If you subscribe to theatre-related blogs, then your feed-reader during the past week or so will be overflowing with posts where the words ‘Outrageous Fortune’ will almost certainly appear. It’s the title of a new book on the state of American playwrighting, and it’s getting the best kind of publicity on the web – the free sort – for its authors Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss. Linked to Outrageous Fortune‘s contents, and extending the ongoing discussion into the state of play of contemporary US theatre, is a report by another American critic, Terry Teachout – more on this below.
There are plenty of complaints in the back and forth generated by Outrageous Fortune. The book claims contemporary ‘institutional theatre’ in the US – the system – is broken; it is certainly not playing fair with its own writers. Why not? The same plays – not all by fellow Americans – are being produced over and over again, and the business of keeping companies open for business has virtually imposed a ‘safe’ production environment for theatre managements. The result is that not enough new work by contemporary American dramatists is appearing on US stages.
Some critics are blaming company boards who, we’re told, pressure their Artistic Directors to ensure that the organisation survives. I quote from a post by Mead Hunter:
Once you’ve created a bona fide institution, priorities necessarily change radically. From Board chair to box office, from artistic director to stage door guard, the mission of an institution and its dependents is to survive. No matter what its website says, whatever bland claims it espouses to being all about dynamic new theater, its rock bottom, honest to god mission in life is to survive at all costs. And I do mean all costs.
Whilst I take exception to most of this statement – and especially the last sentence – I concede things may be a whole lot worse in Mr Hunter’s neck of the woods, and that it’s another discussion for another time and place.
If you would like to know what has got a lot of our American theatre colleagues typing furiously into the wee hours, then can read all about it by going to Isaac Butler’s blog Parabasis, where this is actually a discussion group dealing with Outrageous Fortune. You might also be interested in this rather trenchant comment on the book itself from Chicago journalist Chris Jones. However, what I find the most interesting is Terry Teachout’s listing of the 11 (there was a tie for 10th spot) most-produced plays, and by extension, most popular playwrights in the US theatre during the past 10 seasons. The book itself is, of course, available from Amazon.com.
Now, before you click through to check the play popularity league table, who and what do you think will head the list? The work of someone from the classical theatre (pre-Shakespeare) – a long shot this. Perhaps it’s something from the early-modern era, i.e., Shakespeare through to Chekhov – that’s distinctly possible; or will it be a 20th century play – or a work from the past 10 years? Before you guess, I should tell you that Teachout left Shakespeare out of his listing to avoid swamping the results. That wasn’t a bad idea, as Will turned out to be the most-produced writer, so no surprises there. I’ll let you check for yourself. After I’d read Teachout’s list my own curiosity was sufficiently piqued to wonder how we were doing closer to home.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Queensland Theatre Company’s unique constitution as a Statutory Authority under an Act of Parliament. I’ve been involved with the Company pretty closely for most of my professional life – particularly during its first 10 and past 10 seasons. As you can imagine, something called a Statutory Authority is bound to have kept records; that makes mining for details fairly simple. I thought I’d start what, of necessity, is a limited investigation right there in the Company archives.
I would have said, until I trawled through the records that, during its first couple of years, the Company was top-heavy with English plays. After all, a season usually reflects its Artistic Director’s aesthetic penchant, and the Company’s inaugural A-D was the quintessential Englishman, Alan Edwards. However, a check of the records shows that the first production was, in fact, an Australian play: A Rum Do! – perhaps a smart political move here – while the other two productions in the inaugural 1970 season were an American thriller Wait Until Dark, and Philadelphia Here I Come! an Irish comedy.
There’s no doubt that British and Irish plays appeared frequently in Queensland Theatre Company seasons during the first 10 years, but then so did Australian and American works, alongside the odd sprinkling of European dramas. Shakespeare was, of course, a prominent member of the repertoire.
Between 1970-1979: No pre-Shakespearean work appears in the first 10 seasons of the Company – none of the old Greeks – although the early-moderns (Shakespeare through Chekhov) do make an appearance. It turns out that the strongest contenders in the mix are the moderns and plays from the then-contemporary theatre – contemporary I define as plays written during or within 5 years of the start of the period under consideration.
Queensland Theatre Company produced a total of 80 plays for its mainstage seasons in Brisbane and on tour throughout Queensland and NSW. The figure does not include the theatre in education tours for schools.
It’s the contemporary works at 56% that occupy the lion’s share. Of the 80 plays, 24 (or 30%) were Australian works, although none were by local writers. One (A Rum Do!) was written for first production by the company. And the most popular playwrights during the period were … drumroll:
William Shakespeare (6); David Williamson (3) and George Bernard Shaw (3).
I wondered whether this might have been reflection of the artistic triumvirate during the period: Edwards, Joe MacColum (an Irishman) and Murray Foy (an Australian) – perhaps it’s drawing a long bow. But what really, really shocked me was to see that no more than 2 out of the total of 80 plays were written by women, and that one of them used a male pseudonym.
Next posting I’ll turn over the past 10 years to see what – if anything – has changed.