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Where are the full-length plays?

Where are the full-length plays?

Every year, Dramatics does a survey of the most-produced plays in the country. Three surveys, actually. Full-length plays, one-act plays and musicals. The one-act list is replete with new material, thanks largely to Playscripts.  The list of musicals is robust; newer entries like Legally Blonde and Beauty and the Beast sit alongside classics like Guys and Dolls and Bye Bye Birdie.

But the list of full-length plays is a disaster. The average age of the full-length play is a hundred and thirty three years old. Even if you take out the two Shakespeare plays on the list, Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, the average only comes down to sixty two years.

Sixty two years old. That’s the age of our canon.

Almost, Maine, last year’s most-produced play, is eight years old at this point. The second most-recent play is Twelve Angry Men/Jurors, which is sixty years old (and boring as hell.)

 That’s ridiculous.  EdTA considers itself the go-to organization for educational theatre but, at least when it comes to material, that makes us the one-eyed king.  There is no high school theatre, or at least there are no high school plays.

This is a problem that snuck up on us. The plays that played on and off-Broadway used to translate to the educational theatre stage.  But the economics of the professional stage shifted, while the casting needs of middle and high school stages did not.  Financial constraints have meant that professional theatre cast sizes have shrunk steadily since the 1950’s. Seven is now about the maximum, two the optimum. Meanwhile, if you ask a theatre teacher for her optimum cast size, you’re likely to hear twelve to seventeen.

This is not something that’s going to go away. The average age of the most-produced high school plays will increase by a year, more or less, with every year that passes.

We need to start fixing that.

The first step – a huge one – is to cultivate awareness. EdTA, and each of its members, need to act as mouthpieces, megaphones. Tell your playwright friends about the absence of full-length plays. Tell your screenwriter friends and your novelist friends and your students and your peers. Tell yourself. (You know you’ve wanted to try it.)

And when you talk to your playwrights-to-be, don’t present the great high school emptiness as a problem.  

Present it as an opportunity.

This is an empty ecosystem, every niche waiting to be filled.  There’s room for dramas and comedies, for thrillers and farces. I bet both fantasy and science fiction would go over big (and give the techies something to do.)

There is a model out there, and that’s the list of most-produced one-act plays. Twenty five years ago there were no one-acts written just for the high school stage, but then a handful of plays showed that the market is huge and hungry.

Twenty five years from now, Twelve Angry Men and You Can’t Take it With You should be competing for productions with plays that were actually written with high schools in mind: plays that have large casts and more characters in their teens than their forties.

Some of those plays will become classics of a genre that doesn’t yet exist.

And—just as has been the case with the one-acts—some of those plays will have been written by men and women who currently teach middle school  and high school theatre.

Jump in. 

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Jessica Harms July 26, 2014 10:24 pm
For me it often comes down to cast size! These older shows can allow me to include more students, and do have safer content. I'd love to get my hands on a list of new plays that have 15+ characters. I'd also love someone to write a play that is the embodiment of what Greek theater would be like today. Not simply updating an existing Greek play, but a modern play with the Greek format of a chorus and other elements.
I appreciated speaking to you in person about this at the EdTA conference. I'd also love for us as educators how to figure out commissioning a piece. How do I even connect with playwrigts to do that?
Stephen Gregg February 19, 2014 4:51 pm
Phillip, thanks for your thoughts. The one that leapt at me was about new titles being hard to sell. It's the same problem adult theatres have. There are two obvious marketing strategies for new work for schools, but they're both tough. The mainstage at Lincoln is a terrific launching pad for new titles; that's where Almost, Maine, a show that had had a limited off-broadway run, found its high school audience. (I'm pretty sure I'm right about that. If anyone knows better, please correct me.) The second is Dramatics, the magazine of this organization, which has propelled a number of titles to national prominence over the years.
Getting onto that stage or into the magazine are not easy asks. Maybe part of this conversation should be "how do we market plays to a national audience?"
Phillip Goodchild February 18, 2014 9:12 pm
I loved your opinion, and it gave me some food for thought. The 'brand recognition' is kind of a big factor, but I also wonder if the changing fashion for theatre - at least, in London's West End and off-Broadway - where smaller, more intimate spaces are what is sought out might be throwing us all off-kilter? My school has a 650 seater auditorium. It is my first year as the Drama sponsor, and it has been an uphill battle to fill that auditorium. Our first production was 'The Wizard of Oz' (75 years old, natch) and we got 334 as our top night figures. But build a box studio that seats 50, and you've got an amazing and cool word-of-mouth space that could spark the imaginations of a new generation of theatre-goers.
For a school community 'new' does seem to meet with resistance. I am really wanting to push envelopes and create new plays, new full length plays with relevant characters that are within 5 years of the playing age of the students. I love your challenge to write those plays, and I for one am going to give it my best shot. So, thanks again for the post.
Stephen Gregg February 07, 2014 3:38 pm
Thanks, Katie and Brooke. Brooke, I'm sure if you've got titles that worked for you, plenty of teachers would love to hear them. Your comment did make me think about name recognition, and to what extent that's an important quality for a teacher to be able to advertise. A sixty-year-old play has sixty years of brand equity. I might not run to see the local hs production of a play I've never heard of, but Our Town will get me out the door every time.
Brooke Phillips February 07, 2014 11:42 am
In my research for new and exciting age appropriate material for my high school students I've stumbled across many new and brilliant full length plays... for professional and college theatre! I'm finding myself more often than not writing publishing companies for permission to omit language or just really pushing the envelope in my school community with some more recently published literature. It is hard not to fall back to the "classics" when newer plays are met with resistance in the community. I concur with everything mentioned in this post. There is definitely a lack of perfect full length plays for high school and middle school students to put on. And I will add that I love being able to always find a one act that is suitable to my school's needs for each season, like something by Stephen Gregg, for example :)!
Katie An Siegel February 07, 2014 1:12 am
I had never thought about it that way, but what a cool point of view. It makes perfect sense though! I never realized how old a lot of the shows we are doing are, but looking at it now, I totally see it. Thank you so much for sharing!