Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flashes in the Pan

Last week Terry Teachout published a column examining the most-produced plays in the United States over the last 10 years, using these TCG lists. I was going to write a post quibbling with his methodology, and therefore with the conclusions that he drew, but other bloggers are already doing that. (See for instance this post on Parabasis noting that according to Terry's methodology, "a play has to have cracked the top 10 in a particular year of the last decade to have its productions count. A compiling of top ten lists will ignore the 11th-15th most produced plays of that particular year. And if those stay relatively the same, the more trendy plays might end up being overrepresented." I was going to raise the same issue.)

This is spiraling out into a larger conversation about what counts as a "classic," whether it is more valid to look at most-produced plays or most-produced playwrights, whether the data shows a preponderance of new work or a preponderance of old chestnuts, whether it varies by theater/region, etc. Everyone agrees that we need more data, but that is taking a while to mine.

I don't have much to contribute to this conversation, except for a thought brought on by reading Terry's article in conjunction with The Play That Changed My Life. And unfortunately I don't have any data to support this opinion, just a gut feeling. But it seems to me that the plays that are really going unproduced are the ones that are neither new scripts nor bona fide classics like Chekhov, Wilde, or Williams. Instead, the hit plays of the '70s, '80s and early '90s are overlooked... not old enough to be "classics," not new enough to be trendy, and perhaps over-produced back in the day, when they were trendy. So maybe audiences and artistic directors got sick of these plays; maybe nobody would buy tickets for them nowadays.

But I would--because I was too young to see these plays when they were trendy, but I've been hearing about them for years from theater artists who are one generation above me! For instance, it seems like every playwright who is 10 or 15 years older than I am has a story of being profoundly moved and influenced by Angels in America... probably the greatest American play of the 1990s, but one that I have never had the opportunity to see a live production of (thank God for the HBO miniseries!). Or, I love the script of M. Butterfly, but can you imagine any theater company programming it these days? In The Play That Changed My Life, Sarah Ruhl touts The Baltimore Waltz, Jon Robin Baitz touts Plenty, David Auburn touts The House of Blue Leaves... all plays that won awards and acclaim in their time, but would, as of 2010, be incredibly unusual choices for an American regional theater to produce. Much easier to imagine them producing Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler and Long Day's Journey into Night, despite Terry's claim that the classics are going unstaged.

Every year the American theater seems to have a different favorite play (2009-10 is actually less lopsided than many seasons, because the most-produced play, boom, has only 9 productions; compare that to a season like 2002-3, when Proof had 29 productions). And I'm starting to think that this is doing actual harm to our theater in the long term. In 10 or 15 years, no one will be producing Proof or Intimate Apparel or Rabbit Hole--they will be the 2020s equivalent of M. Butterfly, Amadeus and Plenty. They will have been flashes in the pan, in other words; and even if these plays are brilliant, they will eventually be ignored because, when they were new, they got too trendy for their own good. And the theater cannot grow, or survive, if it is made up of flashes in the pan.

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