Every year, Dramatics magazine, the magazine of the International Thespian society, 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; every year there’s another new title or three. 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 the high school canon.
John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, last year’s most-produced play, is nine years old at this point. The second most-recent play is Twelve Angry Men/Jurors, which is sixty years old (and boring as hell.)
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 that it’s 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. Tell your playwright friends about the absence of high school plays. Tell your screenwriter friends and your novelist friends. Tell yourself.
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. 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.)
High school theatre is a volume business. A successful play gets dozens or even hundreds of productions a year.
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.
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