Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Four new plays and maybe one classic"

I'm not as patient as my friend and colleague Art Hennessey, so I just did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation this morning against the current seasons of our major local theatre producers: the Huntington, the ART, the New Rep, SpeakEasy Stage, the Lyric, Merrimack Rep, Company One, the Central Square Theater, Zeitgeist Stage, and Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

I decided to class plays into three categories - "Brand New," as in a premiere or written in the last year or two; "Newish," as in written in the last decade plus; and "Classic," meaning at least twenty years old.

The numbers I got for the current season are the following:

Brand New - 76%
Newish - 12%
Classic - 12%

That's right - more than three-quarters of the plays on our major stages this season were written in the last two or three years. Almost 9 out of 10 were written in the last decade or two.

If you throw in the Actors' Shakespeare Project, our only local troupe dedicated to the classics, this moves the numbers a bit, but not much:

Brand New - 72%
Newish - 11%
Classic - 17%

Recent work still accounts for something like 83% of our productions. And I'm not even looking at the seasons of fringe and start-up groups, like Whistler in the Dark, which skew quite strongly toward new plays or self-generated work. Nor did I include the new-play "slams" or festivals or marathons that have sprouted like wildflowers in the last few years.

Now I know my friend and colleague Art Hennessey has taken on the mammoth task of tabulating the whole area's output for the past ten years. Which I think is a worthy project - but my impression has been that the production zeitgeist has been moving toward new work for some time now; it will be interesting, in fact, to see if Art can demonstrate the declining trend in classic work on the local stage. Certainly right now we have three or four Boston theatres which are essentially dedicated to new work, and many more which present it frequently. The "four classics and one new play" theatre-season cliché has become a canard as far as Boston goes. Indeed, the new model is obviously "four new plays and maybe one classic."


  1. There is NO question that the decade is skewed toward new or newish work.

    It should be said though that Boston Playwright's is exclusively devoted to Brand New Plays, but your addition of Actors Shakespeare probably offsets that nicely.

    Teachout seems to be right about some of the masters being far-far outpaced by newer work - at least here in Boston.

    Chekhov, as I wrote on my blog, is the exception, but take away the ART penchant for producing a Chekhov every year and he suddenly drops below Conor McPhereson, Richard Dresser and some others.

    Sure, individual new writers like say, Adam Rapp, have a hard time fighting off Moliere or Chekhov, but those old masters, even combined, can't begin to hold ground if the "New Voices" are taken as whole.

    At least that is what I am seeing right now.

  2. As the emerging picture is showing that new plays are being produced in great numbers, we have to attend more to the real problem, which I suspect is that a disproportionate number of the new plays are reaching the stage by means of a patronage system that privileges work by MFA playwrights over work of equal or greater merit by non-MFA playwrights.

    That's my hypothesis, anyway.

  3. Boston may be an outlier in this regard - it looks like Isaac Butler has found a database that reveals that classic authors other than Shakespeare are being done in substantial numbers after all. My guess is that they're being done in universities and the Shakespeare festivals, but it's good to hear that they're being done somewhere. So why don't we see them in Boston? Perhaps, as Ian might suggest, because we're so MFA-program centric?

  4. I think it might be useful to get some data on new plays by MFA versus non-MFA playwrights.

  5. Remember though, Thom, when viewing Isaac's data, (he warns of this) you are only viewing the playwrights he specifically searched on, (which are the one's Terry mentioned.)

    As a whole, it is mostly new work. If you took all the Ronan Noone's Melinda Lopez's, Lydia Diamond's Kirsten Greenidge's, Richard Dresser's, Sinan Unel's etc, and added them up together, my hunch is that they would dwarf everybody but the Bard. In other words, "substantial numbers" is very relative.

    And I imagine that TCG's data includes festivals, etc.

  6. I understand that, Art - my only point is that Teachout's claim that the other classic authors had virtually "disappeared" isn't quite true. Like you, my hunch is that new work is still outweighing classic work in general, particularly in our "theatre towns." The balance is probably being somewhat rectified by college companies and Shakespeare festivals.

  7. However, even if Teachout is accurately describing national trends, it's to be expected that there will be local deviations from the norm (i.e. Brecht might still be admired and regularly presented in one particular city, even if everywhere else in the country they only know "Mack the Knife.")

    If the results were absolutely uniform, we'd have reason to believe the evidence was faked.

  8. Hey All,

    I just wanted to drop in and say that I don't, ultimately, disagree that non-Shakespeare classic drama is not performed as prevalently as it once was, although I think the picture is better than the one Terry paints. And we'll know more once we get more data etc. and so forth.

    That being said, I honestly think the over-production of Shakespeare is at least as blameworthy as the expanding role of new plays in our theatrical ecosystem.

    I mean, I get that there are, indeed, some theaters (ARENA in DC is one I can think of) that have essentially abandoned the classics for new and contemporary work. ARENA used to do a lot of Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg. Now that they're two artistic directors away from that era, they don't do any of it, and are instead focused on American Plays, most of which are new or contemporary.

    I think one point that Terry raises in the comments over at Parabasis, and that 99 echoes, is that some of this might be a regional distribution issue, but until we crunch some serious data to play around with, it's hard to know. I would guess however, that major urban areas are outliers in terms of new and contemporary play production. Boston and New York both have a lot of new plays (and let's face it, there's almost no good classical theater in New York, RED BULL which does one play a year is create, and so is Classical Theater Of Harlem, but the rest of it is pretty bunk).

  9. I left Actors' Shakespeare out at first because the discussion has (so far) been about classic authors other than Shakespeare. They did do one non-Shakespeare last year, however, so they should probably stay in the mix. Also I want to once again note the productions I did not mention - the new play festivals, the staged readings, the slams. There are close to a dozen of these in Boston every year, and taken together, they might come close to doubling the number of new plays produced (albeit briefly) in a season.

  10. ugh dare i enter this fray? sigh. yes, but one thing this discussion leaves out is that the new plays in Boston are rarely ever World Premieres. most theatres here specialize in doing shows that were hits in New York. this is SpeakEasy's modus operandi -- their season looks like last season at 2nd Stage and Playwrights Horizons plus a musical. Company One is a little better but still --plays done in NYC and Chicago with one new play from a local writer. And so for those of us who already saw those plays in NYC, there is little new work to see here. If you go back to those numbers and divide up "New work" into "World premieres" and "Boston premieres," you will see that Boston is hardly the hub of new work. Instead, it goes after the same plays that every other regional theatre goes after. And that is a major reason why there is such little theatre community here: after the Huntington and ART announce their season, the smaller-mid sized theatres all go after the same plays and no one talks to each other about what they are doing or think about doing co-pros because they all want the same 6-7 "new" plays.

  11. Art specifically left OUT of his data the work of Boston Playwrights' Theatre, Ken, which concentrates on world premieres. So his numbers are actually light when it comes to world premieres. Therefore the "fray" kind of boils down not to "Why are the classics crowding out new work?" but to "Why is new work crowding out world premieres?" And THAT question crashes right into "Why can't playwrights get more productions after their world premiere?" And "Shouldn't artistic directors be able to follow the work of their favorite playwrights?"

    And while I understand your frustration as a working playwright with the opportunities available on the Boston scene, I don't think you can really say that Boston "rarely ever" sees world premieres. In fact I can think of a dozen world premieres I've seen in the Hub in the past year or so. Even SpeakEasy produced The Wrestling Patient last spring, which I think counts as a world premiere, despite its long gestation. Other recent world premieres: Little Black Dress, The Miracle at Naples, Trojan Barbie, The Communist Dracula Pageant, The Salt Girl, The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde, Sins of the Mother, The Superheroine Monologues, Where Moments Hung Before, Shhh!, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few. The A.R.T. (God bless them!) will be producing a world premiere musical this spring - about the Red Sox, I know, but it's still a world premiere. There's generally at least one world premiere a month in the Hub, and that's not counting the Huntington's staged readings of new work in the spring, or the ongoing new play slams at Company One or Whistler in the Dark. That's more world premieres than Shakespeare.

    Of course I'm sure you think there should be more, and I understand that. But why not begin to lobby for something specific? I do wonder why SpeakEasy hasn't sponsored a new play reading series for local playwrights (how about it, guys?). And the Huntington has never really worked out a real theatre season for its smaller spaces, or its Calderwood Fellows.

    And while I hate to be a wet blanket on new play development, I do have to point out that however frustrating the current scene may be, it is a HOTBED of activity compared to a decade ago. And we're also currently in the middle of an economic downturn - never the time to demand that theatres take financial risks. Just sayin'.