You’d never know it from looking at my reading list, but I am an avid theatre lover. In fact, when I was in high school, I read almost as many plays as I did novels—perhaps more. I went through a phase where my favorite things to check out of the library were volumes from The Best Plays Theater Yearbook series. I performed in lots of plays at my high school and later at a local community theater. It was—and is—a passion. But it’s a passion that I let fall to the wayside for several years.
As an adult, I don’t have the time and energy to commit to performing anymore, although I’d love to see that change someday. And for years, I never even went to the theatre. Back home in southwest Virginia, there weren’t tons of live theatre opportunities. And when I moved to the DC area, where there are numerous excellent professional theatres, I couldn’t afford to go.
But I’ve since come into a little more money and can afford tickets now and then, and even better, I’ve discovered theatre ushering. Ushers at many of DC’s theatres are volunteers. They are typically assigned to work at one performance of each show, and when you usher, you get to stay and see the show for free. It’s an excellent arrangement.
Because I see so much live theatre, I rarely read plays anymore. But I’m glad that so many plays are available in printed form, both because not everyone is lucky enough to live in a theatre town, nor does everyone in a theatre town have the means to attend as regularly as I do. Also, some plays have so much depth that it’s worth having a printed copy available so that you can examine key moments more closely. I’ve gotten used to watching Shakespeare’s plays without having read them (although I usually need the plot summary in the program to help me through), but I’m glad to have the full texts to refer to afterward if something is puzzling me.
I know there are several Shelf Love readers who are fans of theatre, whether on the page or on the stage, so I thought it would be fun to share my five favorite plays that I’ve seen in recent years, so that you can look for them in print, or go see them if they’re staged in your area. So here are some favorites, in chronological order of when I saw them:
- Equus by Peter Shaffer (London’s West End, 2007). I read Equus when I was in high school, but before I saw the much-talked-about London production with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, all I could remember was that I thought I sorta liked it. Well, I was blown away by this production. I’m generally a fan of minimalist, abstract staging, and the staging was marvelous, as were the performances. This was the play that got me back into going to the theatre. As soon as I returned from that particular vacation, I started looking into ushering opportunities.
- The Brothers Size (Studio Theatre, 2008) and In the Red and Brown Water (Studio Theatre, 2010) by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I’m cheating and putting these two together because they are part of a trilogy (although the plays stand alone and do not need to be seen or read in order). McCraney draws on Yoruba mythology and storytelling techniques to craft plays about young African-American men and women struggling with life in the Louisiana projects. It takes a while to get used to the style—the characters actually speak the stage directions—but it’s surprisingly effective.
- Blackbird by David Harrower (Studio Theatre, 2008). In this intense drama, a young woman confronts the man who sexually abused her when she was a child. This was chilling on so many levels, mostly because the playwright was able to get the audience to sympathize with both characters. After this play, I left the theatre emotionally wiped out.
- Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (Signature Theatre, 2009). My lack of access to live theatre when this musical was at its most popular is the only thing that kept me from seeing it years ago. And in a way, I’m glad, because this production was right up my alley. It was put on in a theatre with a thrust stage that seems much too small for such a big show, and the set was abstract and minimalist. The music was a little too loud for the space, but otherwise, the intimate environment was perfect for this story.
- King Lear by William Shakespeare (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2009). This production with Stacy Keach was loud and raucous and shocking. It crossed the line for a lot of people, but I loved it. Lear is shocking in its brutality, and a production that played it safe and stayed regal wouldn’t fit nearly so well. This was my first time seeing Lear, and I’m not sure it can be matched.
And a few honorable mentions include Romeo and Juliet (all-male production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company), The Visit (with Chita Rivera, Signature Theatre), Spring Awakening (Kennedy Center), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Signature Theatre), Brief Encounter (London’s West End), The Screwtape Letters (traveling production), This Beautiful City (Studio Theatre), and Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare Theatre Company).
What are some of your favorite plays and musicals? What do you look for in a play? How does watching a play differ for you from reading it?
If you like hearing about literature on stage, I’d be happy to post about some of the plays I see—but only if there’s interest. So if you, like me, love reading about theatre, please pipe up, and if there’s sufficient interest, I’ll post about some of what I’m seeing.
And a reminder: I think I’ve gotten as far as I’m going to for now with my bookshelf culling project. I can fit almost all my unread books on one bookcase, and as I read the remaining books, I will continue to post many of them to Bookmooch and Paperbackswap or just give them away. If you’d like first crack at the books I post at Bookmooch, you can add me as a friend. The Paperbackswap system doesn’t allow you to reserve books for groups, but PBS-ers can add me as a buddy there too.
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Spare Room by Helen Garner. Excellent book about friendship, cancer, and caregiving.
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. A book for older children with an intriguing puzzle as its premise and great characters at its heart.
- The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread). For the LOTR readalong. Almost every bit as good as my first read more than 20 years ago.
- Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh. A novel about a white man, his Malaysian wife, and their two children in 1970s and 80s England.
- The Golem’s Eye by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The sequel to The Amulet of Samarkand. I’m liking it even better than the first book.
- The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. Still plugging away at this. Most weeks, I’m managing one poetry exercise. My last attempt was at comic verse.
- Corrag by Susan Fletcher. Brand-new historical fiction about the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe.
- Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The final book in the Bartimaeus trilogy.
- The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread). I’ll probably be starting this tomorrow.
- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. An addition to my permanent collection.
- Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen. The Harlem Renaissance tour piqued my interest in Larsen, so I was excited to get a copy of both novels in one volume from Paperbackswap.
- Corraq by Susan Fletcher. Finished copy sent for review by Fourth Estate. I’m eager to read this as I’ve heard good things about Fletcher.
- The Other Side of the Dale by Gervase Phinn. Litlove’s post alerted me to the existence of this comic novel, the first in a series about a schoolteacher in Yorkshire. I’ll be visiting Yorkshire for the first-time this spring, and I was looking for some light related reading.
- The Puppet Master by Joanne Owen. Melanie’s review of this caught my eye ages ago, but my library doesn’t have this book. I finally snagged a copy through Bookmooch. It looks like good creepy fun.
Books on My Radar
- The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner. I enjoyed The Spare Room so much that I want to read more Garner. This is the only one of her books my library system has, so it’s a likely candidate.
- Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner. Another Garner that Sarah specifically mentioned in the comments on my review.