What the Dickens?

Talk about timing. Just after I tallied up the plays I’d seen in New Orleans last season, the Theatre Communications Group released its tally of most frequently produced plays for the 2015-2016 across the US. That gives me a chance to compare what I saw with whats going on in the rest of the US theatre world.*

So, who is the leading playwright in present day America? Of course you know, it’s Bill Shakespeare. It’s so much of a foregone conclusion that they leave him off the list. I seriously object to this methodology, since it skews the picture of what people are actually seeing. In fact, 1 in 21, or nearly 5% of all plays staged are Shakespeare plays. (Imagine if 5% of all films at the cinema were black and white Hitchcock movies.)

Ok, ok, Shakespeare’s a god. Let’s assume he deserves all that stage time. Now who do you supposed comes in second? Yes, that was a giant hint in the post title: Charles Dickens.** More than 10% of all the theatres in America (given caveat above) produced a version of A Christmas Carol, making it the single most commonly produced play in the country. Because that show is almost a given, TCG also leaves it off their list (along with The Santaland Diaries, which seems to  be on it’s way to becoming the modern day Christmas classic.)

In another breakdown, TCG classifies work by gender and category, the latter as new if it was written in the past decade, a revival if it appeared in the last half century, or a classic if older than 50 years. They claim that theatres are performing 64% new work, 18% revivals, and 13% classics (with a few hybrids thrown in for good measure).***  My last attendance season in New Orleans would break down as 52% / 26% / 22% if you count the full 38 plays I saw. Note that this doesn’t represent what the area is producing, since I made it a goal to seek out new work, and skipped some of the better known revivals (musicals in particular). New works would be better represented if I included works from the Fringe Festival, but the TCG data don’t count those, either.

Additionally, many of the new works I saw were by local authors. If you discount the plays without productions elsewhere in the US, the ratios change to 40% / 40% / 20%, putting the city far heavier in the revivals camp, and behind the curve in producing new work. More to the point, however, is those percentages hit even harder in smaller communities. Not only do those communities tend to skew more toward classics and revivals, (27% / 46% / 27% at one Montana theatre), but these total number of new plays that people are exposed to is tiny. And, if you program A Christmas Carol and a Shakespeare play in a 10-play season, you given up 20% of your programming to works that your audience has likely already seen. Not to mention the fact that A Christmas Carol appears countless numbers of times on television during the holiday season. I’m willing to excuse programming Shakespeare to some degree (though not give him a full 5% of all productions) since he’s rarer in other media, but please, can we push Dickens off the stage?

*The  stats are for the 386 TCG member theatres only, and a total of 2159 productions. They probably don’t include that 35 seat black-box where you saw Justine in the original Klingon, nor does it include those “Shakespeare in the Park”-style summer groups.
**Technically, people are producing various adaptations of Dickens, but I doubt any of them are radically different enough to credit the adaptor rather than the original author.
***Their methodology is confusing here, since they claim to have included 1914 plays from 363 theatres and in the other analysis, they looked at 2159 productions from 386 theatres, a difference of 3 theatres and nearly 200 productions. They also do not state if they excluded Shakespeare from this analysis, as they did in the playwright count. For the purposes of comparison, I’ll assume this second analysis did count Shakespeare plays as classics, otherwise their numbers would shift to 62% / 16% / 27%.


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