The Playgoer: The Still Shrinking American Stage

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Still Shrinking American Stage

Terry Teachout reflects on the latest TCG list of Top Ten Plays Produced in American nonprofit theatres:

it's easy to forget that the latter-day dominance of the small-cast play is a fairly recent development in theatrical history. Large casts used to be the rule, not the exception. Indeed, most of the best-known American plays of the 20th century called for performing forces that would now be seen by penny-pinching producers as insanely extravagant. Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," for instance, was written for a cast of 12, while Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" requires 13 actors, eight men and five women. As for Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," it's usually performed by some two dozen actors, and the original 1938 Broadway production fielded a cast of 51. Might we have lost something by forcing contemporary playwrights to work on a smaller canvas?

Of course, we wouldn't have to "force" them if the money were there to mount such works. Playwrights are chomping at the bit, I assure you!

(By the way... fifty-one people in Our Town? Wow.)

FYI, here is that most recent Top 10 list, an aggregation of season schedules across the country for 2012-2013:

Good People (17) [# of productions nationwide]

Clybourne Park (15)

The Whipping Man (14)  [cast size: 3]

Next to Normal (13)

The Mountaintop (12) [cast size: 2]

Red (11) [cast size: 2]

Time Stands Still (10)  [cast size: 4]

Other Desert Cities (10)

The Motherfucker with the Hat (9)

A Raisin in the Sun (8)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (8)


Thomas Garvey said...

My first thought is that Teachout is merely recycling something that every other critic in the nation has already said. Without, of course, ever taking the recycled content to the next level, which is to consider how this trend might change.

My second thought is: well, how DO we redirect resources away from development and marketing personnel to actual performing and artistic personnel?

For in a way, the widely observed collapse in cast size only reflects the same syndrome Mike Daisey has often ranted about: actors (not stars, just actors) have become an underclass, "the help," in their own theatres.

But what to do about it? Is it possible to educate boards so that they understand that a certain amount of their support should be earmarked for performers, to ensure larger cast sizes? Is it possible to develop funds, perhaps even public funds, devoted to paying for larger casts? I've actually been mulling these ideas for some time, I have to get around to writing about them.

Gabriel said...

What theater isn't dying to do a show with an enormous cast? The money isn't there because there's hardly an audience for the still dying art of theater.

patti c said...

It might be instructive to study cast size in film during the past 13 years as a comparison. Considering SAG contracts, the money issue is crucial, yet we rarely see one or two people films or those with very small cast size.

stone said...

I agree with Anonymous Gabriel."What theater isn't dying to do a show with an enormous cast? The money isn't there because there's hardly an audience for the still dying art of theater. "

Anonymous said...

"... actors (not stars, just actors) have become an underclass ... "

actors still got some digging to do before they hit the realm of the writer.