As an aspiring actor or actress you will always be told to keep the classics close to your heart and ready to deliver at the drop of a hat. This may be true, and it is, but there is something to be said about staying up to date with more current plays as well.
A play is considered modern if it was written between the late 19th centuries until about the early 20th century. It is considered to be a contemporary play if it was more recent, from about the mid-twentieth century to current day. This list is dedicated to contemporary plays that should grace every actor’s shelf or at least be read and familiarized.
1. August Osage County, by Tracy Letts
August Osage County is one of the most bracing and applauded contemporary plays in recent history. It brings to light the dysfunction of an American family with all of its highs and lows. When the father figure of the Weston clan vanishes one blistering night during the summertime, the family comes together to reunite at their Oklahoma farmhouse. During their stay, long time family secrets are confrontationally and raucously exposed to the family members. This play has a tree act format that is three and a half hours of a most entertaining mix of dark comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy that is a result of three generations worth of bitterness, disappointment, and the unrealized dreams of its thirteen characters whose lives have become deeply scathed by the events.
2. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner
The next contemporary play is actually comprised of two full-length plays entitled: Millennium Approaches, and Perestroika. Written by Tony Kushner, he exposes the lives of a number of people trying to figure out their purpose in life and make sense of the world they inhabit. For example, one character named Prior, is infected with AIDS and loses his lover, Louis, to another man. The other man, named Joe, is an ex-Mormon and a political conservative who is having issues in his heterosexual marriage as his wife slowly succumbs to a nervous breakdown. These stories are often compared to the ones regarding Roy Cohn who tried to hide his sexuality while making an attempt to find some sort of personal redemption in his beliefs.
3. Pretty Theft, by Adam Szymkowicz
Adam Szymkowicz brings us a contemporary play that is full of multi-faceted and interesting characters. With excellent dialogue and humor, Szymkowicz’s play is satisfying without being overly drawn out. It mashes Joseph Cornell and his boxes, ballerinas, female friendships, stranger danger, and the hazards of prettiness. Above all else, this contemporary play brings love in all of its glory and sadness. The play revolves around Allegra who loses her father and is taken under the wing of Suzy, the bad girl type. She ends up discovering an unforeseen bond with a young man named Joe who is an autistic savant. The story takes an intense turn causing the girls to flee across the country meeting up with other characters that are not so good for their betterment. We get to see the horrifying aspects of our world where the careless get hurt, as do guiltless bystanders.
4. The Cemetery Club, Ivan Menchell
If you are looking for a sweet and cute contemporary play with humorous banter and well-constructed themes, this one should make your list. This Ivan Menchell play centers around three Jewish women who are widowers that meet monthly for tea before going to visit their husband’s graves together. In the trio there is a terrific diversity of personality with Lucille, the fun feisty one, Ida, the sweetheart, and Doris who is more stuffy and proper. At the grave site they meet Sam who is there to visit his wife’s grave. Ida and Sam make a connection which is later squashed by the other two widows. Her heart is broken and they feel horrible about playing a role in it. Called, ”Funny, sweet-tempered, and moving.” By the Boston Globe, The Cemetery Club is a touching production that makes you grateful to have seen it.
5. Beautiful Thing, by Jonathan Harvey
Innocent love between two friends who become lovers. This contemporary play shows the plight of two boys who just want to love. You see the different viewpoints of the community around them and that they do have some support. A great tale that shows no matter who you are and who you find to love, love is love. Jonathan Harvey has a great ability to bring an audience to tears or make them laugh which is spectacular for the stage and an incredible feeling for the actors who are on it. A wonderful story for the masses to learn to grow beyond prejudice and let our differences be differences and not flaws.
6. Proof, by David Auburn
Proof is a contemporary play that has won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Drama. This play was one the most highly acclaimed plays during the 99-00 years and looks at the uncertainties of love as well as the curiosities of science. It introduces, Catharine, a young woman who has devoted much of her life to taking care of her father who is unable to live functionally without her help. During his younger years, her father was a brilliant mathematician.
Upon his death, Catherine’s sister tries to convince Catherine to join her back in New York and begin her life. Hal is also introduced. He is a former student of Catherine’s father who wants to rifle through his rambling scribbles for some sort of undiscovered genius. Catherine is battling her own feelings of the sadness of losing her father, and her bitterness of the time lost in her own life to care for him. Catherine and Hal become intertwined and attracted towards one another in an atmosphere of trust, love, and unpredictability.
7. Closer, by Patrick Marber
Closer is a Patrick Marber play that looks at the selfish and jealous nature of modern love. Within its pages are a group of four characters who are not very likable but hard not to watch. Full of sexual desire and betrayal, this play gives you that uneasy feeling that makes an impact and stays with you. A little on the darker side, Closer shows the downfall of the desires of its characters making it a wonderful contrast of disturbing and lovely.
8. Buried Child, by Sam Shepard
This revised edition of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Buried Child, is as fierce and memorable as it ever was. This dark representation of a family that is riddled with a history of incest, treachery, infidelity, and murder is placed in the bizarre atmosphere of a farmland home. Full of characters with intense flaws, they are all ghosts of their former selves. There is a madness that has taken over the farm’s inhabitants and the memory of an unwanted buried child that is in an undisclosed location throws even more curiosity, drama, and unsettlement into the mix. This contemporary plays is a must read.
9. Wit, by Margaret Edson (or W;t)
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play delves into the mortality of human existence and the importance of human relationships. We experience the life of Vivian, Professor of English who is diagnosed with cancer and her struggle to stay in control of what is happening to her. When her methods begin to fail, she begins to question the way beliefs and ideals have guided her life and what the real focus life should be in order to make it worth living. This contemporary play shows the duality of life, its compassion and egotism, and its sympathy that does not come without its thoughtlessness.
Knowing the classics for use on the stage will always likely be important in the lives of actors. Yet, to remain well-rounded, it is also important to look at more modern writers and be aware of contemporary plays so that you can appropriately transition your skills to reflect them during an audition. You would not want to portray a contemporary play with the air of Shakespeare. Knowing a wide variety of plays with different character types, in different genres, can give you a huge amount of resources to draw upon. You will also be more prepared to tackle any type of role that may come your way. This list gives you a taste of contemporary plays to read but is definitely not all-inclusive.
What are some of your favorite contemporary plays? Which ones have you come across most often in classes and auditions? Feel free to list any contemporary plays you think would be both educational and entertaining for other actor’s libraries.