Wednesday, April 10, 2013

TCR Spotlight on Theater: Most Produced Plays in America

Walnut Street Theatre,
Philadelphia, 2013
The Committee Room takes a look at what plays are being produced at American theaters.

According to Theatre Communications Group, which includes nearly five-hundred professional, not-for-profit theaters, large and small, across the United States, the most produced play of the 2012-2013 season is Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire.

A drama peppered with biting wit, Good People is the story of an unemployed single mother from blue collar South Boston reconnecting with a high school boyfriend in the hope of finding a job. The boyfriend got out of their gritty neighborhood and is now a doctor living in an upscale suburb.

Good People ran on Broadway in the Spring of 2011 and earned a Tony Award for its star, Frances McDormand, and a Tony nomination for best play. During the 2012-2013 season, Good People has been produced at seventeen Theatre Communications Group theaters nationwide.

David Lindsay-Abaire
"Good People is a modern comedy of errors [that] tugs on the heart-sleeves because the script drips with painful truths. One laughs because otherwise one would have to cry," writes Kitty Drexel in The New England Theatre Geek in a review of a production at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company in September  2012.

Gwendolyn Purdom in Washingtonian, in reviewing a Spring 2013 production at Washington, DC's Arena Stage, calls Good People an "exploration of class, fate, and perspective that is painfully funny and gut-wrenchingly real."

Lindsay-Abaire drew upon his own life experience in writing Good People. He grew up in South Boston, the son of a fruit peddler father and a factory worker mother. His life changed when he won a scholarship to Milton Academy, a prep school in suburban Boston. As a commuting student, he traveled each day between the worlds of the haves and have nots. “Class is something I know about...I’ve lived it every day of my life, and it shaped me in my identity [but] I don’t want to be didactic about class...I thought -- Let me write about the people I know and love and class will bubble up inevitably,” Lindsay-Abaire told Charles McGrath of the New York Times.

Good People, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, 2013
(Photo by Greg Mooney)
Lindsay-Abaire's earlier play Rabbit Hole, about a suburban couple coping with the accidental death of their young son, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2007 and was among the most produced plays from 2006 to 2009. Lindsay-Abaire's first hit, Fuddy Meers, about a wife and mother who wakes up each morning with a new case of amnesia, was produced Off-Broadway in 1999 and was among the most frequently produced plays from 2000 to 2002.

Good People has a cast of six. The small number of performers needed to mount the play is seen as another reason -- along with engaging characters and incisive dialogue -- why Good People appeals to theater companies. "Theater professionals know all too well that few U.S. companies are willing to take a chance on large-cast plays nowadays," says Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. "Because of the recession, regional companies have grown steadily more risk-averse, and playwrights who long to see their work performed onstage are responding accordingly by writing smaller-scaled shows." Teachout points out that the plays on the 2012-2013 most produced list call for an average of four actors a piece. Teachout adds --"[I]t'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."

Tennessee Repertory Theatre,
Nashville, 2012
The second most produced play of the 2012-2013 season, Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, a tale of race and neighborhood gentrification, which won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama, has a cast of seven. By contrast, top plays of the 1940s such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Harvey, and Born Yesterday, have casts of a dozen or more.

"Small cast plays represent the continuation of an earlier national trend that began in earnest in the second half of the 20th Century," says Jim Rutter in the Broad Street Review. "The mostly unsubsidized American theaters hesitate to risk their slender budgets on unknown playwrights. But new writers could increase the chances of seeing their plays produced by writing plays with small casts, thereby cutting down on the production’s overhead."

Lindsay-Abaire studied playwriting at Juilliard under Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. Norman's Pulitzer Prize winning 1983 drama 'night Mother has a cast of two: a suicidal woman and her mother. Durang's absurdist comedies, including Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, call for casts of ten or less.  

Westport Country Playhouse,
Connecticut, 2012
The trend toward small casts leads to charges that theater companies neglect worthy older plays. "A theater community that can’t support or simply won’t often perform large actor productions can’t produce the majority of the significant works in the historical canon," says Rutter.

By far the oldest work on the 2012-2013 most produced list is A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama about an African-American family's struggle to move into the middle class. It has a cast of eleven.

Sometimes a theater company will present an older play with the cast list trimmed down to the essentials and having performers take more than one part. The cast of the original 1938 Broadway production of Our Town numbered over forty. In 2013, a production of Our Town at Washington, DC's Ford's Theatre made due with a cast of twenty.

Our Town, Ford's Theater,
Washington, DC 2013
Trimming down and doubling up isn't always possible or desirable. Teachout notes that large casts can provide a necessary festiveness, as in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's farce You Can't Take It with You, or an operatic dimension, as in Clifford Odets's boxing world drama, Golden Boy. "Might we have lost something by forcing contemporary playwrights to work on a smaller canvas?" Teachout asks, adding that "theatrical culture denuded of spectacle is like a salad devoid of garlic: It may be tasteful, but it isn't always tasty."

Rutter takes the argument against small cast plays further, declaring -- "[W]hat’s the point of creating an ostensibly communal and shared experience in front of hundreds if all a theater company intends to present is an examination of society’s most atomized relationships?...[I]f I simply wanted to watch the interaction between two people played out dramatically, I’d rather go sit in a bar and wait for a couple to get drunk and fight. At least there, I’d only pay for my drinks."

Most Produced Plays of the 2012-2013 Season* 

1. Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire
2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
3. The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez
4. Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt
5. The Mountaintop by Katori Hall
6. Red by John Logan
7. Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies (tie)
7. Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz (tie)
8. The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis
9. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (tie)
9. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman (tie)

*Theatre Communications Group.Plays by Shakespeare and holiday themed productions are not counted.


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