Travels of English & American Plays, Part 2: The Common Influence of Public Support

March 5th, 2013 Comments Off on Travels of English & American Plays, Part 2: The Common Influence of Public Support

In the process of debunking the idea that English and American plays experience bias, for or against them , when produced in the their “opposite” theatrical cities of New York and London, I began to notice something extremely interesting about the origin of plays nominated for the Olivier and Tony Awards. Thinking it might be my own bias coming into play as I assembled data, I expanded my charts of nominated plays beyond simply the country of origin for the works, adding the theatres where the plays originated. What I found suggests that the manner of theatrical production in the two countries may be even more alike than many of us realize.

In the U.S., of the 132 plays nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play between 1980 and 2012, 61 of them had begun in not-for-profit theatres in New York and around the country. That’s 46% of the plays (and even more specifically, their productions) having been initiated by non-commercial venues. In England, 99 of the plays came from subsidised companies, a total of 75% of all of the Oliviers nominees.

Together, these numbers make a striking argument for how essential not-for-profit/subsidized companies are to the theatrical ecology of today. And, frankly, my numbers are probably low.

To work out these figures, I identified plays and productions which originated at not-for-profits. That is to say, if a play was originally produced in a not-for-profit setting, but the production that played Broadway was wholly or significantly new, it was not included. As a result, for example, both parts of Angels in America don’t appear in my calculations, because the Broadway production wasn’t a direct transfer from a not-for-profit, even though its development and original productions had been in subsidized companies in both the U.S. and England.

These statistics also don’t include plays that may have been originally produced in their country of origin at an institutional company, but were subsequently seen across the Atlantic under commercial aegis. So while Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed is credited with NFP roots in the U.S. it has been treated as commercial in London. Regretfully, I don’t know enough about the origin of all nominated West End productions in companies from outside London to have represented them more fully, which is why I have an inkling that the 75% number is low.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that in England, the Oliviers encompass a number of theatres that are wholly within subsidized companies, in some cases relatively small ones, which needn’t transfer to a conventional West End berth to be eligible; examples include the Royal Court and the Donmar Warehouse, as well as Royal Shakespeare Company productions that visit London. While there are currently five stages under not for profit management on Broadway (the Sondheim, American Airlines, Beaumont, Friedman Theatres and Studio 54), imagine if work at such comparable spaces as the Mitzi Newhouse, the Laura Pels, The Public, The Atlantic and Signature were eligible as well.

Why am I so quickly demonstrating the flaws in my method? Simply to show that even by conservative measure, it is the institutional companies, which rely on grants, donations and government support to function, which are producing the majority of the plays deemed to be the most important of those that play the major venues in each city.

Since we must constantly make the case for the value of institutional, not-for-profit, subsidized theatre, in the U.S. and in England (let alone Scotland, Ireland, Canada and so many other countries), I say tear apart my process and build your own, locally, regional and certainly nationally. I think you’ll find your numbers to be even stronger than mine and, hopefully, even more persuasive. While it may seem counterintuitive for companies outside London and New York to use those cities’ awards processes to make their case, the influence is undeniable.

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