The Importance of Reading Plays

This article was prompted by Marsha Norman following a conversation regarding the initiatives of the Guild’s Education Committee.

Close up shot of stack of thin books

I was educated in Arkansas public schools and state colleges from the 1970s through the early 90s. At that time, my home state was nationally-ranked number two in illiteracy—always neck-and-neck with Mississippi. Perhaps to over-compensate for this statewide embarrassment, many of my teachers were rigorous when it came to literature. In my rural high school, plays were always read alongside poetry and prose, with Sophocles and Shakespeare among the Chaucer and Dickens, and Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams alongside the Poe and Dickenson. This, at time when only Shakespeare was required by the state! Our teachers made sure we had a better-than-average literary knowledge

When I went to college in Little Rock, I found a well-funded theatre department that adhered so strictly to state educational guidelines there was no room for embellishment. At the time, the degree required Theatre History I: Greek through Shakespeare, and Theatre History II: everything else. In the late 1980s, my Theatre History II syllabus included no women, no playwrights of color, and ended with Long Days Journey Into Night.

When that theatre department began to implode—interfering with my education and degree track—I transferred to Arkansas Tech University, the state college where I’d been both conceived and born. (Clearly, I was comfortable there.) In 1990, the theatre department had a full-time faculty of one: my friend Dr. Ardith Morris.

In my first meeting with Ardith, she reviewed my transcript to determine which credits would transfer. While my theatre history credits seemed in line, her casual references to commedia dell’arte, Calderon, Glaspell, theatre of the absurd, and Adrienne Kennedy—about which/whom I knew nothing—told me a different story. I told her to ignore my previous credits and pretend they didn’t exist. I’d happily take her theatre history classes.

And that started a conversation. Ardith revealed her long-held frustration that the entirety of theatre history was to be contained in two semester-long sections. Wouldn’t it fit better in three semesters? Even better into four? And here is where I discovered an advantage to an underfunded, rural university with a department of one: there’s little bureaucracy. Suddenly, we had four semesters of theatre history available!

Our Theatre History I covered the origins of drama up to the Elizabethan Era. Theatre History II was the Elizabethan Era to 1860. Theatre History III went from 1860 to just after World War II. (This section included many of the “isms” ...Realism, Naturalism, Surrealism, etc.) And Theatre History IV took us from 1945 to, well, whatever we could get in print that day. There weren’t textbooks or anthologies that adequately covered anything this contemporary, so we actually went to the library (there was no internet access yet) and also placed a lot of orders through Dramatists Play Service, Samuel French, Broadway Play Publishing, and the like for inexpensive acting editions.

By the end of those four semesters, we undergrads had read everything the state required plus Plautus, Susanna Centlivre, Lope de Vega, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein and so many more. We’d all read The Intruder and knew how to spell Maeterlinck correctly! (Helpful hint from Ardith: sing it to the tune of The Mickey Mouse Club song. “Mae…ter…linck…”)

Cut to the summer of 2011. I’m in Times Square, sitting in the offices of the Dramatists Guild being interviewed for this job. Names of DG Council members were dropped casually as the position was described to me: Marsha Norman, John Guare, George C. Wolfe, Tina Howe, Edward Albee, Emily Mann, Terrence McNally… As the editor of The Dramatist, I would need to know who they are and learn some titles of their work.

“I read them all in college,” I said. “I’ve read at least two plays by each of them.”

“Where did you go to school?” I was asked.

“Arkansas Tech University,” I boasted.

Since then, friends and acquaintances have shared with me their reading lists from Yale, Columbia, Harvard, NYU…and in each case, the reading list Ardith required was equal or better.

Due to the integrity and hard work of my Arkansas teachers (especially Ardith), I have one of the best jobs in the industry. I am eternally grateful. Thank your teachers and read more plays!

Editor, Joey Stocks
Joey Stocks

was born into an Arkansas newspaper family. He strayed into theatre as a performer before joining the Guild in August 2011 as Director of Publications and Editor of The Dramatist.