Book Recommendations: Read Plays

Inspired by a classroom visit this week to chat playwriting and the brightness of the students in the class (thanks for great questions), my book recommendations for this week are semi-books. They are published plays, which means they only half-work. Reading them, you know something is missing, something you have to imagine. The best plays feel unfinished on the page; you need to fill in the blanks, because a good playwright knows that actors do half the work. That said, a really good play can’t be sunk entirely even by bad actors. I still ponder the excellent experience of watching a Tom Stoppard play in a mediocre-to-atrocious production, and loving it anyway. But I digress.

Some plays to read whether or not you are a playwright:

(If you are a poet, they are helpful guides to leaving something unsaid; if a fiction writer, for how to structure a story in an off-kilter way; if you write memoir, for how to unfold memory and emotional resonance in the compression of time)

The List by Jennifer Tremblay

This is a monologue by a young Quebecois mother who has moved to a small town. She makes obsessive lists, worries about her neighbours, and unravels. We watch her unravel, and try to hold herself together with lists. Of meals, of mittens, of what she will do with each part of her day. We watch her heart breaking.

Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears

This play, first performed at Tarragon Theatre in 1997, is a Canadian legend. It is the story of Shakespeare’s Othello, imagining Othello’s Black first wife, deserted for a white woman, and told in three timelines: a present day graduate student, Billie, who is being left by her husband for his white colleague Mona, two Black actors in a dressing room in the southern US in 1928, and an enslaved couple in the south in 1860. The play is also structured around music, and the three couples are played by the same two actors. It’s dazzling.

The Drawer Boy, by Michael Healey (who, for those of you who attended the Ampersand panel, is Emma Healey’s father)

This is another Canadian legend. When I was doing my theatre degree, there was a joke that at least one theatre was producing The Drawer Boy somewhere in Canada at any given time. It’s also been made into a film. The play is a nod to another piece of theatre history: The Farm Show, which was a piece of verbatim theatre created by Theatre Passe Muraille in the early seventies. This play imagines a young actor who moves in with some farmers in order to create a show about their life. What he discovers shakes his ideas about memory and about what a story itself is.

Thom Pain: based on nothing by Will Eno

This is another monologue. I have difficulty describing it. A man stands on a stage and talks: about his life, about anxiety, about random things that occur to him, about a woman he’s met, about dogs, about being stung by a bee. We don’t know where it’s going. It’s not going anywhere, that’s the point.