Regan that my list of the year’s top ten plays was creating “a bit of a stir” on The Callboard, a local theater discussion site, I registered for an account and took a look at the comments. It turns out that the stir wasn’t about my aesthetic taste (“The Seafarer made me puke!”) or about my potential conflicts of interest (“Did you see that he’s Facebook friends with Savannah Reich?! I’m just saying”). No, it was about the very concept of a top-ten list, with discussion involving just how many plays one needs to see to have a fair idea of what the “best” were.
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So how many plays do you need to see to create a valid top-ten list? I saw 50, which is a lot, but still only a fraction of the universe of local productions. On the Callboard thread, Max Sparber noted that “just as a point of comparison, when I was writing for City Pages I saw between three and five plays per week, every single week, every year for three years; I generally reviewed at least three of those. And I would say I saw, at best, two-thirds of the plays that were available to see.” Given that there are almost certainly more plays to see now than there have ever been in the past, by that math I saw fewer than a sixth of the plays that were available to see this year.
Dominic Papatola at the Pioneer Press has also published his top-ten list, and having seen it I’m forced to revise my assessment that I saw “the large majority of shows that would be serious contenders for any 2009 top-ten list.” Of Dominic’s ten top shows, two also appeared on my list (The Seafarer and Some Girl(s)), one I’d seen but had not included on my top-ten list (Tiny Kushner, which I enjoyed but not as much as Dominic did), and fully seven of the ten I hadn’t seen at all—though two of those (Ruined and Becky’s New Car) were reviewed by other Daily Planet writers. The Star Tribune’s “High Fives” highlighted even more strong productions that I missed.
So there you have it—my list is limited by what I saw, and I saw a lot less than there was to see. (For a complete archive of my reviews, click on my name at the top of this blog entry.) I don’t feel the need to apologize for seeing only the shows I saw, though I can shed some light on the Callboard discussion as to whether or not seeing plays is “my job”: to state it precisely, I’m a part-time employee at the Daily Planet, and I draw pay each week for 18 hours of editing and other administrative work. I see plays on my own time and receive $10, the same as any of our other writers, for each review.
When MinnesotaPlaylist gets back on its feet, hopefully its administrators will resume posting a near-comprehensive list of Minnesota productions so that next year each list-maker will have a master catalog of plays to compare his or her own list against. Regardless, none of us will be able to see everything, and every critic in town is going to miss some great stuff. (I would not have guessed that I was missing the boat by not seeing Power Balladz, but Dominic informs me otherwise.) At least for those of us who are in the happy position of being able to assign ourselves to cover only the shows we want to see, this is a matter of self-selection: I’m going to see the shows that I most expect to enjoy, and in most cases I’m probably guessing roughly accurately.
So a top-ten list, then, becomes a list of my favorite shows among the 50 shows I was most interested in seeing (and that my schedule permitted me to attend). And that’s what you have. Even if I had seen all the hundreds of shows that were out there to see, the list would still reflect my personal preferences and aesthetic biases. If nothing else, I hope it sheds some much-deserved light on shows both big and small that I thought were truly exceptional.
Photo: Salvador Dalí (Jon Mac Cole) and two of his “liquid ladies” (Savannah Reich, left, and Kait Sergenian) in Dalí-DADA.