Jan 11, 2010

No History?

I'm happy that Terry Teachout spent hours poring over American Theatre's lists of most-produced plays to produce a meta-list of the most-produced plays over the past decade (Proof, Doubt, Art, The Drawer Boy, Rabbit Hole, Wit, I Am My Own Wife, Crowns, Intimate Apparel, tie-The Glass Menagerie/The Laramie Project), and I'm gratified to see that axe-grinders of all stripes will find little fuel for their agendas in his results (four out of the Top 10 plays are by women, and two by women of color; only one of the Top 10 plays, Laramie Project, Teachout notes, is explicitly political--yes, I'm talking to you, Stage Right).

But Teachout, looking for an angle, claims to find evidence of another bias at work: a bias toward new and newish work, and against "classics." As he notes of his Top 10 list (emphasis mine):

No Samuel Beckett, no Bertolt Brecht, no Anton Chekhov, no Georges Feydeau, no Henrik Ibsen, no William Inge, no Eugène Ionesco, no Arthur Miller, no Clifford Odets, no Eugene O'Neill, no George Bernard Shaw, no Aristophanes or Euripides or Sophocles, no Rodgers and Hammerstein or Frank Loesser or Lerner and Loewe...no history, in other words.
This is a misleading conclusion, for a number of reasons. For starters, TCG's Top-10 lists exclude plays by Shakespeare because it's not a fair fight; he handily beats the other playwrights, living or dead, year in and year out. Also, more to the point, Teachout has compiled a list of the Top 10 most-produced shows over a decade, but the way he's worded this litany, it reads as if American theaters have produced "no" productions by these authors at all. "No history, in other words."

There's one other problem: By listing playwrights' names, Teachout exposes another flaw in his data-mining. A thorough list of "most-produced" playwrights over the last 10 years would paint a different picture. Conor McPherson, Sarah Ruhl, and August Wilson would probably be on the list, for starters; so, I daresay, would many of the writers Teachout lists above. Because while each year's Top 10 reflects that year's hottest plays while they're white-hot, it fails to register the hardy warhorses and Streetcars that don't crack the Top 10 but, over the aggregate of 10 years, are likely to outrun the temporary favorites. It also fails to account for authors, new and old, who are too prolific to rise to the top with just one defining play; maybe no single Chekhov or Williams play had as many productions as Wit or Doubt in the 2000s; but I'm willing to bet Teachout a lunch that Chekhov and Williams received more productions than did Margaret Edson or David Auburn.

Of course, since I work at American Theatre and have already had some fun with data-mining possibilities of this annual tradition, the burden of proof is on me, and I happily accept it. More to come.

14 comments:

99 said...

Thanks, Rob. You saved me a whole bunch of work.

Terry Teachout said...

O.K., I'm game: who's got the numbers for playwrights as opposed to plays? Of course there will be more revivals if you measure by playwrights--that stands to reason--but I follow the calendars of a couple of hundred regional companies each season, and this experience suggests to me that the two sets of findings won't be nearly as different as you expect them to be.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

The data are not as easy to mine as I'd thought. The self-reported season schedules of TCG member theaters are printed in each October issue, and we have most of those only in hard-copy form. Sounds like a few nights of midnight oil. I guess that's what I get for laying down the gauntlet...

Terry Teachout said...

Sorry to make you burn all that oil, but I'm really interested in the outcome. In a perfect world, what I'd like to know is this: what percentage of the most frequently produced playwrights of the past decade have done most of their significant work since 1990? And how does that stack up against the percentage of the most frequently produced plays of the past decade that were written after 1990? I think that's a pretty fair basis for comparison, don't you?

Art said...

I have to say, Rob, just to warn you, on my lunch hour, just out of curiosity, I started to go through the seasons of our companies here in Boston for at least the past few years...

In very short order it became overwhelmingly clear that Terry's data appears to bear out. Newer work dominates the last decade.

While your point is well taken, it doesn't appear, at least on what I see for Boston, to be enough to offset Terry's argument. The names he lists are very rare birds on our landscape in comparison to newer works.

As a side note: There are immediately things I run into that can throw things off though.

For instance, the ART had something of a Mamet festival last year, so suddenly you have 5 Mamet plays interjected into the data.

I started compiling the data in a spreadsheet, and I'll continue to do so. I'll let you know what I find, at least for Boston.

Thomas Garvey said...

Hear, hear, Art. And thank you, Terry, for bringing some data to light that backs up a perception that I've been talking about in the Hub Review for years.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

By all means, calculate it for Boston. That will be one city down, a hundred other cities to go.

Terry Teachout said...

I should add that I agree that Rob's original point was well taken--I had to work with the data available to me, but I knew that they might provide a deceptive picture for the reasons he states. They were, however, much better than nothing, and I'd already gotten a similar impression from spending the past few years keeping a fairly close eye on the seasons of major and second-tier regional companies throughout the country. I'm absolutely prepared to change my tune, though, should the facts warrant it!

Art said...

Just as an update.

I have only gone through a small number of theaters, but Chekhov, one of the names on Terry's list, seems to dominate the last decade. He is approaching a dozen productions.

Nobody else is even close. I'll keep you updated.

Ian Thal said...

Are you arguing that there's an actual flaw in Teachout's data or statistics (and thus his conclusion) or are you making a separate argument that most-produced-playwright is a better metric than the metric of most-produced-plays, that Teachout is using?

What are the relative pros and cons of the two metrics? What do we conclude if they support similar conclusions? Different conclusions?

Mark said...

The problem with Terry's method, as he acknowledges, is that if a play is number 11 or lower on the list for a given year, it's not represented in his analysis. Plays like Streetcar, Our Town, The Crucible, etc. are obviously performed frequently in regional theaters over a 10 year period, but do not make the top 10 in an individual year.

I think surveying playwrights rather than plays is interesting and can provide a more complete picture, but I think that makes critics of Terry's methodology look like they're trying to change the deal. And they don't need to -- the entire results from each TCG survey year just need to be procured and included, as opposed to just the Top 10. That way, if a play like Tartuffe receives many productions over a 10-year period, but not enough to crack the Top 10 in an individual year, it will be weighted appropriately in a ten-year aggregate rather than just not appearing at all.

Ian Thal said...

Obviously, we'll have a fuller picture if we use more than one metric, because we can tease out seeming contradictions and thus develop richer interpretations of what might actually be happening.

As far as the methodology of presenting a top-10 (or top-11, since there was a tie) and basing one's conclusions on that, that's not so much a bad method as it is a phenomenon of human being' obsession with the number 10. Maybe we need to extend it to top-100 along with top-100 most produced playwrights.

I'm not seeing the argument that "most-produced-plays" is a bad metric though, just an argument that it is not the only salient metric.

Mark said...

Most-produced plays isn't a bad metric. It's a good metric. However, using only Top 10 lists from each year is an erroneous way to determine what plays had the most productions over that 10 year period.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

I've begun culling data from issue of October 2000; it's slow going. At this rate, and given my workload in the next few weeks, I should be done by some time in February...unless someone wants to pitch in.