Our Reading Lives

Don’t Save the Drama for Your Mama: Perusing Plays for Pleasure

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray


I’m a drama queen.  Are you?

By that I’m really asking: Do you read plays?

Some people feel that reading a play is a sacrilegious act: that a play is alive only when it is being performed, and that what is trapped between the covers of a text is by extension dead.  I understand and empathize with that point of view — I adore live theatre, and certainly don’t want to replace my play-going habit with only ever reading plays.

But.  Time and budget and work hours and workload all work together to mean that I’m only averaging a little over 1 play every 1-2 months.  And that’s not nearly enough to satisfy my desire to have my dramatic itch scratched.  Because while I go to the theatre to see an actor’s interpretation and to be visually stimulated by sets and costumes and all of those wonderful trappings, the thing I love most about plays is dialogue and imagination.  And happily, curling up with a published play at home lets me experience both those things.

So it’s not the same.  But it’s still pretty good.

When I read a play, I get to do huge parts of the worldbuilding myself.  I get to build sets and design costumes.  I also get to conjure up motivations and history and backstory.  All those fun choices that actors and directors and designers get to make, I can play with in my very own living room.  And all the while I’m being treated to delightful, intricate, profound, engaged, and nuanced dialogue.  Like poetry and really good fiction, every word counts — I love being challenged to head for the big Oxford and ponder particular choices in expression.  Drama is often a genre of experimentation and play, forcing us as readers to open our minds to different ways of storytelling.

Anne of Green Gables might say that plays give great “scope for the imagination.”

If you haven’t read a play since college English, allow me to make a few suggestions of recent drama to draw you in.

If We Were Birds by Erin Shields: A recent Governor General’s Award winner, this play juxtaposes mythology and Greek tragedy against sexual and gender-based violence through the conflicts of the 20th century.  An easy read it is not, but Shields’ facility with language and her fearless focus on contemporary warfare is utterly compelling.

His Greatness by Daniel MacIvor: Daniel MacIvor is just rad.  Seriously.  He plays with language and absurdity in such engaging ways, which is why his Never Swim Alone and This Is a Play have long been favourites in theatre schools.  His newest published play does one of those great things that theatre does in bringing together unlikely bedfellows: a big-name American playwright, his right-hand man, and a Canadian street kid and con artist.  It’s funny and bleak and unforgettable.

alterNatives by Drew Hayden Taylor: Guess who’s coming to dinner?  A liberal Jewish professor of Aboriginal Studies, her native boyfriend who wants to write science fiction but is expected to rewrite his cultural mythologies, two Aboriginal revolutionary activists, a vegetarian environmentalist with a huge dose of PC awareness, and her hapless vegetarian-not-by-choice husband who just wants to eat some moose meat in peace.  Funny, poignant, and challenging to all political perspectives.

Have you read any good plays lately?