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More Than Four Actors Need Not Apply

Remember when characters used to cram stages? In a nod to production economics, playwrights have adopted the doctrine of less is more.

March 11, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times theater critic

Glorious things can happen in the theater with the right material and four actors. Or three, or two. Or just one.

But it can get a little lonely sometimes.

It's nice to be around people.

Now and then, you just want to see a few bodies up there--enough, at least, to qualify wholeheartedly as "a clump."

In case you've been flipping through your program, trying to figure out which three performers play which three parts: This is not a heyday of expansive, large-scale theatrical exploration at our mainstream professional nonprofit houses. The same holds for the commercial arena. And since the two have essentially become one, in the name of survival and synergy, the situation appears mired in this country's stubborn lack of subsidy for the arts.

Thirty or 35 years ago in the American theater, a large-cast play meant work for 30 or 35 actors. Twenty years ago, the meaning of "large" had become smaller, indicating a cast of perhaps 20.

Today, "large" carries different definitions for different people. But "large" has shrunk. It means "10 or 12," if you're Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson. It means "eight or 10," if you're South Coast Repertory dramaturge Jerry Patch.

To Lawrence Harbison, senior editor for the theatrical publishing company Samuel French Inc., it means . . . "I don't know. More than four?"

In both the nonprofit and commercial worlds, the incredible shrinking cast size has been a grim fact of theatrical life, a metaphor for a belt-tightened, bottom-line era. The year 2001 in America, a time and place of shaky subsidy, will not be remembered as the Epoch of the Large Canvas, nor the Renewed Era of the Spear-Carrier. Rarely do you see anyone carrying a spear anymore. Rarely do the phrases "crowd scene" or "various supporting roles" crop up, outside a theater history seminar.

Playwrights may by definition be foolish dreamers, but fully half of them aren't idiots: They can spot a trend. They know which plays of which size get read, and occasionally produced, and which do not.

Every year American Theatre magazine publishes a list of the upcoming season's 10 most popular titles (excluding Shakespeare and "A Christmas Carol"). The magazine's 2000-01 season preview ticked off the hottest numbers on the nonprofit resident theater circuit.

No. 1, with at least 30 professional productions and hundreds more to come: Yasmina Reza's "Art," a play requiring three performers.

The list also included the musical revue "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" (four performers); "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" (four); Patrick Marber's "Closer" (four); and "The Weir," currently at the Geffen Playhouse, employing five actors. Another popular title, Warren Leight's "Side Man" (due in May at the Pasadena Playhouse), requires seven. It's practically a pageant by today's economic standards. By contrast, Leight's latest work, "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine," which recently closed its Taper run, is a four-actor piece, more economical (though not as effective) nearly by half.

The character tally is "always a consideration," says Los Angeles-based playwright David Rambo. His play "God's Man in Texas" debuted at the Louisville, Ky., Humana Festival and has since been staged at San Diego's Globe Theatre, among others. Early drafts of the script required seven actors. Eventually, he cut it down to three.

Suddenly his commercial prospects looked a lot better.

"We want to be produced," Rambo says. "That's why playwrights are always thinking: How few actors can I tell this story with?"

This may be a crucial practical question. And with playwrights who know what they're doing, it can be a freeing one. It's a pleasure to watch good actors inhabit a variety of roles in one play. It's magic, in the right hands.

Yet the practical question--how small can you go?--isn't always the most inspiring one.

"We all have to nudge each other out of the tendency to write in monologue," says playwright Heather Dundas, manager of A.S.K. Theater Projects, "or writing yet another scene of two people talking to each other. We're too used to doing it. Too many playwrights end up censoring themselves.

"And oddly, if you do write something for a large cast, you're committing yourself to getting it done in a tiny theater."

Those hungry for bigger, more populous evenings of theater typically find what they want at a musical, produced commercially or at a not-for-profit. Shakespeare's an exception to the small-cast phenom; with him, at least, no royalties.

Beyond that, the huge L.A. sea of sub-100-seat theaters affords a pretty fair chance of larger, messier, more ambitious work. That's the odd part. For a large-cast classic, familiar or not, for a mid-size title, even, the tiny broke companies are the place.

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