A guide to expand your genres past mandatory Shakespeare
Many of us have been assigned a Shakespeare play in high school. The text is dense and the shows are really meant to be seen. I enjoyed Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, but I have only discovered a love of reading plays in the past couple of years. To help you along that journey, I have compiled some tips, tricks, and recommendations.
Second-year classics major Jacob Farrell suggested picking “something relevant to you, maybe a time period or subject matter.” He noted that “plays are super visual, and that can sometimes mess with people’s emotions or triggers so it’s probably best to start with something you feel safe and comfy with.” It might be helpful to start with something you might have seen an adaptation of, like Doubt, Fleabag, One Night in Miami, Kim’s Convenience, or The Normal Heart (which was recently put on by Performer’s Theatre). Mainstream language is often easier to get a handle on than something period. Something like The Wolves, which was put on by the Motyer-Fancy Theatre in the fall, is great language-wise, but its structure is a bit hard to see on the page for beginners. Farrell recommends Death of a Salesman—a short, straightforward play about the failure of the American Dream, and Angels in America—an epic detailing a man’s struggle with AIDS. I am currently reading norma jeane baker of troy—a one-woman play that combines Marilyn Monroe with Helen of Troy, and School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, and would highly recommend both.
Along the lines of familiar material, musical librettos are another fantastic way to get into reading plays. One of the first plays I read for pleasure was the libretto of Next to Normal, which gives so much insight, especially if you’ve only listened to the cast recording. Additionally, really nicely published collector-style librettos such as those for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 or Hamilton are annotated by the author with creative choices during the process. It really gives you a peek behind the curtain at the process of writing musicals, which I find fascinating.
If you’re set on diving into Shakespeare, but a bit overwhelmed by the language, try a more accessible version first. She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, and even Gnomeo and Juliet are silly, lighter adaptations that still give you the plot basics of Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet, respectively. That way, when you go to read the play, you have a guide map to follow.
Crossover writers, who write novels as well as plays, can also be a great introduction. For example, murder mystery writer Agatha Christie’s plays Black Coffee, And Then There Were None, Appointment with Death, The Hollow, The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution, and Spider’s Web are easy, fun reads that feel like cracking open a Nancy Drew book at the library as a kid or sitting enraptured by the newest Knives Out movie.
If plays still feel overwhelming, don’t worry. They are meant to be seen! Fourth-year music major Annika Williams suggests: “Do the voices for each character!” or make mood boards to firmly picture the main characters. If that still doesn’t help, the Mt. A library databases have loads of sources. Through the library website, the Drama Online database offers thousands of plays available to read. Additionally, Digital Theatre Plus and Theatre in Video are two streaming sites free to Mt. A students that offer videos of classic plays, recent musicals, and so much more to enrich your understanding.
As well as online sources, we also have the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Centre (PARC). Faith Higgins, PARC intern and Mt. A drama student describes the organization as one “dedicated to the development and promotion of new Atlantic Canadian scripts,” containing “over 200 scripts created by playwrights from Atlantic Canada.” You may have seen Sophie Jacome’s Objects, directed by former student Hannah Tuck during an independent study in winter 2019.
The PARC library is open for anyone to peruse, and both the library and office are in the basement of Crabtree, open Mondays 12:30–2:30. You can also check our PARC’s library catalogue at playwrightsatlantic.ca/ or contact Higgins at [email protected]. Higgins also shared that PARC hosts an Annual Playwrights’ Retreat each spring, “which brings up to 12 playwrights to Sackville from different areas of the 4 Atlantic provinces. We provide them with the space and resources to work on a developing script for 2 weeks; this includes a staged reading for each script that comes in,” and mentioned that PARC is looking for a new Retreat Assistant Coordinator. Happy reading, and I hope that you take a chance to explore all the theatre resources Sackville has to offer!