Thursday, January 03, 2008

Fear of New Plays

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.


Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is a dumb question, but does TCG differentiate whether an American or world premiere is a play by an *American* playwright? Because many American premieres that I've seen have not been by an American playwright. The percentages could be even lower if you're differentiating new plays from new plays by American writers.

Scott Walters said...

That's an excellent question. If I clicked just "American premiere," i got quite a few more plays, but I noticed that it included plays by Tom Stoppard and Brian Friel, which was not what I was concerned with. But when I clicked both World Premiere and American Premiere, those were eliminated. While I suppose there could be in that list foreign plays that haven't been performed anywhere before, I doubt it.

Tom Loughlin said...

Hey Scott,

Welcome back! This is great stuff - numbers and statistics. You know how much I want to get out some hard facts about these kinds of things, and this is great. Thanks! I am trying to make a comeback as well, FWIW. You know where to go. -twl

Patrick Gabridge said...

Wow. Thanks for running the numbers (I'm a numbers guy myself). I knew the stats were bad, but this is even worse than I thought.

The odd thing is that the big theatres have the budgets to actually find and develop new work, and present it with the best possible directors and actors. And many of the big budget theatres have smaller second stages where they could premiere work with less risk, but they don't choose to use them to give new plays full-productions and risk failure. Getting good at failure is critical for hacking your way to something that's ultimately worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

First, in the interest of full disclosure -- I'm on the staff of a large regional theatre that produces new work. And I would love to see more theatres producing more excellent new plays, everywhere, all the time.

On to content. First, 73 theatres does not a universe make. Second, I presume that TCG's statistics are accurate, but the quality of thought breaks down when you project backwards to what theatres must feel or think based on those stats. (And we'll leave aside for now the fact that an institution can neither think nor feel... only the people who work there can.)

So to say theatres "did not feel it was necessary to support American playwriting" is shortsighted.

Did any of those theatres commission a new play? Connect a new play with another theatre that then produced it? Support a playwright's application for funding through government or private sources? Nominate a playwright for a monetary award?

Or do none of those actions equate to "supporting American playwriting"?

Scott Walters said...

Dear Anonymous -- Thank you for your comments. You are right in saying that 73 theatres does not a universe make. Of course, it does make the LORT universe, which is what I was writing about, and why I made no statements about the American theatre in general. That said, I don't think it is outside of logical assumptions to see that this group of 73 might stand as flagships for the regional theatre movement.

Like you, I assume that the TCG stats are accurate, since they are self-reported. At the very least, it represents how the theatres themselves interpret their activities. However, stats require interpretation, otherwise there is no reason that anyone should bother to dig them out of the TCG database. And yes, institutions don't think, people think.

I am certain that there are many, many subtle and various reasons why LORT theatres make such a minimal effort to produce new plays, and my conjectures may be wholly inaccurate. I started from what seems to be conventional wisdom concerning "the audience's" dislike of new plays. I don't think I was making up something new and unlikely.

Like the Greeks, I judge people according to their actions not their intentions, and the action (or lack of action) I was judging was the commitment to actual productions of new plays. Not staged readings, not workshops, not commissions or monetary nominations. The actual devotion of production resources to a new play. The others are nice, and definitely help, and I hope that regional theatres will continue to do them, but it just isn't enough. Playwrights need productions. In the 1930s, producers and organizations committed their lives to seeking out and producing new works, and the result was a blossoming of American playwrighting. Why have LORT theatres become so cowardly?

Joshua James said...


If you'd posted something like this a year or so ago, I suspect you and I would have avoided many a fine and furious fight.

Of course I appreciate this post very much, as that it echoes what I've been trying to tell ya - it's not New York that's drowning contemporary American theatre, it's our own addiction to the past.

that's my opinion, of course - but it sure feels true, even in New York.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln Center Theater and Manhattan Theatre Club are two Category 1 LORT organizations. During their 2006-2007 seasons they produced the American premiere of Christopher Shinn's DYING CITY (LCT) and the world premiere of REGRETS ONLY by Paul Rudnick (MTC).

While I wholeheartedly agree that institutional theaters ought to be doing a better job of producing new American work, I'm curious as to how the rest of your stats hold up.

Scott Walters said...

Christopher Shinn's Dying City was an American premiere of a play that had its world premiere at the Royal Court in London, so it is not counted, nor is Stoppard's Coast of Utopia for the same reason. While it is valuable to import productions of important plays from elsewhere, this listing was specifically about world premieres of American plays. The Manhattan Theatre Club listing is more of a mystery. It is not listed as a LORT member on TCG, but taking your cue I did find it listed on the LORT homepage. So yes, the numbers should be adjusted accordingly.

My survey is based solely on the TCG database. Do you suspect that there are many, many more world premieres being done in LORT theatres that TCG isn't listing?

Anonymous said...

I can understand why THE COAST OF UTOPIA wouldn't be counted as it's the work of a British author. But what disqualifies DYING CITY's American-premiere status? Because it was produced in the UK first? LCT's was the first production of DYING CITY in the US. Sounds like an American premiere of a play by an American to me, but I don't know how TCG determines what makes the list and what doesn't.

Do I suspect that there are "many, many more" (like a kazillion?) that TCG isn't listing? I don't know, but I doubt it.

Scott Walters said...

You have it exactly right: to qualify for a World Premiere, it needs to be a first production. So Dying City was first produced in UK, so it doesn't qualify as a world premiere, "just" an American premiere. Using databases requires that you have clear definitions, which can lead to some slippery cases being discounted. This is one.

Laura said...

I understand your need to set rules for the sake of creating statistics worth sampling - but I would like to question the idea that only "world premieres" support new playwrights.

For instance, perhaps a new play gets a world premiere at a tiny, non-Lort theatre created by recent college grads. Then it gets picked up in another town, by a larger theatre with a broader audience base and more money, which brings both more financial support, and more exposure, to the presumably still-struggling playwright. Doesn't that also serve the American playwright?

Scott Walters said...

Of course it does, Laura, and that would be a different study, one that the TCG database would be less helpful with. There are many ways to help American playwrights -- this was one way of measuring the commitment of LORT theatres to doing so.

Laura said...

I'm not questioning your numbers - I am, however, questioning your statement that the theatres not favored by these numbers "did not feel it was necessary to support American playwriting"

Certainly, there are plenty of theatres about which that may be true - but there are certainly others who support American playwrights by providing second or third runs of their "still fairly new" plays.

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