Playwright Mark Brown admits that when he adapted Jules Verne’s epic novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” he wrote it with only five actors because “I wanted to get it produced.”
It’s hard enough to be a playwright but why bother trying if you know there’s no chance of it getting produced because it requires too many actors.
Many theater producers and artistic directors look for plays with smaller casts because they’re cheaper to stage, which explains the number of one-, two- and four-person shows we see each season.
We’re seeing it right now at both Asolo Repertory Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre, which are staging shows with a limited number of cast members.
“I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” at Asolo Rep, features one actor (Antoinette LaVecchia) cooking and telling a story about her character’s love life. The upcoming “Baritones Unbound” has three actors and a pianist.
At FST, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” features one woman (Susan Greenhill) playing Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the years leading to her becoming famous as a radio sex therapist. Later this summer, two actors will share the stage in the American premiere of “Taking Shakespeare.” The theater opens its summer season with the musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which features a cast of six, including four actors who also play musical instruments.
In contrast, “Hero: The Musical” at Asolo Rep features a cast of 13 plus a five-member band.
During a recent panel discussion at FST about the state of new plays in America, I noted how frustrating it can be for audience members when each new play has so few people.
More than once I have wondered, “Are these the only people we’re going to meet?” What if you don’t like half of them?
That’s not a blanket condemnation of small-cast plays. There are some wonderful examples, and it can be a pleasure to watch solo actors grab your attention for an evening with the stories they spin.
But sometimes you just want more.
Brown avoids the problem by having his actors play multiple characters, so at least we get to meet some extra people. Nine actors play 30 different people in his version of “Tom Jones,” which is having its world premiere at FST. And the five actors in “Around the World” played countless more characters.
Maybe the tide is turning. Theaters are apparently seeing more plays submitted that require larger casts. That doesn’t mean they’re getting produced, however.
“We’re seeing larger casts again,” said Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network, which helps launch new plays at regional theaters like FST. “For a while, everyone was doing two- or three-person shows, but I’ve seen even seven now. Seven is not so scary for our bunch.”
But nine can be a problem. Brown told the panel that at least one theater turned down “Tom Jones” because it couldn’t afford the nine actors it calls for.
The shrinking of cast size goes back long before the most recent economic downturn. But Barnett and Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, say budgets may be loosening a bit now.
Perhaps that will make it possible for playwrights to write what they want, not only what’s viable.
In the meantime, we need to appreciate when our theaters take a financial risk and put a lot of live bodies on their stages.
FST had a cast of 16 in “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” and Asolo Rep does it regularly, thanks to the free talent it draws on from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. Without those students, we probably wouldn’t see shows like “Philadelphia, Here I Come” or “The Grapes of Wrath,” which had a relatively giant cast.
All those actors (and characters) can add an extra richness to the experience.
But the bigger concern is how writers may limit themselves creatively because of financial concerns. Just when they need to be open to all kinds of possibilities to write, they have to set boundaries. You have to wonder what kinds of stories or storytelling we’re missing because of costs.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.