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The Chat with 2022 Governor General's Award Winner Dorothy Dittrich


Playwright Dorothy Dittrich is this year’s Governor General’s Literary Award winner for Drama for her play The Piano Teacher: A Healing Key (Talonbooks).

About the play, the 2022 peer assessment committee says:

"Moving and compelling. With this gorgeously written play, Dittrich has accomplished the remarkable. She brilliantly delves into a multi-layered exploration of love, loss, isolation and friendship, reaching beyond words to reveal the healing and redemptive power of music. She holds our hand on an unexpected journey through grief towards hope."

Dorothy Dittrich is a playwright, composer, sound designer, and musical director. Her play, The Piano Teacher, an Arts Club Theatre Silver Commission, went on to win the Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Original Script. Other plays include The Dissociates, Lesser Demons, Two Part Invention and If the Moon Falls. Her musical, When We Were Singing, has been produced across Canada and in the US, including a workshop with the Manhattan Theatre Company, in New York City. Dorothy’s work has garnered her a number of Jessie awards and nominations, two Dora Mavor Moore nominations, and the Sydney J. Risk Prize for Emerging Playwright. Dorothy Dittrich has recently moved to Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, where she continues to write and play music.


Imagine you could spend a day with one author, living or dead. Who would you like to spend the day with and what would you do?


I would like to spend the day with Gertrude Stein in Paris. I’ve never been to Paris and I’d like to see her Paris. We’d start early in the morning with a quiet breakfast, as I believe neither of us are morning people.

Then I would like to walk all over the city and listen to her talk about life and language—how to use the same words in every imaginable way to make them different and new. We’d go to the galleries and she’d tell me about the artists she knew and what they were doing and thinking at the time.

When we’d walked and talked and seen the sights, we’d head home to her place where I’d meet Alice and visit a bit before having dinner with Gertrude’s guests Samuel Beckett, Carol Churchill, Harold Pinter, Margret Atwood, Virginia Woolfe, Stephen Sondheim, Maya Angelou, Tennessee Williams, and A.S. Byatt.

I’d learn about risk, creativity, courage, craft, humanity, imagination, invention and humour.

What advice would you give to your ten-year-old self?

My advice to my ten-year-old self about the future would be: Don’t be afraid—give your negative critical voice very little time and energy or it will drown out your creative voice. It’s okay to get discouraged but don’t quit, everything will work out in the end.

What was it like to bring the play to the stage?
Bringing the play to the stage was scary in the way that a really good ride at an amusement park is scary. It’s fast, it’s intense, it’s unpredictable and you’re not certain you’ll land safely but you’re pretty sure you will and when you do, you want to run and by a ticket and ride it again. It’s an enormous privilege to get a play produced and brought to life—to have the opportunity to move from the very alone act of writing (aided by meetings with a dramaturg and readings to hear what it sounds like), to handing the play over to the team of actors, directors and designers, who will bring it to life is a remarkable experience.  
Receiving this award five years after the premiere feels wonderful. I have distance now. I am not the same person who wrote the play and I have let go of all the effort and influences that swirled around that time of writing. It feels like I am celebrating something that’s happening to an old friend. It’s amazingly joyful and I feel deeply honoured and grateful.

Who was the biggest influence on your journey as a playwright?
To answer that, I am going to be personal and name the novelist Jane Rule. I lived part time on Galiano Island where she and her partner lived and I had the great good fortune to meet her and become one of her many friends. She became my mentor. She was a wonderful writer and fearless in her writing, her subject matter and her life. She was a strong and positive voice for my community for many years. Brilliant and disciplined, she taught me as I was starting my first play, how to stay in the process of writing no matter how daunting it felt and to keep working at it. There have been many people who have been instrumental in my work as a playwright, but Jane’s encouragement, wisdom and knowledge, changed my life and gave me the courage to write for the stage.  
What was the last book by a Canadian author that changed you in some way?

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good.


Excerpt from The Piano Teacher

MUSIC CUE: Second movement (Andantino ed innocentemente) of Haydn’s Piano Trio no. 45 in E-flat Major, Hob. XV:29, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio

The music fades as the lights go up on ELAINE. She is standing centre stage, giving a lecture.

So. I am a piano teacher. You’ve come for a lesson. The first thing I want to know is why. I mean, you want to learn to play, but there’s usually more to it than that.

You might say, "I took lessons when I was a kid," "I studied for years and I can’t play anything," or maybe this is a whole new adventure for you. Regardless, whatever your reasons, there are feelings involved, and those feelings are all going to come into the lessons.  

For me, music is a world, and in that world, there are rules and systems and relationships. (going to the piano) In fact, music is nothing but relationship – one note to the next, chords, scales, keys – whole families of notes that belong together – or don’t. The dissonance of two notes that sit side by side (playing a B and a C together) is brought into harmony by adding a third note. Add a fourth and you have a peaceful community. (playing a C major seventh chord) It’s breathtaking.

And, like music, teaching is a relationship. Anyway, that’s a bit of my approach. You have to find yours – as future teachers.  And when you do, you have to be ready to let it go and change everything because no two students are alike, no two days are alike and oh, just when you’re feeling on top of it, the student you have absolutely no preparation for will arrive. And, I’m getting ahead of myself.  

The lights go up on ERIN entering her home. She  
takes off her coat and hangs it on a wall hook, then
takes a man’s sweater and puts it on as she heads into the kitchen.

(to Kevin, her late husband) Well, that was quite an afternoon. Certainly not what I expected. I thought I was going to be trapped in an overcrowded basement for hours listening to children hammer their way through Beethoven, Schumann, Bach’s Notebook, Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, the Impromptus. All those old chestnuts, but no. No one played any of them.  

ERIN makes herself something to eat as ELAINE
continues to speak.

Music is a language. I tell my students they need to learn to speak it, not just play it. Anyone can play music, but not everyone can communicate with it. When we play music, we’re communicating the essence of who we are, and I believe if we communicate honestly from the heart, we can actually say something.

I’m sure Sarah invited me just to get me out of the house. Sarah being kind. She has no idea how hard it is, but I have to say, I’m glad I went.

(going to the piano and continuing to address the audience) Music played from the heart speaks to the heart. It’s healing. (playing a note and then a scale) Simple. Tiny little steps. Twelve notes. Infinite possibilities.

It was really quite different. Very loose. There were only six or seven students and they ranged from five to about sixty years old. A boy played the piano for a young man who sang, and then a middle-aged woman played three songs she had written, which were quite good, and then her husband played blues. Maya was amazing. She’s gifted; she played Mozart. Just beautiful. So delicate. You would have loved it. The best was the five-year old who didn’t play at all. She said, "I learned a bunch of songs," and sat down. And everyone clapped. I thought that was brilliant. Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine being given the space not to play. After the recital everyone stayed for dinner. I didn’t. I just couldn’t.  

Students don’t always know what they’ve accomplished, and you can’t always put it in words that they’ll hear or understand, so I have a party, a ritual. No stress. They do something and we see them do it.

The whole thing was freeing, not just the recital, but the teacher too. She was so… with her students … even the kid who didn’t play.  She didn’t push; she just let her find her way, and she did. The minute the recital ended, that little girl went straight to the piano and played while everyone was talking. It was beautiful.  

So now this is the point I jumped ahead to. This little party, this ritual I have every year, is where I met the student I was not prepared for. I knew who she was. It isn’t every day that a… well, a famous pianist comes to your home to watch a little recital. No one else recognized her, and she clearly didn’t want attention in that way.

I felt almost normal. Safe.

ELAINE picks up her phone.

Imagine my surprise when she called a month later.

ELAINE answers her phone.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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