Sunday, January 28, 2018

Here Are The High School Plays!

10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse
(My girl, left)
Several years ago, playwright and teacher Stephen Gregg, in his blog Playwright Now, put forth an argument that high school drama departments should stop producing hoary chestnuts of yesteryear.

Last year, as in most years of the late twentieth century, the top ten most produced plays in American high schools were crowded with scripts written at least a half-century old (or much older) including You Can’t Take It With You, Twelve Angry Men/Jurors, Our Town and The Crucible.

Add to that works of Shakespeare like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth (which are at least on the curriculum) A Christmas Carol and Alice In Wonderland, and you only have room for two plays written in the past generation; Almost, Maine and Peter and the Starcatcher … that last an adaptation of Peter Pan.

Gregg’s point is not to put down the works of the past, or to place some kind of moratorium on Shakespeare (as some have suggested) or the works of Kaufman and Hart. One of the most basic disconnects between today’s professional stage and its high school equivalent is that economics have driven playwrights to create plays with small companies, where your average coach needs to cast as many kids as possible.

There is an opportunity here, for aspiring writers to create new works, geared towards the needs of your average troupe of teenage thespians.

My daughter is a high school freshman, and though I have roped her into performing a few ten-minute plays at Pandemonium, she has only this weekend performed in her first complete play -- a performance of 10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse by Don Zolidis. This one-act play (it clocks in at about thirty minutes) is one of the most-produced short plays in America.

In fact, if you peruse the list of popular short plays, there is a much wider variety of contemporary work (including This Is a Test by none other than Stephen Gregg) several of which satisfy one of the needs described by Gregg, that works for high school stages should have many characters, and that these characters should be largely teenagers.

But that last point, however, leaves me unsatisfied. While it is true that classic plays can seem dated (obvs, how can it be classic if it ain't old) and designed to keep the manufacturers of spray-on gray hair color in business, the act of playing is the art of being someone else. And producing period work, if executed properly, can be an education in history, class, race, and much more.

Runaways (Bay High School, 1984)
We did a contemporary play when I was a junior in high school, Runaways by Jay Christopher (not the musical by Elizabeth Swados) about a shelter to keep kids off the street. But I was relieved to be cast as director of the shelter, and not as one of the teenagers. I already was a teenager. I wanted to be someone else.

So, why not have both? My recently published adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary features two plucky protagonists barely in their twenties, and a variety of colorful characters who are not necessarily any specific age. It’s a large-cast show with thrills, comedy and romance. Also, you get to learn about the aftermath of World War One and the sinking of the Lusitania. Wins all around!

I agree, it is bizarre that one play in particular, You Can’t Take It With You, has remained on the most-produced list pretty much since the rights were made available. This, in spite of an increasingly long list of references which have faded from collective awareness and, of course, the problem with Donald and Rheba.

Heck, that was the first play I ever performed in, when I, too, was a high school freshman. And I have had colleagues speculate that certain plays and musicals remain in rotation is precisely because high drama directors did those shows when they were in school.

My recommendation would be equal parts of each; that drama directors should dig deeper into the classical repertoire, and produce and promote new work by contemporary playwrights.

Speaking of which, The Secret Adversary is available from YouthPLAYS.

"Where Are The High School Plays?" by Stephen Gregg, Playwright Now (5/24/2015)
"The Most Popular High School Plays and Musicals" by Elissa Nadworny, NPR (9/15/2017)
"We Should Ban Shakespeare From The Stage For Five Years To Foster New Plays" by Lachlan Philpott, The Sydney Morning Herald (5/2/2016)
"Top 10 Most-Produced High School Plays and Musicals of 2016–2017 Revealed" by Adam Hetrick, (9/15/2017)

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