In the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, a play could be performed on Broadway and then make its way to the high schools of the world pretty quickly. And it would stay on that list forever. Think You Can’t Take it With You or The Crucible or Noises Off. Broadway used to do plays with large casts that everyone could enjoy.
Glancing at the current roster of Broadway shows, you get some idea of the challenge facing high school directors. There’s nothing there you could do in high school. Are you going to do a play with four characters in it? For your entire school? If you have a big, healthy program, that means turning down thirty to forty kids who might audition. Those kids will then swear revenge – can you imagine a theatre program with thirty phantoms of the opera lurking in the catacombs beneath your auditorium? Not a pretty sight.
There’s also the problem of subject matter. A lot of Broadway, and “professional theatre” is pretty racy and almost always contains language that would get most teachers fired. Even someone as seemingly innocuous as Neil Simon could get you in hot water.
So that’s the problem. We’re left with an aging roster of classics that we do again and again – Shakespeare (although there’s nothing wrong with Shakespeare), Arthur Miller, Kaufman and Hart, maybe the occasional Twelve Angry Men or Alice in Wonderland. Fifty years ago doing All my Sons or the Crucible was cutting edge. Not really that way anymore.
We have great theatre for little kids. If you ever go to a performance at a children’s theatre, it’s amazing. The audience is screaming, laughing, crying out with fear – live theatre is unmatched in its ability to connect with an audience.
And then, when the kids turn about eleven or twelve, we forget about them. Sure, adventurous parents will take them to modern, professional plays, but for the most part the new shows are inappropriate for whatever reason. And there’s an even smaller chance that their middle school is going to attempt Angels in America or the latest Pulitzer-winner.
Why is this a big deal? Because most teenagers think theatre is old, and it’s not for them. They’re right, in a sense, theatre is old – but not quite as old as music, and they’re all over that. The problem is that shows written in the fifites are great, but they don’t exactly give the impression that theatre is a living, breathing, changing art form. And they certainly don’t convey a sense that theatre could impact them directly, be about them, or for them.
So there’s the problem: Lots of new plays for kids, lots of new plays for adults, very little in-between. Our potential audience concludes that theatre is dead, and as a result the people actually paying money to go to the professional theatre get older and older and older. When those people in their seventies were teenagers, they got hooked. Now, we’re killing our audience.
That’s where I come in. To single-handedly save America. Okay, well, not so much. And, I admit, a lot of the plays I write for teenagers are very, very silly, but there’s a place for that too. I write plays for young people that they can perform, that they can find entertaining, and in some measure can be about their world.
I want to make one last point. There’s a difference between a one-act and a full-length play. One-acts, thanks in some part to Playscripts, have become much fresher, and give schools a chance to do something new. There are a lot of reasons for this: Mainly, you don’t see a lot of one-acts making it to Broadway or being performed all over the country (except for David Ives – yay David!) so there’s not that much traditional material to look at. One-acts are also used in competitions or student-directed plays, so there’s a lot more freedom to pick something unknown.
Obviously, as I have about thirty one-acts for teenagers, I don’t want to disparage the form. As a teacher I found them indispensible. But if we’re talking about the full-length after school play that hopefully the entire school is going to come and see, traditional, old plays still rule the day.
A lot of my full-lengths are wild, silly fun – (and there is a place for wild silly fun! That’s what got the kids excited in the first place), but in most of them I’m trying to make a comment on the modern world. I’m trying to say something about how we live, or how we cope, or what new insanity is being unleashed upon us. I’m trying to do it in the most entertaining manner I can, but shows like The Craving or The Election or A Tiny Miracle with a Fiberoptic Unicorn are digging at something deeper
We need plays like that. Our kids need plays like that.
-- Don Zolidis