Jan 13, 2010

Sobel on Teachout

Ed Sobel at Philly's Arden Theatre saw a similar flaw with Terry Teachout's recent "Top 10" article, but he lays it out much more clearly than I did:
Say 20 TCG theaters across the country are doing the same new play in a given year. That title will show up on the most frequently produced list for that year. But if those same theaters, in an average four-play season, are all also producing three different "classic" plays, then those titles would not show up on the most frequently produced list. But the proper score at a given theater would be one new play for every three classic plays. And across the field nationally it would be one new play for sixty classic plays. This would represent not a lopsided predisposition toward new work, but rather the opposite.

A quick hypothetical illustration:

Steppenwolf does Endgame, All My Sons, Mother Courage and Intimate Apparel.

Arena does Waiting for Godot, Tartuffe, Guys and Dolls and Intimate Apparel.

McCarter does Oedipus, The Children's Hour, The Most Happy Fella and Intimate Apparel.

Tally: 9 "classic" plays, none of which make the list of most frequent, but the one new play, Intimate Apparel does.
That's true enough, and it brings up the point that if you're using the rubric "classic," there's a much huger pool of plays and authors arrayed against new plays--just not necessarily any single blockbuster play that pops out and gets done all over the place in any given season. Which leads to Sobel's other observation, again making my point better than I did:
A related problem: The TCG lists are cross-sectional and not longitudinal. In other words, if Death of a Salesman receives three productions every year for 10 years it would not make the most frequently produced list in any year, despite receiving 30 productions in the decade, while Intimate Apparel, receiving 9 in one year and 16 in a second for a total of (a lesser) 25, would.
This is why as a side project, I'm going through the TCG seasons data from 2000, mostly by hand, and I'm seeing some circumstantial evidence that points to a preponderance of classic work (particularly if you include Shakespeare, who's off the charts). But I'll withhold judgment until I'm done with the tally.


Terry Teachout said...

Number of classic plays done by Steppenwolf this season: 1 ("Endgame").

By Arena: 0 (unless you count "The Fantasticks").

McCarter: 1 ("She Stoops to Conquer").

Arden: 0.

Reality is the catch. I knew the match between data sets was statistically problematic, but I've also been keeping a close watch on regional theater throughout the past six or so years, and if I hadn't already observed this tendency, I wouldn't have done the meta-list in the first place.

isaac butler said...

Here's my question, tho... what are we to call something that isn't a new play and isn't a classic? It seems to me that if New Play and Classic are deserving of their own categories, there has to be a third category that captures everything else. Recent plays? Contemporary plays? Non-Canonical plays? Because i have a feeling that the issue is that a lot of theaters do, say, Theresa Rebeck's BAD DATES (not a new play, not a classic, not very good) as opposed to either taking a risk on an exciting new writer or doing a classic.

I have no data to back this up, this is just my thoughts on it having read a lot of regional theater seasons over the past 18 months for a freelance writing gig (much like your thoughts, Terry, in looking at regional calendars).

I mean, what is The Miracle Worker? What is Wit for that matter, now that it is very much not "new"?

David Cote said...

As a critic who believes that supporting good new playwrights, directors and companies is one of his duties, I find this hand-wringing over our neglected heritage dispiriting (if not insulting to people who have taken a virtual oath of poverty for an art form they love). Living playwrights are being produced around the country in large numbers; how is this not a good thing? We will always have Chekhov, Williams and Shakespeare—which is to say, we will always have mediocre productions of the same 12 classics. Could we perhaps discuss why the same classics are done over and over and not more obscure works by the same authors?

Ed Sobel said...

Actually, Mr. Teachout, in our five play sub season, Arden is producing "Romeo and Juliet" and "Sunday in the Park with George" - both of which meet your pre-1990 criteria, if not your somewhat arbitrary Shakespeare exclusion.

Terry Teachout said...

There's nothing arbitrary about excluding Shakespeare. It's part of the point of this discussion, and also part of the original data set that started the discussion.

Excluding musicals for the moment (since the existence of summer companies that do nothing else confuses the issue), here's a longer top-of-the-head list of non-Shakespeare classics being offered by important American companies this season:

Arena: 0
Arden: 0
La Jolla: 0
Hartford Stage: 0
Court: 0
Two River: 0
Great Lakes: 0
Portland Center Stage: 0
Main Street, Houston: 0
Dallas Theater Center: 1 (“Death of a Salesman”)
Triad Stage: 1 (“Picnic”)
Asolo Rep: 1 (“Life of Galileo”)
Cincinnati Playhouse: 1 (“Three Sisters”)
Huntington: 1 (“All My Sons”)
Goodman: 1 double bill (“Hughie”/”Krapp’s Last Tape”)
Steppenwolf: 1 ("Endgame")
McCarter: 1 ("She Stoops to Conquer")
CenterStage, Baltimore: 1 (“Earnest”)
Long Wharf: 1 (“A Doll’s House”)
Arizona: 1 (“The Glass Menagerie”)
Guthrie: 2 (“She Stoops to Conquer” and “Streetcar”)

Terry Teachout said...

When in this context I say "classics," I'm moving the needle back a few years. Isaac is right--this discussion really ought to be about three kinds of plays: new/newish plays, "contemporary" plays written since 1985, and significant plays written before 1985 (you can quarrel about the exact cutoff point, but I think everybody understands the difference between "Bad Dates" and "Endgame").

Ed Sobel said...

I haven’t done any real spot checking on the theaters Mr. Teachout lists, but I just hopped on the Court Theatre website and found their season is:

Swize Banzi is Dead (1972)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
The Illusion (1988)
Mystery of Irma Vep (1984)
The Year of Magical Thinking (2007)

3 of the 5 of which meet his evolving new definition, and 4 of 5 his previous, not 0.

And at Two Rivers:

26 Miles (new)
Barefoot in the Park (1963)
Orestes (c. 400 BCE, admittedly in a newish translation/adaptation by Anne Washburn, but surely Mr. Teachout isn’t suggesting we only count it as classic if performed in the original ancient Greek)
You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown (musical, so we won’t count it, eventhough from 1967)
Midsummer Nights Dream (Shakespeare, so we won’t count it)
Picasso at the Lapine Agile (1993)

So 2 of the 4 eligible to be counted meet the revised classic criteria, or 4 of the 6 if counting musicals and Shakespeare, not 0.

Rather than turning this discussion into something that looks like Florida in the 2000 election, I’d prefer to wait until Mr. Weinert-Kent completes his analysis, and see what we can learn.

Terry Teachout said...

Definitions can be slippery things. I think content is at least as important as formal categorization. If you think that doing Anne Washburn's "Orestes: A Tragic Romp" is the same as doing Euripides' "Orestes," or that "Barefoot in the Park" is a "classic" play, well...more power to you. I myself think otherwise, just as I'm not yet prepared to say that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a "classic" play (wonderful though it is) merely because it was written in 1982 rather than 1985.

I, too, am eager to see what Rob and the other data-crunchers have to tell us. Visit http://mirroruptolife.blogspot.com and you'll find preliminary data for Boston suggesting that my findings appear to be valid for theater in that city. Let's see what else we find out.

Ed Sobel said...

The definition has been slippery. We started with “classic” meaning pre-1995, then slid to pre-1985 and eliminated musicals, and now we are at pre-1985 non-musicals that Terry Teachout or Ed Sobel determine are of the artistic quality to merit the moniker. It may now be sufficiently subjective and narrow to get to numbers that support your point. In that case your original article might have said, “Over the last decade TCG theaters and I don’t seem to have the same taste when it comes to plays more than 15 years old.” That wouldn’t have been much of a story (your goal), nor would it lead a corporate sponsor to fund a revival of A Doll’s House instead of the new Quiara Hudes play (my fear).

Or if it had said,“Theaters are doing some classic plays, too many middling and safe plays from the last three decades of the 20th century, and some new plays” I probably wouldn’t have taken exception.

I understood the close of the original article to say that theaters were slighting classic plays (with a rather wide definition of classic, even if it didn’t include any non-white men such as Lillian Hellman, Alice Childress, Federico Garcia Lorca, Lorraine Hansberry or Edna Ferber) in favor of new ones. That may be right and I’d like nothing better. After 20 years of working in the field as an advocate for new plays, I’d love to think we’ve succeeded that much. Or it may be wrong. All I intended was to point out that the data cited were not statistically sound evidence to support the statement.

In any event, I’m grateful to you for having provoked the thought and discussion around this issue. If you do in fact come see Sunday in the Park at the Arden this Spring, I hope we have an opportunity to continue the conversation over a beverage – classic scotch or not.

Terry Teachout said...

I'm planning to come, Ed, and the older the scotch, the better!