What If…Theatres Sought Out Epic Plays?

by Susan Bernfield

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if…theatres swam against the small cast currents, and sought out epic plays to produce?

Well, people do like to experience BIG!  There’s just something gorgeous, instantaneously delightful, about a stageful of people.  Opera, for example, is about spectacle, and it’s on the rise with audiences, even coveted young ones…. yet we’re sitting around letting plays get smaller.  So probably there’d be excitement all around:  from artists, who get to see their BIG visions onstage; from staff, who get a transfusion of energy from having all those excited artists around; and most of all from audiences, who’ll feel like they’re part of a way WAY more adventurous journey.

The small cast thing, it’s talked about a lot — often followed by the words “unit set,” which seems to be code for “easy and inexpensive to produce,” which often ends up being, say, a living room of some sort.  Okay, I’m gonna make a broad sweeping generalization, consider yourself warned. The thing is, at least for me, the problem with these presumed stipulations about cast size and production scale is that they tend to encourage a certain kind of play.   Small groups of people fit well into living rooms, and what people do in living rooms is talk, and so these small-cast plays which take place on a single set tend to explore the intricacies of human relationships instead of, well, the out-ricacies of the wider world.

Which is fine, and can indisputably be moving, and complex, and tell us very useful things about ourselves.  But it can’t be all our theater is, not in a world that exists well beyond living rooms, an epic world full of epic concerns that begs for a more expansive, often more metaphorical, certainly more heightened expression of its complexities.  And so I worry that small casts and unit sets encourage, sometimes, small ideas.

Is it crazy to think that having more people onstage, more transformative production design, more of everything, might encourage plays to be about more?  Or even just to go for more, to attempt more, to have more ambition?  With epic tools available, would artists hesitate to go all epic?  Or even just to use a broader landscape to create physical and emotional and magical visions and juxtapositions that show us the world in ways we wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been set right in front of us, outside of time and space and living rooms and….

Wait!  Whoa!  I interrupt this blog post!  I just read the question again, and this question, it just presumes, doesn’t it, it presumes that small casts preclude the epic.  And here I am answering it, so I guess I buy in to this presumption too, even though deep down I think I know that epic doesn’t have to mean big!  I mean, in any literal sense.

When did cast size become the primary parameter of big-ness?   Did we bring that on ourselves, by interpreting “small cast,” really a budget stipulation, in just one particular way?   Has using the word “small” led us to think small, to internalize this idea: small precludes epic?   What if — we made an epic theater with 4 or 3 or 2 actors?  Heck, even 1?  (Ooh, example: David Greenspan’s The Myopia!)  Can’t there be epics of any size?   If there are new limitations, shouldn’t we just find new ways to tell epic stories?

Literal scope is one thing, I can’t deny that it demands literal parameters.  But what about imaginative scope?   A BIG moment that happens in a simple, well crafted way is a beautiful thing, a purely theatrical thing, and an absolutely doable one.  But small epics take great assertiveness of vision.  They may take extra creativity – creative writing, directing, design, creative producing perhaps most of all.  They require thinking about all the tools the theater has to offer (many of which aren’t necessary in a living room, so we may be a little rusty in those departments…).   Maybe we can compensate for the perceived budget drag of multiple locations with a spare playing space that transforms easily and cleverly into new situations.  What if we took our few actors and set them down in an epic story, let them fend for themselves big-ly, in a flexible stage environment that emanates big-ness?

I think then audiences might get to rely more on their imaginations as well.  If we ask audiences to embrace the grand metaphor that small epics demand…  I think that’d leave us in possession of a theater both elegant and relevant.  And worth it, cause without busting our budget we could still satisfy the very human desire for narrative sweep, the desire to be transported beyond the ordinary and the true-to-life.

These aren’t groundbreaking thoughts.  I’ve seen hundreds of productions that fit this description, in theaters big and small, we all have.  But at a time of strong and intractable assumptions about what makes a play produce-able – small, and easy to conceive of and to build… when even the “what if” question internalizes these assumptions…  I think it can’t hurt to restate all this.  In the process, maybe we can remind ourselves to take whatever limitations we got and run with them, and not let them co-opt our narrative ambitions.

In my early days downtown, I was madly in love with the name of Kristin Marting and Tim Maner’s theater company, the one they had before they founded HERE Arts Center:  Tiny Mythic.  They did HUGE shows, actually!  (The company was small.)  But that idea, tiny mythic, the imperative nestled in that seeming contradiction, has stayed with me.  I propose that if budgets demand that our theater be tiny, we insist it be mythic anyway.  That with will, imagination, cleverness, we can make a small-cast play — and even a unit set – of epic proportions, and continue to describe the wide world in all its breadth and nutty glory.


Susan Bernfield is the founder and artistic director of New Georges, an award-winning nonprofit theater company that has produced and developed highly theatrical new plays in New York City since 1992. In that capacity, she’s currently producing THE GERM PROJECT: new plays of scope and adventure at 3LD Art & Technology Center in downtown Manhattan. She’s also a playwright and solo performer whose work has been developed and presented at theaters around the country.

  • http://www.laerslastprayer.blogspot.com Stephen Murray

    Thank you. This is both refreshing and hopeful.

  • http://www.peculiarworks.org Catherine Porter

    Preach it, sister! You know I”m with you. A small cast for Peculiar Works is, I don’t know, 12? Can’t wait to see The Germ Project…

  • http://artnewyork.org Ginny Louloudes

    Thank you for creating the GERM Project; and for “requiring” your participating artists to THINK BIG. If anyone can pull this off, it’s you!

  • Lisa Rothe

    Thanks for this post, Susan! I would be curious to know which EPIC thing we all saw as kids that made us want to get into this field in the first place…I mean everything looked pretty BIG from that vantage point…but I remember feeling and thinking and experiencing something so huge and profound at the time…and continue to try to access that…Looking forward to the Germ Project!

  • Melinda Goodman

    Great article. I have some ideas for epic plays I’d love to talk with you about.

  • Gogi James

    Susan, this is so smart. Nice to hear your voice again. Needless to say, I’m very proud of the work you’re doing. New Georges has come a long way from those first days, and I know it’s largely due to your vision. Brava, bravissima!