Now, the conventional wisdom is "more than 7 actors and your play won't get produced" but over the last year alone I have seen several new American plays that violated this rule and thank heaven they did. Besides Yellowjackets, there's Passion Play (11 actors) and August: Osage County (13 actors)--some of the most celebrated plays of the past few years, and ones that I immensely enjoyed. Not all subjects lend themselves to Big Plays, of course, but there are times when it's necessary. Itamar's play Celebrity Row has a complex, epic structure but uses only 5 actors in 20-odd roles. And I don't think it works as well as Yellowjackets.
I'll admit I am biased toward Big Plays. I seek them out, I feel inspired and invigorated when I see them, and I cheer them on when they do well. I have always been drawn to dramas where ideas explode and collide, where people interact with a variety of other characters instead of just one or two, especially now that I am an author myself. I don't want to have to fetter my creative imagination or sense of scale, and I take heart from the fact that these playwrights have been allowed free rein. Not to mention that I spent this winter writing a Big Play (16 actors--oy!) and this spring helping to produce it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Over in Britain a group of playwrights have actually banded together and written a manifesto encouraging Big Plays--they call themselves the "Monsterists." Here are the qualities of the work they want to see more of (and I find myself nodding in agreement):
- Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
- The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
- Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
- Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
- The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
- Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
- The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
- Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
- Use of the very best directors for new plays
- Use of the very best actors for new plays
I have my own personal name for this kind of theater. You've heard of "kitchen-sink drama"--downbeat stories of working-class families in realistic settings? Well, this is the opposite. This is "Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Drama."*
But whatever name you call it, I like it!
*Google reveals that this phrase has been used in a Guardian headline from 2007. But I swear that I came up with it myself in 2004 after reading Stoppard and Kushner for the first time and becoming inspired.