Modern and Contemporary Plays Every Actor Should Know

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Photo Source: “Fairview” Julieta Cervantes

The modern and contemporary theatrical landscape has seen plays become increasingly experimental, exploring new subject matter in exciting, innovative ways. But understanding the iconic works that brought us to this point is key to an actor’s development. This list spans the most indelible plays of the last 80 years; and while no single article can cover everything, let this be your starting point for exploring modern and contemporary theater.

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“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams (1944)

The Glass Menagerie

There’s a reason why Williams’ breakthrough work is produced more often than nearly any other piece on this list—and why it’s studied so often in high school drama classes. It’s the first “memory play,” a term Williams coined to describe the piece’s highly specific narrative style. Told in hindsight by its protagonist, Tom Wingfield, filtered through his limited point of view. The five-character play puts its ensemble—primarily Tom and his mother and sister—in claustrophobically close quarters.

“A View From the Bridge” by Arthur Miller (1955)

Any number of this Pulitzer winner’s indelible works could have made this list, including flashier plays like “The Crucible” and “Death of a Salesman.” But we chose “A View From the Bridge” because it gives performers an unmatched lesson in the art of restraint. Narrated by the Italian-American lawyer Alfieri, Miller’s drama explores issues of morality, community, and betrayal as it tells the story of the doomed Eddie Carbone. The play makes the most impact when actors emphasize the slow burn of Eddie’s obsession and the entangled web of lies and desire he weaves.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill (1956)

It takes performing this four-act, three-hour magnum opus to understand what endurance truly means for stage actors. Whereas many other plays on this list leave the yearnings and internal struggles of their characters unsaid, this tour-de-force family drama makes them text; and in the hands of unskilled actors, those vocalizations risk turning into screams. But there’s nothing superfluous in O’Neill’s script, which is based on his own life—particularly when performed by actors who understand the power of nuance. Tragically, “Long Day’s Journey” premiered three years after the playwright’s death, going on to win a Tony and a Pulitzer for best play.

“Look Back in Anger” by John Osborne (1956)

This British play forever altered the stage landscape when it premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1956. It’s often credited as the first “kitchen sink drama,” a genre that focuses on working-class characters—often angry young men—who are disillusioned with the status quo. Osborne’s play ushered in a new era of gritty realism in British theater, supplanting the mannered comedies by the likes of Noël Coward that were popular in the prewar era. Performing this story of a couple living on the edge of poverty gives actors the chance to play the kind of strong emotions that come with desperate circumstances.

“A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

Hansberry made history when this groundbreaking play debuted in the late 1950s, as it was the first Broadway show written by a Black woman. The very title evokes the sense of withering defeat that characterizes the piece, which follows a Black family struggling to make ends meet in South Chicago amid the pressure of racism and gentrification. Though Walter Lee Younger is the inarguable centerpiece, it is his sister, Beneatha, who delivers the play’s scorching, standout monologue about agency, independence, and desire. Actors who take on “A Raisin in the Sun” face the challenge of bringing vibrancy to this heavy tale. You’ll get a crash course in the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience, learning to trust that playgoers will understand the actor’s intention—and, in turn, that they trust you to take them where they need to go.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee (1962)

This essential Tony-winning drama—which Mike Nichols memorably adapted for the screen a few years after its premiere—is a study in unrelenting cruelty. It can be hard for both the audience—and performers to stomach three hours in the company of the embittered George and Martha, who spend a long night hurling insults at one another and drawing their unwitting guests into their marital strife. That pain is exacerbated by the sheer rawness of Albee’s subject matter. When performing this play, actors must be the vehicle for the audience’s emotions—which means they can’t let their own feelings get in the way of the material.

“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard (1978)

Many contemporary theater critics and luminaries consider this drama to be the definitive portrait of a dramatized “homecoming.” As the story becomes more and more insane—from depicting a seemingly normal all-American family to chaos and despair as long-buried secrets come to light—actors must remain grounded. Despite the dissolving conditions around them, characters in the play keep grasping at their own version of reality. The greatest virtue of “Buried Child” is that it forces performers to mine truth from surreal circumstances; it’s no wonder the play propelled Shepard to theatrical stardom.

“Jitney” by August Wilson (1982)

Though it’s improving at a snail’s pace, American theater is still shamefully out of step when it comes to representation. This was just as true when August Wilson’s “Jitney” premiered in 1982 (it wouldn’t get a Broadway production until 2017). Set at a “gypsy cab” dispatch station in Pittsburgh, this was the piece that helped Wilson find his voice as a playwright, informed by blues and jazz music; that influence is apparent in the dialogue. When actors are able to pull that rhythm into their bodies, it should have the same effect on the audience as a live scatting session.

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn (1982)

This beloved farce earns a spot on our largely dramatic list because it’s a master class in the art of timing—comedic or otherwise. A play-within-a-play, this slapstick ensemble piece only works when every cast member nails Frayn’s fast-paced rhythms down to the millisecond. Though each actor gets their moment to shine, no one role is more important to the story than another.

“The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer (1985)

Kramer’s autobiographical tearjerker blazed the trail for what has become a well-established stage genre: the AIDS drama. More broadly, it’s a piece of activist art, equally as impactful creatively as it is sociopolitically. These types of plays are vital to the larger cultural conversation, demonstrating time and again the power of art to impact society. That said, the strong message of “The Normal Heart” means that it’s important for actors not to let its themes overtake the story; depth of performance is crucial. The lesson of performing Kramer’s Tony-winning masterpiece is that, regardless of what side of the debate a character falls on, everyone is equally human and complex.

“The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein (1988)

The winner of both the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play, Wasserstein’s feminist call to arms was both ahead of its time and timeless. The story follows art historian Heidi Holland over the course of 20 years as both her career and personal life grow and change. The play is famous for the protagonist’s lengthy Act 2 monologue—a must for any actor looking to hone their dramatic chops.

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” by Tony Kushner (1991)

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” by Tony Kushner

Like “The Normal Heart,” Kushner’s epic revolves around the AIDS epidemic and its devastating impact on the LGBTQ+ community. Divided into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” “Angels” took home the Pulitzer, Tony, and Drama Desk Award the year after it debuted on Broadway. Wordy and expansive, this masterwork follows 20+ characters played by only eight actors; they’re tasked with playing everyone from night nurses to celestial entities to Roy Cohn. As the setting shifts between 1980s New York City, the dream realm, and Heaven, the play’s surreality creates an atmosphere informed by the ephemeral nature of theater itself. It’s the job of the ensemble to be as ferociously present as the play is.

“The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler (1996)

Also one of the best practice scripts for actors, this episodic feminist classic is as hilarious as it is provocative. Character-driven monologues provide a subversive look at womanhood and its relationship to gender norms, power, trauma, and desire. But it’s not necessarily limited to female performers; actors of any gender identity can benefit from exploring Ensler’s discomforting, moving study on what it’s like to exist in American society in a marginalized body.

“Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley (2004)

Perhaps no contemporary playwright has been as critically divisive as Shanley, who’s hit as many home runs as strikes over the course of his four-decade career. But there’s no doubt about the quality of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Doubt,” about a nun who becomes convinced that a priest at her school is abusing one of his students. Even before Shanley adapted it for the big screen in 2008, the play was an instant classic. Ironically, performing a work about uncertainty requires actors to be that much more assured in their choices. It’s a great lesson to apply in any performance.

“Blackbird” by David Harrower (2005)

This tense two-hander, about a woman who was sexually assaulted as a child confronting her abuser, is not for the faint of heart. That intensity makes it a seminal dramatic work that deserves to be studied for its unrelenting look at rape and power dynamics, as well as the layered analysis that it requires from its cast. Both roles match one another in their intensity, and each character gets a multipage monologue that actors can perform in context or isolation to show off their chops.

“August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts (2007)

This Pulitzer-winning ensemble piece solidified Letts as a peerless voice of 21st-century theater, conveying the exciting possibilities of blending comedy and tragedy. The play centers on a multigenerational family who come together after the mysterious disappearance of their patriarch—and the dark secrets that slowly emerge over the course of one sweltering August. It’s a brilliant contemporary exemplar of the genre that gives an actor playing any role juicy material to work with.

“Eclipsed” by Danai Gurira (2009)

This wrenching, all-female drama is a particularly useful one for actors to study—because it was written by one. Gurira, who’s now best known for her turn as Dora Milaje warrior Okoye in the “Black Panther” films, focuses her playwriting to telling stories of people who have rarely (or never) been represented onstage. “Eclipsed,” which follows a group of Liberian women fighting to survive amid a brutal civil war, is an unmatched lesson in the importance of reconciling research with personal connection to the material.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon (2012)

To understand what makes “Curious Incident” so notable, know that it was nominated for a choreography Tony Award when it premiered on Broadway—a feat achieved by very few nonmusicals. Depicting both the inner and outer life of an autistic teen, Stephens’ play is a rare piece of representation for a widely misunderstood disorder. Playing the lead role is a physically and mentally arduous undertaking for any performer. But if you succeed, it will strengthen your acting tenfold.

“Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar (2012)

The 21st century has seen an influx of plays that tackle the subject of Islamophobia. This Pulitzer-winning piece, about a Pakistani American lawyer who hosts a disastrous dinner party, is a seminal work in the genre. Critics have unfairly filed “Disgraced” away under the category of “intellectual” plays due to Akhtar’s dense writing style. But it transcends this description, and any actor can benefit from taking on the play’s complex language and its topical, challenging subject matter.

“Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

Hamilton

Where would contemporary musical theater be without Miranda’s instantly iconic hip-hop opera about oft-sidelined Founding Father Alexander Hamilton? The show’s unique narrative structure, color-conscious casting choices, and unforgettable lyrics make it a cultural phenomenon well worth studying. No wonder it took home just about every award out there, including 11 Tonys, six Oliviers, a Pulitzer, and a Grammy. (Bonus points if you can make it all the way through Lafayette’s famously fast-paced rap “Guns and Ships.”)

“Hir” by Taylor Mac (2015)

On paper, this legendary New York performance artist’s “Hir” reads like a traditional family drama about a son returning home from war; but in performance, there’s absolutely nothing traditional about it. Mac, who is genderqueer and uses the pronoun “judy,” calls for “Hir” to feature gender-diverse, inclusive casting; one role calls for a trans actor. But beyond its radical innovation, this play is proof that the family drama will never grow stale, provided the story is something new.

“The Humans” by Stephen Karam (2015)

Karam made his Broadway playwriting debut with this taut family drama, which won the Tony for best play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Set over the course of a tense Thanksgiving dinner in a seemingly cursed New York apartment, “The Humans” is a unique blend of naturalism and magical realism that makes it a standout in the genre. Every character in this six-hander (with the exception of one who spends the majority of the play in a noncommunicative state) is beautifully developed and given at least one moment in the spotlight.

“Indecent” by Paula Vogel (2015)

Though Vogel has been a theater stalwart since the 1970s, it was “Indecent” that made her a legend. There are countless reasons why this work is unlike anything staged before or since; it’s a play about a play, performed in seven different languages, whose story unfolds across half a century. Its protagonist isn’t a person, but a piece of theater: Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” which sparked decades of controversy thanks to its racy subject matter and its depiction of a lesbian kiss. “Indecent” is a highly physical piece that calls on its ensemble to take on multiple roles and use their bodies in entirely new ways.

“Significant Other” by Joshua Harmon (2015)

Perhaps more than any other play, Harmon’s seven-hander encapsulates the urban millennial experience. (There’s even an entire monologue revolving around a pair of green Converse sneakers.) Following a group of friends living in New York City in the waning years of their 20s, “Significant Other” is funny and sad in equal measure—and highly stylized to boot. It calls on performers to make audiences sympathize with and invest in the travails of less-than-likable—but always fascinating—characters.

“Sweat” by Lynn Nottage (2015)

Labor, poverty, and identity politics are just a few of the themes explored in this Pulitzer-winning 2015 play. Based on a series of interviews with residents of Reading, Pennsylvania—which has been dubbed “the poorest city in America”—the play demonstrates the devastating impact of economic loss and the ways that class differences can intersect with substance abuse, friendship fallouts, and race relations. Its depiction of the people Donald Trump famously called “the forgotten men and women of our country” taps into the distrust and fear that led to his unprecedented rise to America’s highest office.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath (2017)

It takes guts to write a sequel to one of the most seminal works in theater history. Hnath pulled off the monumental task of following up Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece “A Doll’s House” as a comedy inflected with modern dialogue. Now a feminist novelist, Nora Helmer returns 15 years after leaving her family to finalize her divorce with her husband, Torvald—which, of course, isn’t easy. Hnath’s play demonstrates that while the winds may change, there’s nothing new under the sun.

“Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl (2017)

Wohl’s intimate play is remarkable for its form alone: Over the course of two hours, there’s hardly a word spoken among the ensemble cast. That’s why there’s so much actors can learn from reading the script—or, better yet, selecting a passage to work through with a fellow performer. Acting is as much about what goes unspoken as what does; bringing the literal blank pages of “Small Mouth Sounds” to life is an exercise in wordless expression.

“Fairview” by Jackie Sibblies Drury (2018)

This Pulitzer-winning play begins as a comedy about a middle-class Black family preparing to throw a birthday party for their grandmother. But Drury flips the script in the second half, repeating the action but adding four white characters who make racist comments about the family we’ve already met. By the third act, the play’s themes of surveillance, representation, and erasure have become abundantly clear. “Fairview” very purposely smashes the wall between actor and audience, challenging white theatergoers, in particular, to take a cold, hard look at what they came here to see.

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