Where are the high school plays?

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.

Jump in.

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Fly Fishing with Devon Roberts

One of the reasons I love teaching is that it forces me to learn. You can’t pass on a skill without mastering it yourself.

Or at least without pretending to.

Sometimes – I can’t be the only teacher who does this – you make stuff up and cross your fingers that you’ve gotten it right.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a lesson that I had seen John Patrick Shanley teach. The point of the lesson was that as a playwright you need to find something that you like about your characters. Mr. Shanley illustrated his point by saying that if you saw him fly fish you would like him. And then, a few hours later, a stage manager I was with said that she liked Shanley; she’d seen him fly fishing earlier.

But as I wrote the post, I had a guilty secret. I knew it was missing something. The lesson is that you should find something to like about your characters. But how do you do that?

I wrote it as though this were a trivial matter. But it’s not. In fact, I didn’t actually know to find something that I liked in my characters.

There was a second problem with my post, and that had to do with the example, the stage manager who said that she’d fallen in love with John Patrick Shanley while watching him fly fish.

The woman couldn’t explain what about Shanley’s fishing was so likable. Over the intervening years, I’ve sometimes tried to picture the playwright fishing in a way that’s especially charming. Sometimes my image involved pirouettes.

So that was my recent post. A lesson I didn’t believe in illustrated with an example I didn’t understand. Perfect pedagogy.

Then an excellent thing happened. Devon Roberts, an Oregon Thespian, responded to the post. He described how he’d managed to unstick himself while writing a full-length play:

“I went back to the drawing board and I started thinking like this. I gave a character something completely unrelated to the story to be passionate about and by doing so I influenced relationships, I created the opportunity for scenes and just general commotion that adds a depth of reality to the show.“

Give a character something to be passionate about.

That has a touch of genius to it. It solves both problems with my botched interpretation of Shanley’s lesson.

First, it makes the process active. Finding something you like in a character is a tough assignment, since the character doesn’t yet exist. But in Devon’s spin on it you don’t look for a quality; you assign one.

Second, he solves the mystery of why the stage manager was so taken by the sight of an unlikely fisherman. What’s charming about John Patrick Shanley fly fishing isn’t his footwork or the way that he casts his line.

It’s that he’s John Patrick Shanley and he’s fly fishing. He’s a well-known, New York playwright engaging in an unlikely, bucolic pastime. That’s appealing. It turns him from remote-because-famous person into a quirky, likable individual.

A character’s passion is appealing even if (and sometimes because) it doesn’t directly relate to the story.

So: John Patrick Shanley, thank you for the lesson many years ago.

And Devon Roberts, thank you for finally explaining it to me.

Laugh Tract

If you’ve written a comedy, you want my father in the audience.

My dad has one of the hardest laughs I’ve ever heard. It’s a convulsion that so clearly takes over his body that one can’t help but join him. Growing up, my family of seven almost always went to movies as a group. As an adult, I’ve encountered people who found this behavior odd, but it was really fun. Part of the fun was seeing which moments hit the other members of your family just right.

Recently, I saw that the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride was on TV. I settled in to watch some of it, because I remembered that it was hilarious. But this time, I didn’t find it funny. Ten minutes in, I remembered that not only had I seen the movie with my family, but that I’d been sitting right next to dad.

***************

Comedies are better when other people are laughing along with you. But when it comes to theatre comedies, there’s a dark corollary:

A false laugh is worse than no laugh.

The other night, I dragged Todd to see a play at a half-full, fifty five seat theatre in the corner of strip mall. The play was awful, but it was actually the audience that was intolerable. In such a small theatre, every body is aware of every other body, and the people in the audience become performers in their own right. The percentage of people in the audience who are friends of cast members is likely to be high, and if the play is a comedy that can be problematic. Five people in the front row roared with laughter every time an actor did something meant to be amusing.

We left at intermission.

Laughter is difficult to fake. False laughter originates from a different part of the brain than does real laughter. Even the timing is not quite right: forced laughter has a tiny telling lag, the equivalent of the micropause that allows you to hang up on a robocall.

If you have been the person laughing too hard at your loved one’s comedy, then you have been a jackass. Don’t do it again.

It’s a sin born of goodwill and so easily forgiven. But the thing is, you’re not helping your friends. You’re hurting them by alienating an audience that’s trying to meditate its way through this unfunny play. TV laugh tracks work because they’re essentially subliminal. But human-generated artificial laughter grates on the other audience members and (I promise) embarrasses the actor you’re trying to help.

It’s OK—required actually—to beam love to your friend who’s performing. A warm smile communicates everything. It says: “Congratulations on getting this part, on bravely going onstage night after night even though this play, like most plays, is a misfire.”

The smile, combined with your presence, tells your friend that you care about her and that someday, after a year or five years have passed, you’ll both be able to laugh about this.