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Does a theatre script have value in itself - or is it an unfinished piece of art?

If you asked me in the Before Times my thoughts about reading drama for pleasure, I would have said, probably rather curtly, that plays are not meant to be read, but to be performed.

Bad plays often read better than good ones, I might have insisted. And, if you caught me on a particularly cranky day, I might have launched into a rant about the oxymoron that is the Governor-General’s Literary Award for drama.

While this is a popular polemic of mine, the target in my sights isn’t really those who enjoy reading drama, but the type of theatre critic who insists that directors “just do the play,” or the fool who occasionally comes up to me wanting to argue that Shakespeare is better read than acted.

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I believe in the collaborative completeness of theatre – and that actors, directors and designers are all involved in the authorship of a production of a play.

The current COVID-19 pandemic, however, is an opportunity to re-examine my point of view, and an invitation to soften it. I cannot watch new Canadian plays at the moment, certainly not as intended. Perhaps this is a time for me – and the country’s theatregoers, in general – to take up play reading.

Last week, Playwrights Canada Press, the foremost publisher of plays in this country, sent me some of their 2019 releases that are available as e-books. I set aside old prejudices to read them, trying to see if I could genuinely recommend that others do so as well.

I focused on plays that I had not seen on stage – so I wouldn’t cheat and fill in the blanks with a remembered production.

First up was Nick Green’s Body Politic, which I missed during its initial short run at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Green’s play is a series of scenes inspired by the rise and fall of The Body Politic, the pioneering queer publication that fought a series of censorship battles and helped bring together the LGBT community after the bathhouse raids of 1981.

It’s a memory play, framed by a 21st-century sexual and intellectual one-night stand between Phillip, a fictionalized version of the controversial journalist Gerald Hannon, and a seemingly apolitical young gay man who works at Starbucks.

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It was, to be honest, a cold experience to imagine in my mind this play with “body” in the title, rather than to see it on a stage with actual bodies involved – and even a bit perverse given the subject matter is the liberation of gay bodies (and minds). The fact that it felt incomplete on the page may, in fact, mean Body Politic is a proper creature of the stage, but that does not mean it is an entirely gratifying read.

I turned next to a comedy called Marriage: A Demolition in Two Acts by Rick Chafe, which appeared at Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2016. It’s like August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death crossed with an episode of Holmes on Homes.

Wayne and Julie, a long-married couple in their 50s, hire John and Maggie, a couple in their early 20s on the precipice of getting engaged, to renovate their kitchen. Pretty much everything that can go wrong does amid the banter about counter space and backsplashes – and a consideration of the pinched finances of two generations.

While I would probably normally find Chafe’s script too sentimental, I was happy to read a piece of art for once where marriage was viewed as something other than a sadistic trap or a tool of capitalist patriarchy. It was a surprisingly welcome distraction to read – and I can’t be sure there isn’t more depth to it on stage.

I expected Jeff Ho’s trace, which I missed at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in 2017, to be disappointing to read. In this solo show, Ho played characters based on three generations of women in his family, tracing their migration from mainland China to Hong Kong and then to Canada. The secondary characters only spoke through music that Ho composed and played on a pair of pianos.

Obviously, much of the pleasure of trace in performance must come from Ho’s virtuosity – both actor and pianist. The music, Ho writes in a note in the script, “is integral to any production.”

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And yet, I found reading trace the most genuinely pleasurable of these three – the one-man format meaning there is no crosstalk to navigate between characters, and the gaps in the script being obvious and therefore an invitation to really let my imagination take flight.

Ho’s play is funny, then sad, and rooted in the realities of immigrant family dynamics and historical events that put today’s pandemic into perspective. I was left yearning to see Ho perform the play once this is all over, without being left unsatisfied as reader.

The truth is that my heart’s never entirely been in the argument that one shouldn’t read plays – only that one should never confuse a script with a production or think that the latter is merely an extension of the former. In reality, I have thousands of published plays that I’ve carted around for decades now.

And there are some playwrights whom I turn to for solace – and, while I admire those masters of total theatre who write in three dimensions, such as Robert Lepage, my heart ultimately belongs to the stage poets such as Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill and Quebec’s Wajdi Mouawad.

Playwrights Canada Press has published Mouawad’s latest play, Birds of a Kind, in a translation by Linda Gaboriau. It explores the nature of identity through a family story and a romance weaved around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had seen this one before in English and in French and was happy to return as a reader, flip past all the dialogue to savour my favourite speeches, like a beautiful fable about a bird that gazes at the fish below the water and wants to join them. It seems to be speaking to us in this moment – and nothing is incomplete about it at all on the page.

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