By Sacit Hadi Akdede, Victor Ginsburgh and Aynur Uçkaç
We all know the big productions of older classical theatre have full imposing casts yet theatre productions are progressively losing cast size. Is this a response to changes in consumer taste or simply a way to lower the growing production costs?
Casts are one of the most important elements of plays. Playwrights who create the main body of a theatrical event, tell their stories by writing roles. Directors and actors are in charge of creating the atmosphere, interpreting and transmitting the message of the playwright to the audience by using stage sets, sound or music, lighting design, and other sceneries. And of course, playwrights, actors and directors need theatregoers.
Managers or producers in the private as well as in the public sector think mostly in terms of production costs and prospective revenue from ticket sales. They are the ultimate decision makers who are supposed to know about the theatre business, as well as about supply (costs) and demand (tastes) conditions. A reasonable interaction among these three groups of agents (playwrights, directors/actors, and producers) of live theatre turns a script/written text into a theatrical performance/a staged play.
We specifically emphasize the difference between writing a play and producing it. Not every written play is produced. Producing a play requires thinking about the prospective costs of production, but also about audiences, whose tastes may have changed over time.
The question tackled in what follows is whether increasing costs (especially of actors, who represent the largest part of the production budget) influence the number of roles decided by the playwright or the cast decided by the producer over time. If so, it would imply that playwrights internalize the fact that their plays will not be staged if production costs are too large.
Baumol and Bowen (1966) are at the root of the theory suggesting that the arts must be subsidized if we want them to survive. In most industries, technological innovations make it possible to reduce the number of workers and increase their real wages. This general wage increase is passed through to the arts as well, but it is often more difficult to reduce the wage bill in this sector. A playwright can reduce the number of actors in her or his new play and the director of a theatre can reduce the cast, though it would be difficult to perform Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar without the 16 main characters (not including minor roles) to five.
It is however impossible to distinguish (using appropriate statistical tests) whether (a) playwrights reduced the number of roles since they internalize the costs of producing their plays, or (b) because tastes and fashion evolved and theatregoers prefer smaller casts, and writers follow the crowd.
Production costs have obviously increased faster than ticket prices, and are often not covered by ticket sales, but there are also reasons related to tastes for which the number of roles may have decreased over time. Though each of them probably has a small weight, adding them may eventually become important.
Theatre companies might prefer original plays with a small number of roles instead of giving artistic liberty to directors to shorten the cast in the original play by assigning multiple roles to one actor, crush some minor roles, or parts of the text. This indeed reduces costs, but it might also decrease the artistic quality of the original play.
We used two different datasets to test whether the number of roles changed over time. The first rests on the drama online library (https://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com) which includes 98 percent of original, non-adapted British playwrights and plays written between 1862 and 1988. Though the full database contains almost three thousand plays, we collected information about 960 plays, a number that is roughly the same as in the second database. The data were collected in the alphabetical order of names of playwrights and can, therefore, be considered to be a non-biased random draw. For each play, the number of roles, the name of the playwright and her or his date of birth was available.
The second dataset was compiled by the independent organization Turkish State Theatres (TST). It contains a catalogue of non-Turkish plays that can be chosen by state theatres. It is richer than the first since it includes 1,065 plays, of which 110 plays were written between the 15th and the 18th century; the remaining ones are more recent. One half of the plays have been staged in Turkish theatres, 37% were originally written in English, 21% were written by authors from former socialist countries, and 42% of authors were born in various countries (with the exception of Turkey).
The main characteristics of both datasets are summarized in Table 1, which gives the numbers of plays by sub-periods (of birth of the playwright) as well as the average number of roles for each period. As can be checked, the average number of roles is decreasing over time in both datasets, with a significant recovery during the 19th century in the TST data.
Table 1. Number of Observations and of Roles
We now test the hypothesis that over time, authors write plays in which the number of roles declines over time. We can, however, not distinguish whether they authors do this because they internalize the effect of increasing production costs, or whether because they take into account that theatregoers’ tastes changed over time, or because both reasons affect the decrease. The model that we estimate uses ordinary least squares to analyse whether the number of roles in a play (left-hand side variable) can be explained by the year in which the playwright was born (right-hand side variable), as a proxy for the year in which the play was written or performed. If this OLS coefficient is negative, then the number of roles is declining, and its value gives us the average decline between any two years. Results are shown in Table 2, for both Drama Online and TST data. All the coefficients are negative and are significantly different from 0, at the one percent probability level.
Table 2. Regression Results of No. of Roles on Birthdates of Playwright
We give some empirical evidence that the number of roles in theatre plays has been progressively decreasing over time. This downsizing does not seem to be a recent phenomenon. Instead, it is structural as demonstrated by the analysis of plays written during many centuries. This finding is similar for both databases, which are not identical, though there may be some small overlap given that the TST database includes 37 percent of British and American plays, while the other database contains almost 100 percent.
If big productions are considered important for cultural policy makers, then theatre productions should be subsidized, and certainly so for older plays. The subsidy should be based on the cast size as well as on artistic quality, though the latter is very difficult to assess objectively.
Baumol, W. & H. Baumol (1985). On the cost disease and its true policy implications for the arts. In Ruth Towse (Ed.), Baumol’s cost disease. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
About this article
Akdede, S, V. Ginsburgh and A. Uçkaç (2021), Internalizing Production Costs and Changes of Tastes: More Recent Theatre Plays Feature Fewer Roles, The Social Science Journal 58, 119-125.
About the authors
Sacit Hadi Akdede is Professor of Economics at Izmir Bakırçay University, Turkey.
Victor Ginsburgh is Professor emeritus of Economics in ECARES, the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.
Aynur Uçkaç, Adnan Menderes University, Turkey.
About the image
FocalPoint (2017) The cast of Madam Soussou.