Featured Playwright — Dorothy Dittrich

Playwrights Guild of Canada
5 min readJun 1, 2024

Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Dorothy Dittrich, a playwright, composer, sound designer, and musical director. Her most recent play, The Piano Teacher, is the recipient of the Governor General’s award for English-language drama. An Arts Club Theatre Silver Commission, it went on to win the Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Original Script. Other of Dorothy’s plays include The Dissociates, Lesser Demons, Two Part Invention, If the Moon Falls, and Family Channel. Her musical When We Were Singing has won multiple awards and has been produced across Canada and in the U.S. It was also workshopped at the Manhattan Theatre Company in New York City. She is the proud recipient of the Sydney J. Risk Prize for Emerging Playwright. Dorothy holds a Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts and has recently moved to Vancouver Island where she continues to write and play music.

Tell us how you got your start writing plays.

I began working in the theatre as a rehearsal and show pianist while I was still in high school. I went on to study music in university and started working as a musical director with the theatre department. Eventually, I began working professionally as a musical director and sound designer. My first writing attempts were collaborations and were all musicals. The first piece I wrote on my own was When We Were Singing — a sung through musical. After that I began writing plays.

You have said you consider yourself as much a musician as a playwright, as you work in sound design and composition, and as a vocal coach and musical director. How does your musical practice inform your playwriting, and vice versa?

I believe that I approach language and dialogue with a musical ear. Language has rhythm and phrasing, it has pace — cadence, riffs, it speeds up, slows down. It’s full of dissonance and resolution and like a play, it can be very dramatic and very still. I suppose I have an awareness that music can take on almost any form — that there is a flow to music. Perhaps that ends up coming into my work. All of my plays tend to feature music that is in some way an integral part of the play.

I think playwriting has allowed me to enter into music in a way that is more theatrical. I trust space more than I used to. I always wanted to play a million notes really fast. Theatre has taught me that silence is extremely powerful. One needn’t fill every moment with sound.

United Players of Vancouver, in association with Touchstone Theatre, is staging your play When We Were Singing from May 31 — June 23, 2024. Can you tell us about the creation of this play, and what do you hope audiences will take away from it?

When We Were Singing was written and set in the late 80’s/early 90’s just at the end of the first stage of the AIDS pandemic. It is about four friends living in a big city trying to find their way and while the play is not specifically about AIDS, the impact of it is woven throughout, along with themes of loneliness, isolation, disconnection from self and other, the desire to be seen and accepted and loved — themes that are still with us. I think the creation of the play came out of living during that time when those feelings, and perhaps feelings in general, were less easily or readily shared. Talking openly and directly about our feelings was not yet part of the culture. I believe there was a lot of suffering and as a result, a lot of action taken to shift that reality. It felt important to show that public/private juxtaposition and it just made sense to me that it would be entirely sung as music holds so much emotion.

I would love the audience to feel a connection to the people and their stories — to what is being expressed: to remember that time if you were there, or be curious about it if you weren’t. I’m very excited it’s being produced again. So much has changed since it was written and yet it seems that so much is still the same. It’s lovely to be here now, looking back with fresh eyes.

You won the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Drama for The Piano Teacher. What did it mean to you to win that award for that play?

It’s hard to put into words exactly, but I can tell you it was an extraordinary honour. It’s had a profound effect on me on every level and it’s had an incredibly positive impact on my life. When you ask what it was like to win that award for that play, I would say I was just thrilled that a play about the healing power of music and friendship was recognized in that way.

Is there any advice you’d offer emerging playwrights?

I’d pass on the advice given to me. Write the play you want to write. Over write and say too much but say it all. Then be open to what needs to happen next. Do everything in your power to ignore any critical voices in your head (if you have them) when they start to chatter about how it’s not a good story, play, idea and so on. I’ve struggled with those voices and they’re not helpful. If you get stuck or it’s not working for some reason, put the play in a drawer and let it rest. It’s amazing what you see after some time not thinking about it.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a very small musical comedy. It’s taking forever — speaking of putting a play in a drawer. It’s like a puzzle and I don’t have the picture, so it’s slow going but I’m making progress, better still, I’m having fun. I’m also working on a drama and I’m nearly finished a first draft.

Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?

I feel incredibly fortunate to be living in a time where there are so many great Canadian writers. The first Canadian play I saw that really had an enormous impact on me was Michael Tremblay’s “Sainte-Carmen of the Main” I’ve always loved his writing and he’s been an enormous inspiration. The writers I’m listing next have all had an impact on me and I love their work — all such different voices — I love Judith Thompson, Jason Sherman, Diane Flacks, Hannah Moscovitch, Colleen Murphy, Marie Clements, Daniel MacIvor, Carmen Aguirre…

Don’t miss When We Were Singing performed by United Players in association with Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver BC, May 31 — June 23, 2024. Find more information here.

Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.

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Playwrights Guild of Canada

Established in 1972, PGC is a registered national arts service association committed to advancing the creative rights and interests of Canadian playwrights.