Are we producing more new plays each decade or less?

Yesterday we talked about musicals, and today we’re talking plays.

What has been the trend for new plays throughout the decades?

Let’s go to the stat board and see what we’ve got.

  • In the 1940s, the average number of new plays produced each season was 49.4
  • In the 1950s, it was 41.4
  • In the 1960s, it was 35.7
  • In the 1970s, it was 25.1
  • In the 1980s, it was 17.4
  • In the 1990s, it was 10.9

Down, down, down like a submarine filled with sumo wrestlers . . . holding bricks.

But wouldn’t you know it, the average crept up a bit this last decade, just like musicals.

  • In the 2000s, the average number of new plays was 11.7

But still, a 77% decline from the 1940s?  Wowza.

Now yes, some of the decline from the days of old is from the additional theaters that were around/available . . . but 77%?

There is without a doubt a direct correlation to both the play and the musical decreases over the decades and the increase in risk as costs have escalated.

Let me be absolutely clear.  We must find ways of stabilizing this risk.  If we don’t, the disturbing trend above will continue, and as you can see, it’s very hard to reverse it. The best we can hope for over the next decade is that it doesn’t drop again.

So there’s our challenge readers.  Operation “Don’t-Let-The-Averages-Drop-This-Decade” is on.

Let’s get to it.


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  • Mary Gannon says:

    Your photo illustration is how I often feel in the final rewrite of a script, the figure above holds his arms out and says “give me some rock hard abs.” I genuinely think there is a tremendous opportunity for plays to have an amazing renaissance. I would say everyone is playing it so conservative at a time when there is tremendous potential to grab the audience need for something new, exciting and compelling. If we don’t go for it some other entertainment form will take it. Very interesting numbers.

  • BurlingameT says:

    Since the analytics you are using is only reflective of Broadway shows, it would be interesting to compare your findings to the number of new works (plays & musical) produced at the regional (professional) level, or even simply published new plays. The gut reaction is that producers and investors just aren’t willing to take the risk as the financial commitment has grown dramatically, but maybe it is a scarier issue, less work being created…

  • Laurent says:

    Here’s a question for which I do not have a reply; Are ticket prices today commensurate with ticket prices in the 40’s, 50’s 60’s or was it always this expensive to attend a Broadway show? If not, perhaps we are producing less on Broadway BECAUSE of ticket prices. Now, lowering the prices does not mean it will cost less to produce, I know. It just seems that because of high prices to produce sent on to the consumer, the consumer can only afford see so much.

  • Susan H says:

    Several possibilities occur to me that might help to explain the phenomenon of the vanishing plays and musicals. One is the expectation or hope in recent decades that shows will run forever – rather than mounting a reasonably priced limited run production. In addition to the costs involved in mounting Broadway theater, the expectations of monies to be made might be unrealistic.
    I wonder what the effect of TV has been on theater attendance, interest in theater, writing for theater, etc. Before the ’50’s there was no such thing as television and in the last decade or two cable TV has changed the game dramatically. It is possible to sit at home comfortably and to be rather royally entertained at very little expense.

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    Had your statisitcs gone back a hundred years, the decline would have been even more breathtaking. And the reason is clear: the more entertaiment alternatives there are, the fewer plays will be produced. I suspect that we have reached a kind of stasis with regard to that, though. This is about the level of production we can expect for the foreseeable future. The two factors then that must be addressed are: building audiences for the future through edcation, and reducing production costs.

  • Suzana Ilievska says:

    Theatre as a brand has collapsed…
    no matter where we live, work or love theatre…

  • Jared says:

    I think the problem is two-fold, and there are things that can be done from both a producer’s perspective and an audience member perspective. The most obvious point is that the cost of theatre really needs to come down. At $135 a seat, it is going to be very difficult to convince people who aren’t avid theatre goers to buy a ticket to your show. The solution to this seems to be star casting and brand recognition, but while that may put butts in seats it also doesn’t keep costs down (stars are expensive). More plays and musicals need to be produced that do not rely on expensive, fancy sets and gimmicky star casting. This season has proven that if your show is good, people will come. The biggest hits of the season (“Book of Mormon,” “War Horse,” “Anything Goes”) are largely free of spectacle and star casting. Yes, “Anything Goes” has Sutton Foster, but she isn’t bringing in the audiences like, say, Daniel Radcliffe is over at “How to Succeed.” All of the above shows focused on creating a good product and keeping costs down, and are reaping the rewards by doing sell-out business.
    On the opposite end, we theatre lovers need to continue to put our money where our mouths are and buy tickets to new works. If that means eating in more often or skipping a trip to the multiplex so we can afford theatre tickets, then that is what we have to do. To me it is a tragedy that a brilliant, original, and star-free show like “The Scottsboro Boys” closed so quickly. Yet many of my theatre going friends, who continue to bemoan the lack of original work and the abundance of Hollywood stars on Broadway, admitted that they did not prioritize seeing the show and hence missed it. So producers need to find ways to cut costs and make sure that the product is good above all else, and we as theatregoers need to make sure we continue to support new works.

  • Russell says:

    Mary what you said is very true. In the arts in general we are playing it very safe. But I have compassion for the old, stodgy people in theater making these choices (like the creative team of Spiderman, I mean really, everyone’s over 50….). After the shape theater was in the 70’s and 80’s I get it. Theater I think is doing better and they want to repeat the stuff that they THINK will always work.
    But now if we want this to last we need to start getting FUCKING-BLOW-YOUR-MIND-EVOLUTION-ORGASM-AHA!-I GET IT!-GORGEOUS-I’M LAUGHING MY ASS OFF on theater. Destroy your notions of what theater should be and create from your divine place. Do it, you absolutely can. STOP SETTLING FOR LESS than work that’s more evolved than anything you have ever seen. You can do it!!
    And Ken, can we compare the success rates of different types of musicals? Like what is the recoupment rate of original musicals versus jukebox versus movie adaptation versus book adaptations, etc.? Seems to me like In the Heights, Avenue Q and Mormon boy were all originals and did well….

  • You say the “costs have escalated”.
    Is that really so???(in today’s equivalent dollars of course).
    Please provide statistics to back up your claim.
    I think you may find that is just a false perception.

  • says:

    I think there are many interesting points made above, and I think we are also only looking at part of the landscape in this discussion.
    If you were to include that most amazing theatrical addition to our national cultural landscape, the regional not-for-profit professional theater movement, these numbers would skew in quite a different direction.
    Largely created from the founding of the National Endowment for The Arts forward (with the notable exception of pioneers like Margo Jones and Jac Alder in Dallas, Texas and the Guthrie in Minn.) our theater community has built a true national professional theater network for our nation over the course of less than 50 years. If you include all the professional productions of new plays and musicals that happen on the regional stages, where both budgets and ticket prices are more modest and accessable, I think it might lend creedance to the argument that we have more professional productions of plays and musicals than at any time in our history. They have simply become more evenly dispersed thru out the nation, rather than focused almost entirely in one metropolitan area.
    Theater, despite the many constant challenges we all face, is flourishing in America on an unprecedented scale—we just don’t keep it all in one spot anymore. Instead it is spread around the country where it is accessable and more widely enjoyed by millions and millions of our fellow theater lovers.

  • Scott Briefer says:

    First, I’d like to post that I truly enjoy reading your blog. Thank you. Second, I am a great fan of Godspell and am looking forward to your upcoming production. Thank you again.
    Issues I’d like to see you address…
    1. As a producer, a recurring theme has been how to fill those seats. You’ve touched on the “risk” factor in this most recent post. I think this is HUGE and perhaps the subject of several upcoming posts. I think costs – all around: unions, theater owners, producers, ticket prices, etc. – need to be addressed. I truly believe some rather clever rethinking of the commercial theater economic model needs to happen. Greed on everyone’s part – including just the US economy – has trained us, the theater going public – to look for those deals and pick and choose our theater far more carefully. Long gone is those days where going to theater to just support the art of creating theater. I look forward to reading your innovative ideas on this subject.
    2. Audience manners. I can’t tell you how turned off I am when I go to the theater pay $100+ dollars, only to sit next to someone who refuses to turn off their mobile device and talks/texts throughout the performance. Clearly the announcement often at the beginning of the performance isn’t cutting it. Recently, a woman sitting next to me arrived late – after the announcement – and she spent much of the first act talking on her phone. Something has to be done!!!!
    Again, your ideas are welcome.

  • Rachel Baine says:

    Off-Broadway has gotten out of control, too. Tony Georges is producing Tricks the Devil Taught Me at the Minetta Lane Theatre and the tickets start at $120. This is insane.
    Tony Georges wrote this play based on his experiences in Odessa, Texas. There is a summary posted here:
    Performers are worried about getting paid and nobody is buying tickets – they’re too expensive.

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