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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20 thoughts on “Where are the high school plays?

  1. Stephen, you know I love and admire you and your work, but I have to take exception to one tiny comment. If you think 12 Angry Jurors is boring, you have not seen a good production of it. I have seen several riveting productions of this play and think that it can be a compelling story, an inspiration to an audience to always fight for what is right and good, and an excellent illustration of the judicial process. I will admit that the script is full of pitfalls that can doom a production, but it is my contention that an experienced director can find a way to sidestep those issues and create a fascinating piece.

    In all other respects, I agree with your article 100%. Although I can not recall the source, I once read that Neil Simon used to clear nearly $100K a week in royalties from high school productions of his plays. Most of us would not sneeze at an income like that!

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    • Me and my friend are thinking about directing your show called “Why do we laugh?” but we have a few talented black actors with little male actors so would we be able to make some of our girls into Andy’s? Also, what do you suggest for our black actors?

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      • Allie, so sorry to let this fall through the cracks. Females playing males is a traditional high school strategy and would actually really be interesting in this play. Likewise, mixed race casting is fantastic because it forces the actors to pay even more attention to who their character is at other ages. If the current reference to an offstage black character feels odd, just change it to something that won’t be distracting; the point of that moment is that the character feels “other.”

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  2. Ok. I have one, possibly two. Check out the New Play Exchange. I’m certainly open to hearing from high schools who are looking for family friendly new work.

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      • Seen And Not Heard, (a comedy) and Over The Boardwalk, a new JERSEY musical, both shows would work well with high school students. I’ve just completed some changes to Over The Boardwalk that will make it even more appealing to high schools.

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  3. This is a great post. I have a high school play and a middle school play, both were commissioned and have been performed. The high school play has seen national attention in a CNN story and appeared in a study by the Department of Medicine mandated by congress. Do you have publisher suggestions for high school plays? I have only submitted it to two publishers so far.

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  4. Craig, Lojo, how do you market high school plays is a great question. Most of the publishers who cater to this market do a good job of getting their titles out their: in their catalogs, websites and at booths at high school theatre festivals. Some of the major publishers are Dramatic Publishing (they publish most of my plays) Playscripts, which pioneered onllne play publishing, TheatreFolk, Bakers plays, Eldridge plays and (the upstart) YouthPlays.

    The market is hungry enough that, in most cases, if your play has the requisite large cast, they’ll read without an agent’s submission.

    Dramatics magazine, mentioned in the article, is also terrific exposure.

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    • Thanks so much for your reply. I submitted to Playscripts, and they passed, even though I was told they were a perfect fit and would love it. I am waiting to hear back from Dramatic Publishing (it has been over six months). What about Pioneer Publishing? I didn’t see them on your list. The play received national attention when mentioned on a CNN story when it was first produced and is getting another production in November. I am sure it has a home (publisher) and a future in high school productions as it has many of the elements that work in that arena. Thanks Again.

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      • We at Great Stage Publishing would love to review good quality family-friendly scripts for our catalog. Not just “young audience” fare, but plays that leave out explicit sex and foul language. Neil Simon plays are a perfect example.

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      • Dear Stephen, Thank you for posting this piece. I so wholeheartedly agree. I am a high school theatre teacher as well as a playwright. I usually have between 25 to 40 cast members, and the female to male ratio is 4:1. Finding the right play and musical to direct each year is challenging. Two years ago I decided to write for my students. The experience was absolutely incredible. I’ve written about it on the Educational Theatre Association community blog here: http://www.schooltheatre.org/blogs/josh-adell/2015/01/15/a-theatrical-treatment-on-mental-illness/.

        To write material that best served my students I included many challenging female roles, and a large cast in which every member is challenged. The experience felt so right that I look forward to writing more for my students. Currently I am submitting the play to the publishers you mentioned above.

        Susan, I will read “Fitting Rooms,” and I look forward to reading Stephen’s plays. Craig, if you’d let me, I would love to read your play as well. Thanks for the conversation everyone.

        Josh Adell
        Campbell Hall
        North Hollywood CA

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      • Hi Josh
        I read your blog, such a great story. I would love to pass your play onto the drama teacher I work with at Indian River Central High School, here in upstate New York, Kristie L. Fuller. She does amazing work, and she too has done the Laramie Project and other challenging and important work that high schools normally don’t do. They have gone to Edinburgh and have received national attention and awards. My play In My Shoes was developed there. I would love to send you the play which has a cast of about 16-18, predominantly female and very simple production requirements. In the original production the kids who personally dealt with the stress of parental deployment in a combat zone played themselves, but the play works with actors playing them and has been produced this way subsequently. It is great to see how veterans react to the play. My e-mail is:
        cthornt@twcny.rr.com
        Thanks for sharing
        Craig

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