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Playwright Hannah Moscovitch on the necessity to publish theatre works

Being a playwright in Canada is like being an ice sculptor: you are a practitioner of an obscure art form that is ephemeral, impractical as a career choice, misunderstood, romantic.

Canada’s theatre history is very short. None of the Canadian playwrights I admire are dead. Or even old. There is no such thing as an A-list Canadian playwright, no recognizable names. Our plays rarely travel abroad. There are no silk roads. Once a decade there is a Canadian play that makes it big across the border (any border, pick a border). Once in a while, an American or a Brit will publish an article marvelling at the lack of Canadian plays on their stages. Then nothing will happen. No one notices. In Canada, we love our novelists, and we love our musicians, but we haven’t the faintest idea who our playwrights are.

Generally, playwrights are not focused on publication: we’re focused on production. That’s the arena of success. If you want to join the Playwrights Guild, you need to have at least one play professionally produced. If I wanted to boast to my colleagues, I’d say something like: “Next year my plays are going up in Japan, Scotland, and Greece.” If you write novels, you are writing an object, and so publication is the yardstick. If you write plays, you are writing a temporal-spatial event.

And unlike book writers, playwrights are penning something incomplete, or rather, “to be completed.” A text’s opacities and oddities will be filled in or emphasized by the team: the director, designers, and performers. Other artists will influence its meanings. They can conceal its inconsistencies and weaknesses. Or not. They are the ones communicating to the audience. Your contact is filtered through the lens of many other collaborators, distorted or enhanced, rendered banal or incomprehensible. Or alchemized. In the theatre, the published script is in a synecdochic relationship with the produced play. It’s only part of a whole. And sometimes the thing that is beautiful about a theatre project – the thing that makes it forceful or moving onstage – will be mysteriously absent on the page.

All that said, publishing your play is often a very meaningful way to communicate with a broader audience (or readership). Published texts (which can be read at any time, not just viewed in a four-week window in a specific city) can help playwrights develop a readership. Readers of your plays become your audience. You need an audience.

There are other practical reasons to publish your work that should not be underrated. There is the hope that artistic directors in  Japan, Scotland, and Greece will somehow get hold of a copy of your play, fall in love, and contact your agent. If your play is published, it can be taught at universities and high schools. Amateur productions, ranging from the beautiful to the beautifully terrible, will occur. The royalties will not be much, but they’ll be something.

Published text can also be submitted for prizes like the Governor General’s Award for drama. Somewhere between 20 and 40 plays are submitted for the GG annually, whereas more than 150 novels and short-story collections are submitted for the fiction award. The odds for playwrights are not bad. And awards bring an infusion of cash and visibility.

But, for me, the real beauty of publishing work is less tangible than all of that good career development. The bottom line is that we assign value to published texts. It’s much harder to appreciate a thing that you cannot buy outright and put in a bag. For Canadian playwrights, publishing allows us to catch a little of the splash – the overspill of glamour – from the publishing world. We get to hold a copy of our work in our hands, dedicate it to our family, and feel a glow. We get a little sense of what it must be like to be a novel writer.

Hannah Moscovitch writes for theatre, TV, opera, and film. She is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. In 2014, Moscovitch became the first playwright to win the Ontario government’s Trillium Book Award, for This is War (Playwrights Canada Press/Banff Centre Press).

East of BerlinPlays in print
In honour of Playwrights Canada Press’s 30th anniversary, publisher Annie Gibson shares with Q&Q 10 essential Canadian plays from its back catalogue.
The Melville Boys, Norm Foster (1984, 2012 second edition)
The Drawer Boy, Michael Healey (1999, 2005 second edition)
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, Djanet Sears (2003)
Annie Mae’s Movement, Yvette Nolan (2006)
I Still Love You: Five Plays, Daniel MacIvor (2006)
East of Berlin, Hannah Moscovitch (2009)
The Crackwalker, Judith Thompsonfrontmatter-04 (2003, 2011 second edition)
Scorched, Wajdi Mouawad; Linda Gaboriau, trans. (2005, 2011 second edition)
Maggie and Pierre & The Duchess, Linda Griffiths (2013)
Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays, Jordan Tannahill (2014)