The Art of Reading Plays and Training Your Brain

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Did you have to read Romeo and Juliet in high school? Of course you did. We all did. Maybe you also read Macbeth or Hamlet. Perhaps if you had a really great high school English teacher, you might even have taken on one of Shakespeare’s comedies, like Twelfth Night, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Do you remember studying that play as a positive or a negative experience? Do you remember it at all?

I was one of the rare souls blessed to have an incredible high school English teacher (well, I had him twice and he was phenomenal… the other years were… unfortunate). In his class, I delighted in reading plays. He was so methodical in teaching them – making sure we actually understood every innuendo, every double entendre, every instance of foreshadowing, metaphor, and symbolism. Those classes were very formative for me, not only because I developed a love of literature through his teaching, but because I came to understand how learning slower and more deeply results in a way different type of knowledge than quick memorization. 

Reading plays, like reading great works of literature, is tricky business, which is why most people think they don’t like it. It’s a skill that requires focus, curiosity, humility, creativity, and openness. As you read a truly great play or novel, you need to be open enough to allow the characters and settings and events to build themselves up in your mind’s eye. This requires suspension of disbelief, a cache of reference points, attention to the details the author or playwright gives you, and a willingness to not have all the pieces perfectly together right away. You also need to be humble enough to stop when you don’t understand something and go look it up (made infinitely easier by Mr. Google), or shelve it in your mind until you start to understand it better through context. You also need to read deeply – no distractions for at least a few minutes at a time (something we’re not all great at now that our phones poke and prod us every few moments).

Reading a play is a particularly fascinating exercise in training different parts of your brain, with the added benefits of (a) actually enjoying what you’re reading while you do so, and (b) the deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment one gets at the end of tackling a challenge you don’t take on every day. 

So, here’s how I read a play. It’s not fast, it’s not easy, and it’s definitely not sexy (well, it depends what your definition of sexy is… I actually think a highlighter and voluntary research are VERY sexy). What it is, though, is deeply rewarding. It’s a marvellous thing to do on a weekend morning, or stretched out over several evenings. And it’s particularly wonderful if you can follow it up by seeing the play in person (it is so delightful to sit down for a play with the excitement of knowing all your favourite parts, and wondering how the actors and director will have infused their own interpretations into the words you already love – trust me). 

HOW TO READ A PLAY

1. Pick what to read

Obviously this is a tricky part, so I’ve created a system for you. First, pick an era you love. What the hell do I mean by that? I mean, do you love movies set in the Renaissance? Do you love British novels from the 1800s, like those of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters? Do you hate that stuff, and only like books, TV shows, and movies from about 1950 on? There is literally no wrong answer. Pick your era, then go to this list from The Guardian (arranged in chronological order by playwright) and just pick one from the years you tend to like. I particularly love novels, music, and art from the first half of the 20th century (for example, John Steinbeck is my favourite author), so I would look at all the plays from around that time. Two of my favourite plays are in that block – A Raisin in the Sun and The Crucible – so I know I’m in the right place to find a new read. Grab the title of a couple and hit up Google. All you need is a one sentence summary to know if something is up your alley. Or, alternatively, just pick a famous play you know the title of (like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or The Importance of Being Earnest) and go for it (you could start with this post of 10 uber-famous plays). (Or, check out this post I wrote on famous plays that were made into great movies. Or, if you like contemporary films/music/art/politics/activism, check out this post on amazing living playwrights.)

2. Buy a hard copy

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’m a library fanatic. And the library can be a great place to get dramatic works in print, especially university libraries (hot tip: university libraries tend to be better for everything other than current titles and fun, casual stuff like cookbooks, so it’s always nice to have two library cards – one for the public libraries of your city, and an alumni or community card for your local university. Nerdy sidebar over.) But, my love of the library aside, a play is a wonderful thing to get in hard copy. They’re often very short in print, making them a lovely size to hold. And, I have this crazy affinity for the look of the plays published by Dramatists Play Service Inc… they’re so charming. Plus, plays tend to run you only about $10.

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3. Get your stationery ready

If you’re as gleefully nerdy as I am, you’re probably already pumped about this one. That’s right, friend – grab your implements of choice (in just about everything involving quotations and marginalia, I use my law school go-tos: a mechanical pencil, a Sharpie pen, and a yellow Staedtler highlighter, plus cute Post-it flags), and tentatively decide how you would like to mark up your play as you read. I use highlighter for lovely turns of phrase, good jokes, the really devastating lines… basically anything quotable. Plus, having a highlighter reminds me of highlighting my own lines, first in high school theatre and then throughout my opera training, which gives me the warm fuzzies. The mechanical pencil is for random thoughts, boxing around chunks of interesting text, and making little diagrams and doodles (sketches of parts of the set, for example, or a drawing of a costume described in the script). The Sharpie pen I use mostly for notations beside anything I highlight, and the flags are for my favourite parts.

4. Optional: Google the plot of the play before you start reading

Either you’ve just recoiled in horror (as I personally do at this suggestion), or you’re like “yup, definitely doing that.” A friend of mine reads the end of every novel she starts first so that she knows where it’s all going (and, as she once pointed out, if she dies partway through the book, at least she knows what happens). This can be an especially helpful tip if you’re reading Shakespeare or his contemporaries, any of the ancient Greek plays, or any avant garde contemporary works of theatre. In short, anything that might be especially challenging to read. If you know the general arc of the story first, who all the characters are, and what the main settings will be, you can focus on learning the language, looking up specifics, and actually digging into the meat of the play, rather than scrambling to get any sort of foothold you can. And some people like this approach for all plays. As I say, you do you.

5. Tuck in

And now the fun part: the actual reading. Read slowly. Re-read. Read scene by scene, and make sure to read not just the lines, but also the stage directions and other instructions from the playwright (including those at the beginning about character descriptions, set, costumes, etc. – this is part of what makes reading plays so fascinating). Try thinking like the director. Try thinking like an actor. Try to hear each voice and envision the action. And when you don’t understand something, whether it’s actual language or how a character has wound up on the other side of the stage when you were sure they weren’t there a second ago, stop and re-read. Think about getting to know the play, rather than just getting through it. Like I said, plays are actually quite short, so take your time and really enjoy it. And mark it up! I feel so much more connection to something I write in than something I leave pristine, but, as always, you be you.

6. See if there’s a video version or, even better, if you can see it live

Look. There are a lot of plays out there, and the chance of a specific one being produced in your city soon after you read it is… negligible. Of course, you could reverse engineer this whole process to pick something that’s coming up (a totally wonderful option, but which might result in you reading a play not well-aligned with your existing tastes and interests), or you can use the miracle of the internet to see if you can find a recording of the play you’ve just devoured. Copyright and royalties being what they are, it is often slim pickings. But depending which play you’ve chosen, there might be full-length film versions, or there might be filmed stage versions (way better). Often these are at – you guessed it! – the university library! So have a sniff around and see what you can find. It’s SO worth it to watch a play after you’ve done a deep dive, you have no idea.

And that’s how you read a play! I hope you try it out to stretch your creative brain, train your focus muscles, and enjoy the sweet satisfaction that only comes from highlighters.