Features Dialogues and debatesNYCNYC Features Published 21 May 2018

The State of Plays

Are American plays on Broadway in crisis? Our critics discuss.

Exeunt Staff

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Nicole Serratore: For months now, I’ve been fretting about the state of new plays on Broadway. It has been a strange year for new works, with some weaker American plays and stronger British plays on Broadway. UK critic Mark Shenton has gone so far to say “Broadway is heavily reliant on British imports, especially of plays – as [the UK is], of course, heavily reliant on Broadway imports to the West End for musicals. It’s a happy and healthy trade-off.

Is it though? British critic David Jays made an interesting observation when he tweeted about the Broadway dialogue between Ben Brantley and Jesse Green: “What’s interesting from a UK perspective is that it’s impossible to imagine two UK critics having this discussion about the West End, which to me feels almost marginal when you’re taking readings of the state of British theatre.”  If the West End is not the focus of British Theatre, what does it mean when Broadway is the focus (rightly or wrongly) of American Theater and that it is becoming rarer that American new plays of any relevance or importance are appearing there?

There have been some discussions by American journalists and playwrights about whether we should just accept that new American plays live and thrive Off-Broadway and we should not be trying to shoehorn them onto Broadway.  The spaces were not built for them, intimacy is lost, and Broadway is not the be all and end all for all works.

But even if one were to accept all those things as true, why do new British plays keep finding a hospitable place on Broadway? I’m a little troubled that there is a perception that new American work is not big enough, attractive enough, or strong enough to be viable on Broadway. But somehow British plays have the muscle, prestige, or marketing pull to do better? The idea British plays are taking over is really a smoke screen to the real issue of why American producers are taking less risks. What’s holding back these producers? Is it the plays themselves? Our system? Our understanding of what people want to see?

Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cameron Kelsall: The link between British imports and prestige theater goes back at least to William Goldman’s The Season (1968) and his conception of the “snob hit,” if not farther. British plays by writers like Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard were not necessarily seen as theater to be enjoyed, but for people who considered themselves cultured or invested in the arts, they were must-sees. I think that mindset has persisted to present-day Broadway, particularly when I see a younger British writer like Mike Bartlett (King Charles III) get a Broadway production before an Annie Baker or a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. I don’t mean to deride Bartlett’s work — I like his plays a lot — but the style and structure of King Charles III (a blank-verse historical drama about the English monarchy) strikes a lot of people as more appropriate for Broadway than, say, Baker’s The Flick.

Lane Williamson: There’s a sense that Broadway somehow equals legitimacy – that a playwright hasn’t truly made it until they have a play on Broadway. I understand that monetarily: your play is on Broadway, more people will hear about it, it will be produced more regionally. It’s artistically where I sometimes don’t get the connection. Growing up outside New York, I, like most people, thought of Broadway as the highest point of theater in America. I thought it was nothing but the best of the best. I still had that thought when I’d visit every year or so, but when I finally moved here it became quickly apparent that there is plenty of bad shit on Broadway: plays, musicals, acting, directing, design. When you see almost every production instead of picking a few while on vacation, the artistically monumental stands out so far from the good or the just okay. There’s a gaping void. There’s an idea outside New York that if a play doesn’t reach Broadway, it isn’t as good as a play that did. To some degree, the reverse of this is true among the New York theater intelligentsia: if a play is produced on Broadway, it’s commercial garbage. Neither of these things is true; the reality is much grayer.

I don’t think we need to root for Annie Baker to be on Broadway, although I would imagine it’s inevitable. She’s worked with Scott Rudin who fast-tracked A Doll’s House, Part 2 directed by Sam Gold, Baker’s frequent collaborator. There’s also a degree of certainty that comes with a Baker play: it’s gonna be incredible, no question about it. But isn’t the intimacy of Baker’s work what makes it so thrilling? The limited scope, the minutiae, the everyday weirdness, the much-discussed silence…isn’t all of that what makes her plays distinctive? By more than tripling the number of seats in the audience, how do you calibrate those hallmarks to meet the new terrain? It comes to mind that I’m being reductive: Annie Baker can do anything, so I should shut up and let her write whatever play this will eventually be and not let this paragraph come to back to haunt me. But, I have doubts.

Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Cameron: I think risk aversion plays a big part in the lack of new American plays on Broadway. In the last twenty years or so, how many new plays have gone straight to Broadway in a commercial production, and how many of them have actually been successful? Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 comes to mind immediately as a real anomaly: a new work by a fairly untested writer that opened on Broadway virtually cold. (A separate production of the play opened simultaneously at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California; however, the two productions were not affiliated in any way). And we don’t actually know how successful that production was, since its producer (Scott Rudin) declined to comment on whether or not it recouped.  But the mere fact that it played on Broadway for nearly six months, in a commercial production, is an accomplishment in its own right, and it highlights how rarely that happens nowadays. And it was definitely a gamble to bring the show to Broadway — a gamble that few producers would likely take.

Loren Noveck: Like everything else, I think it also comes down a lot to money. For British imports, the development costs are covered; the script and the production have been vetted and deemed good; the costs of things like building the set can be projected pretty precisely. And there’s a track record of audiences being willing to see the show (though ticket costs are of course different). It’s easier to pitch investors on a known budget, I think.  ​Having said that, if that was the only factor, you would expect to see more transfers of shows that had been developed regionally, and you don’t so much, barring the occasional Steppenwolf import. So I think Cameron is also on to something with the prestige factor.

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o, and Saycon Sengbloh in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cameron: An easy way to get a new play on Broadway would be to attach a major star. But that rarely happens. When A-list actors from film and television make it to Broadway these days, it usually happens in a revival of a classic work. I wish that instead of doing King Lear in a few years’ time — as he hinted he might in a recent interview – Denzel Washington decided to return to Broadway in a new play by an exciting young writer. Producers would line up to support that project with a star of Washington’s caliber attached. Of course, we do occasionally see a major movie star on Broadway in a new work — Lupita Nyong’o in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed comes to mind. But does anyone else see a connection between the preponderance of star-driven revivals and the lack of new American plays on the Main Stem?

Lane: Cameron brought up Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, another hot Off-Broadway playwright of the moment, who was actually – I just remembered – supposed to make his Broadway debut this season with a new translation of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. We’d get BJJ on Broadway, but not with a new play. I can’t find any information about why this didn’t happen, but it’s a shame. I think Jacobs-Jenkins and Ostermeier would be a great pair. This would probably rely on prestige casting to sell tickets, though: knowing Ostermeier’s work, I can’t imagine it would be a tourist-friendly production.

Loren: And there’s also the perception that tourists won’t go to straight plays, which could be a self-fulfilling prophecy (I don’t think TKTS actually does plays any favor by selling their tickets in a separate line, for example, though it does do non-tourists who want to use TKTS a favor.)

Nicole: I’ve been a little obsessed with the Broadway League demographics report because I think that idea that tourists are driving Broadway overall is a little bit of a fallacy. From those stats, yes, 60% of Broadway audiences are tourists and they are more likely to see musicals.  But playgoers are more likely to be repeat viewers. You can sell one ticket to one tourist who visits once, or maybe you could serve people who come back over and over again to buy tickets.  The typical straight play attendee saw nine shows in the past year and the musical attendee saw four. Almost 40% of theatergoers are from the New York City and its suburbs. That’s not a small number of people. Plays run for less time and so necessarily they limit the audiences to who can get there during that window. Even if we agree that plays are around for shorter windows the people who show up for them return more often. Maybe that loyalty should be rewarded with more plays.

Airline Highway by Lisa D’Amour (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lane: I definitely fall into the category of a repeat theatergoer. In my mind, the best new play on Broadway in many years was Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway, which I saw three times. The play looked at a subset of people I hadn’t seen depicted before and it was a rich, thrilling staging by Joe Mantello that gave me more every time I saw it. That was a Steppenwolf production brought to Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club, who also gave us this season’s transfer of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children from the Royal Court. Honestly, when MTC brings a new play from somewhere else, it’s usually pretty great. I would much rather MTC transfer terrific plays like Airline Highway or The Children than produce Our Mother’s Brief Affair. I don’t mind a transfer or a preponderance of transfers if it means we’re getting quality plays where we might otherwise have schlock.

Loren: I completely agree with you that the demographic data is being interpreted badly! But I also think it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if Broadway was the domain of big splashy tourist-friendly fare and a more robust commercial Off-Broadway scene could be supported and nurtured–I generally have a better experience with a play in a smaller venue (even the difference between the BAM Opera House at 2000 seats and the Harvey at 800 feels much more intimate and energetic to me) and if there was a way to run a long time and sell tickets in that kind of venue, I think it would be better for everyone. (The closing of the Barrow Street Theatre, which is one of the handful of places that operated on that sort of model and mostly did non-musicals, is a real loss. There are others–the Lortel and sometimes Cherry Lane–but I’d love to see more.)

The Flick by Annie Baker, Off-Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nicole: I’ve often wondered why our Off-Broadway sector (one of the main sources for new plays that do transfer to Broadway) does not work together as a whole to promote itself as prestigious.  You see international articles referring to Off-Broadway shows as Broadway shows if a celebrity happens to be in them. No one knows what the label “Off-Broadway” means outside NYC and outside theater circles. Maybe we could do a better job about selling the virtues of Off-Broadway which would lead to greater respect for the works developed and celebrated there if they then happen to move on to Broadway. I had a series of jokey tweets about this…”Before they were Oberyn Martell, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, Pedro Pascal, Adam Driver, and Oscar Isaac were Off-Broadway. Where the stars of tomorrow are already taking their pants off.” Ok don’t hire me to be the marketing person for this campaign, but what if people saw Off-Broadway, where so many American plays are born, as something that was unto itself prestigious. You are closer to the action.  You often get to see actors before they are well-known. The works can be edgier.  The risks taken sometimes are greater. Many of your favorite prestige TV shows are being written by playwrights who have worked and continue to work Off-Broadway. I know this sounds like it cuts against getting plays to Broadway…but I actually think it would serve that goal in the end if the issue is perception of prestige and not reality.

Loren: I also agree that there’s a killer marketing campaign to be born from the almost 100% crossover between “Peak TV” and Off-Broadway, and maybe someone needs to get HBO to underwrite it.

Nicole: Maybe I am tilting at windmills but I do still feel like I need to fight for new American plays to have a space on Broadway particularly for kids like me who would only have known about a show through Broadway. Those touchstone plays of my younger life—Angels in America, Proof, and Arcadia—happened on Broadway (and the irony is not lost on me that one of them was a British play with an American cast). The moments of rapt excitement, tears, and all the feelz that I had as a young person are wrapped up in those memories of new plays on Broadway. Maybe I’m forever chasing that experience when the commercial space around plays has changed so profoundly in the interim. Or maybe it’s always been this hard. Maybe my faves were the exception and not the rule. But when theater journalism is shrinking and the primary space that gets ink is Broadway (whether we like it or not), I want Broadway to serve the variety of patrons who visit it. I want Broadway to not mean just one thing because I don’t even think that’s true for musicals. I resisted a reductionist eye on “brand name” theater because just because something is commercial does not mean to me it is devoid of meaning or value.  I want new plays and new American plays to have a place in the commercial realm (if that means celebrities in the cast I’m actually fine with that to make it work economically). But I want to keep fighting for them to be part of the conversation and the conversation around Broadway. Even if it’s a fool’s errand, I guess I’m that fool.

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine


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