What Our New Plays Really Look Like
A Statistical Guide to US World Premieres in the 2019–20 Season
The Purpose of This Study
The goal of this study is to use data to capture trends in new play production at the seventy-five LORT (League of Resident Theatres) member theatres and the thirty-two NNPN (National New Play Network) core member theatres. In working, I set out to answer three questions: Who is being produced on our stages? What kinds of characters are appearing on our stages? And what do these plays look like in terms of form and thematic content? By measuring where new play production is currently at, I hope to create an awareness of not only what is happening on our stages but also what is missing from them.
The Study’s Methodology
I identified 111 titles that are receiving a world premiere at either a LORT or NNPN theatre in the 2019–20 season. I then emailed surveys about these plays to either the literary manager or artistic director at the theatres producing these titles. I received responses for 80 of these plays, giving the study an overall response rate of 72 percent.
When designing the study, I made several important choices. First, I decided not to include musicals. Because cast size was one of my interests, I felt that combining musicals and plays in a single study might skew the numbers and give the impression that the plays being produced utilize more actors than they actually do. And while I considered conducting a second study devoted exclusively to musicals, I ultimately came to the conclusion that there are not enough musicals being premiered at LORT and NNPN theatres this season to get a meaningful sample size.
Second, I chose to count each title only once regardless of whether or not the play was receiving a rolling world premiere. I made this decision because I felt that counting a title multiple times might give a single play too much weight in the final results. In addition, there wasn’t any clear way to differentiate in the data, for example, between three plays and one play receiving three productions as part of a rolling world premiere. Because of this, I decided the study’s findings would be clearer if I made the decision to count each title only once.
Third, when looking at cast composition, I focused only on the specifications made by the playwright and not the casting choices of an individual production. I did this because I wanted to explore whose narratives and experiences are finding their way to our stages and whose narratives and experiences remain absent. Thus, in my approach to representation and diversity, I chose to make a distinction between a race-neutral role played by a non-white actor and a role written specifically for a non-white actor. In retrospect, I wish the survey had also included an additional question about the number of race-neutral roles in the script. However the results presented below don’t account for those kinds of roles.
Finally, I should note that while the survey received 80 total responses, this doesn’t mean that each question received 80 responses. Whenever one uses broad categories for statistical purposes, there is a certain amount of nuance and case-by-case specificity that gets lost. The result is that some respondents omitted answers to certain questions because the framing language of the question didn’t always allow for an appropriate response. The clearest example of this can be found in the question devoted to each play’s central theme. This question, which had the lowest response rate, received only 63 responses.
First and most troubling is the almost total absence of trans and non-binary voices in this season’s offerings.
Who Is Being Produced?
The first thing I wanted to measure was demographic information about the playwrights themselves. I chose to look at gender identity, race, age, and educational attainment. Collectively, this data provides a broad overview of how opportunities are currently being distributed in the field.
- Playwrights by gender (part 1): 53.3 percent are women, 42.7 percent are men, 2.7 percent are multiple authors of different genders, and 1.3 percent identify as non-binary.
- Playwrights by gender (part 2): 100 percent are cisgender, 0 percent are transgender.
- Playwrights by race: 47.2 percent identify as white, 23.6 percent identify as African American, 12.5 percent identify as Latinx, 4.2 percent identify as Middle Eastern or Arab American, 2.8 percent identify as Indigenous, 2.8 percent identify as Asian or Asian American, 2.8 percent are multiple authors of different races, 2.8 percent identify as other, and 1.4 percent identify as multiracial.
- Playwrights by age: 47.9 percent are ages 26–40, 40.8 percent are ages 41–60, 9.9 percent are over age 60, and 1.4 percent are under age 26.
- Playwrights by educational attainment: 54.4 percent have an MFA in playwriting, 45.6 percent do not have an MFA in playwriting.
Several things struck me about these numbers. First and most troubling is the almost total absence of trans and non-binary voices in this season’s offerings. If there is one area where our new play programming is falling glaringly short, this is it. Looking at these numbers, I can’t help but wonder what the repertory of contemporary American plays might look like if even just a dozen LORT or NNPN theatres committed to premiering one play by a trans or non-binary playwright in the next three years. How might that change the trajectory of these writers’ careers and lead to the spread of these works all across the country?
On the more encouraging side of things, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a majority of these plays were written by women. Additionally, non-white playwrights authored a majority of these plays. Even though I don’t have comparable data from ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, I find it difficult to interpret this as anything other than a major and relatively recent sea change in the field. It’s worth reflecting upon the practices and values that were put in place to enable such a transformation. Furthermore, theatres may want to think about how those practices and values can be expanded to other parts of the field so that our artistic leadership, stage directors, and designers can become as diverse as our new play programming is.
Lastly, these numbers suggest that we need to interrogate the significance we currently attach to the MFA. On the one hand, it can be a useful marker of ability, and it would be foolish to dismiss completely the value of intensive training in the discipline. (After all, 100 percent of doctors go to medical school, so why wouldn’t a substantial percentage of playwrights go to school for playwriting?) On the other hand, what are the implications of making the MFA a de facto prerequisite for getting your script on a literary manager’s desk? Whose voices are never heard because of the significance we attach to graduate training? And, finally, how can we expand opportunities to those who do not have a graduate degree? That being said, I should note that there is no statistical difference in the racial diversity of those playwrights in the study who have an MFA and those who do not have one. However, there are almost certainly other types of diversity, such as class and lived experience, that are being lost as a result of the importance we attach to the MFA.
Who Is Being Seen on the Stage?
Before looking at cast breakdown, I first wanted to consider cast size. There has long been a feeling that American playwriting is limited by the demand for works that utilize as few actors as possible. I wanted to see if the reality of the situation matches this general perception. I found the following:
- 59.5 percent of these plays have a cast of 5 to 8 actors, 25.3 percent of these plays have a cast of 2 to 4 actors, 7.6 percent of these plays are solo shows, and 7.6 percent of these plays have a cast of more than 8 actors.
Next, I wanted to examine who is being represented on the stage. The survey asked the following two questions: Are at least half of the characters specified as female by the playwright? Are at least half of the characters specified as non-white by the playwright? Remarkably, both questions received more yeses than nos.
- In 65.8 percent of these plays, at least half of the characters are female.
- In 57.7 percent of these plays, at least half of the characters are non-white.
I then asked a series of questions about whether or not the play includes characters of various ethnicities. The results were as follows:
- 52.9 percent of these plays feature at least one African American character.
- 30.4 percent of these plays feature at least one Latinx character.
- 13 percent of these plays feature at least one Asian or Asian American character.
- 8.8 percent of these plays feature at least one Middle Eastern or Arab American character.
- 7.2 percent of these plays feature at least one Indigenous character.
I also inquired about gender identity and disability status:
- 6.7 percent of these plays feature a character who identifies as either transgender or gender non-conforming.
- 5.4 percent of these plays feature a character who is not able-bodied.
I should note that in asking about disability, the framing language of my survey question focused exclusively on the physical aspect of disability. In hindsight, that was a mistake and didn’t account for other kinds of disabilities, including the experiences of those who aren’t neurotypical. It’s possible that, had I used a more expansive approach to disability, these numbers would be higher. In future surveys, it is my intent to not limit the scope of this question to the physical.
What Do Our Plays Look Like?
Finally, I wanted to see if there was a way to use data to identify some of the defining features of these plays. This was by far the most difficult part of the study to design. Because of the inherent subjectivity of art, questions about style and theme often inhabit gray spaces that don’t lend themselves to the checking of a single box. In fact, I eliminated a potential question about genre because I couldn’t figure out how to create categories that most contemporary plays could slide neatly into.
In short, one of the consequences of our fabulously eclectic dramaturgy is that there is no simple way to capture what American plays look like today. As a lover of theatre, this makes me very happy. As someone trying to gather data, this presents a conundrum. Ultimately, I settled for trying to find out three things about our plays: their length, their style, and their thematic focus.
- When it comes to length, 62 percent of these plays do not have an intermission while 38 percent do.
As for style, I wanted to see whether realism and the living-room drama are as prevalent in our theatre as we imagine them to be. I found the following:
- 50.7 percent of these plays were considered realism by the survey participant, and 49.3 percent of these plays were not.
- 31.3 percent of these plays take place mostly in a person’s home.
As someone who reads a lot of new plays, I can’t say I’m surprised by these numbers, but I do think that they suggest there is quite a gap between what we think of as the “standard American play” and the new plays that are actually on American stages.
The last area I looked at was thematic focus. I presented participants with the following question: “With the caveat that all good plays are about more than one thing, please select the theme that is most central to this play. If none of these answers fits, please leave the question blank.” I then gave participants a list of themes to choose from. Below you can see each theme as well as the percentage of plays that grappled with this issue.
- Race in America: 36.5 percent
- American or international politics: 11.1 percent
- #MeToo/sexual or domestic violence: 9.5 percent
- Mental illness: 6.3 percent
- Faith/religion: 6.3 percent
- Economic inequity or hardship: 6.3 percent
- Science or technology: 4.8 percent
- Physical illness or healthcare: 4.8 percent
- LGBTQ+ issues: 4.8 percent
- Military conflict/veterans issues: 3.2 percent
- Art: 1.6 percent
- Drug addiction/opioid epidemic: 1.6 percent
- Education: 1.6 percent
- Immigration: 1.6 percent
- Criminal justice system: 0 percent
- Gentrification/housing: 0 percent
- Climate change/environment: 0 percent
What’s most striking is the extent to which our new plays are engaging with race. This is almost certainly a direct result of the historical moment we’re living in. Social movements like Black Lives Matter as well as the unapologetic and unrestrained bigotry of the Trump administration have forced all of us to reckon with our country’s failure on matters of race; however, I can’t help but wonder how long this reckoning will last. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history knows that Trump is a symptom of a larger problem in our country, and that problem will be with us long after he is no longer president. But will our appetite for confronting this problem remain just as strong as it is now? Will matters of race still be at the forefront of our art in five or ten years?
Will matters of race still be at the forefront of our art in five or ten years?
What Comes Next?
As a dramaturg, I have been trained to be descriptive, not prescriptive. In that vein, I designed this study so that theatres could see for themselves what our new play programming looks like. While I would never suggest that theatres make artistic programming choices primarily on the basis of data, this doesn’t mean that numbers have no role to play either. As theatre artists, we are all storytellers, and these numbers tell an important story. They are one additional way of measuring what our audiences are and aren’t seeing. To that end, this data can be useful for theatres as they wrestle with the most important programming question of all: Why this play now?
In the years to come, I hope to continue to grow this research so that we can see how trends in playwriting and new play production change over time. If we are to figure out where we’re headed, we first need to know where we are and where we’ve been. That’s what I hope to contribute with this study.
Special thanks to NNPN for their help in encouraging survey participation and to the following theatres for their participation: 16th Street Theater, A Contemporary Theatre, Alley Theatre, Arden Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre Group, City Theatre Company, Clarence Brown Theatre, Cleveland Public Theatre, Company One Theatre, Dallas Theater Center, Denver Center Theatre Company, Florida Studio Theatre, Fountain Theatre, Geva Theatre Center, Goodman Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, InterAct Theatre Company, Kitchen Dog Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Center Theater, Magic Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, Marin Theatre Company, McCarter Theatre Center, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Northern Stage, Northlight Theatre, Perseverance Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Portland Center Stage, Portland Stage Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Riverside Theatre, Salt Lake Acting Company, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Silk Road Rising, South Coast Repertory, Syracuse Stage, Teatro Milagro, Alliance Theatre, Trinity Rep, Two River Theater, Unicorn Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.