Yesterday, I discussed why a commitment to the production of new plays was important to the health of the American theatre. I quoted regional theatre pioneer Margo Jones, who wrote in 1951 that America's regional theatres needed to assume a "violent" commitment to the production of new plays if the American theatre was going to progress. "We must have our new playwrights," Jones wrote, "and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays." So now, 47 years later, how have America's regional theatres done in terms of Jones' vision? Is there a problem? If so, what is the scope?
Despite being a theatre person, I kind of like crunching numbers. So I decided to check out the TCG Theatre Profiles database, which has an "advanced search" screen that allows me to search for the specific information I am seeking. Once there, I decided that the best place to start searching for Jones' vision were with the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) institutions, the 73 regional theatres that one might see as following in the footsteps of Jones' Dallas theatre. So I clicked on "LORT membership" and "American Premiere" and "World Premiere" (I didn't want theatres getting credit for importing plays like Stoppard's Coast of Utopia, which was not only considered an American premiere but counted as three productions, one for each part!) for the 2006-2007 season. The results were interesting, to say the least.
TCG separates its theatres into six categories according to the size of their annual budgets. They are:
Category 6: $499K or less
Category 5: $500K - $1M
Category 4: $1M - $3M
Category 3: $3M - $5M
Category 2: $5M - $10M
Category 1: $10M or more
In the 2006-2007 season, the 73 LORT institutions broke down into the categories as follows:
Category 6: $499K or less = 19
Category 5: $500K - $1M = 1
Category 4: $1M - $3M = 12
Category 3: $3M - $5M = 11
Category 2: $5M - $10M = 23
Category 1: $10M or more = 7
So of these 73 wealthy non-profit theatres, 56% of which had budgets over three million dollars, how many of them had at least one American Premiere during the 2006 - 2007 season? 15, or a measly 20.5%. Four out of five American LORT institution did not feel it was necessary to support American playwriting. They broke down as follows:
Category 6: $499K or less = 19 theatres --> 5
Category 5: $500K - $1M = 1 theatre --> 0
Category 4: $1M - $3M = 12 theatres --> 1
Category 3: $3M - $5M = 11 theatres --> 4
Category 2: $5M - $10M = 23 theatres --> 5
Category 1: $10M or more = 7 theatres --> 0
At those 15 theatres that did have an World and American premiere, there was a grand total of 27 productions. They broke down as follows:
Category 6: $499K or less = 19 theatres --> number of productions: 15
Category 5: $500K - $1M = 1 theatre --> number of productions: 0
Category 4: $1M - $3M = 12 theatres --> number of productions: 1
Category 3: $3M - $5M = 11 theatres --> number of productions: 4
Category 2: $5M - $10M = 23 theatres --> number of productions: 7
Category 1: $10M or more = 7 theatres --> number of productions: 0
Look at that carefully: 55.5% of the American premieres during the 2006-2007 season were produced in theatres with the smallest budgets. In fact, a single Category Six theatre produced nearly as many American premieres all of the theatres in Categories 1 through 5 combined: The Actors Theatre of Louisville (10 productions). Without the Actors Theatre of Louisville's commitment to the American playwright, there would have been a anemic 17 world premiere productions of American plays on LORT stages.
If we wonder why American playwrights find themselves drawn to film or television, we need look no further than these statistics, which to me reflects an appalling lack of interest in the fate of American theatre by the artistic leaders of our country. More evidence of the Schiavo-ization of the American theatre.