I always think this is so funny: everyone reads Shakespeare growing up in school,” mused Annie Gibson, publisher of Playwrights Canada Press. “Like, that is the one guy you know you’re going to read in a high school English class in North America. And yet, there’s very little emphasis on reading modern theater.”
Playwrights Canada has been publishing plays since it began as part of the Playwrights Guild of Canada in 1984—an era Gibson said was marked by scrappy playwrights trying to find outlets for their work in an industry with very few published Canadian titles. In 2000, the press was separated from the guild, and it now releases 25 titles per year. This fall will see 13 new titles released.
Gibson said being part of Canada’s publishing industry as the only press that deals exclusively in theatrical work means sometimes feeling part of the community—as with being affected by supply chain issues, like other publishers—but sometimes not. “We certainly are collegial with our publishing colleagues,” she noted. “We collaborate with them from time to time; we’ve done a few copublications where it makes sense.” But, she added, “sometimes I think that trends that affect the wider publishing community, they don’t affect us in the same way.”
One prime example is how the pandemic changed not just the press’s sales but the entire theatrical landscape. Playwrights rely on their plays being produced by theater companies, and the widespread shutdown of theater venues over the past two years is only just starting to be reversed.
Gibson said that change meant having to adapt. “We had a lot of moments of panic, especially early in 2020, as we realized everything we do is going to have to be done in a totally new way,” she recalled. “Many of our writers are used to very collaborative relationships at theaters to get their work put up. And that just was not happening.”
Another set of differences between Playwrights Canada and the wider publishing world is that its e-book sales are rapidly increasing year over year, a trend that Gibson attributes, in part, to students looking for the most accessible format for their studies. But while audiobook sales for most publishers are growing, Playwrights Canada offers almost no audiobooks. When there’s an occasional exception—as for Interdependent Magic: Disability Performance in Canada, a recent anthology of plays by disabled playwrights—the focus is on access.
For Gibson, creating audiobooks of plays raises lots of questions: “Is it a performance, where you have actors really acting out the lines? Do we have sound effects? Or is it just a narrator reading? We’ve done two audiobooks to date. And in both cases, we’ve gone the route of just a narrator reading, so they read all the stage directions, all the dialogue, like we did for Interdependent Magic. The idea was, we’re just trying to make the book accessible.”
Another question unique to theatrical publishing is how to adapt to burgeoning theatrical creation methods, like devised or collective creation. (Playwrights Canada currently only publishes works that have been performed.) “Often that comes down to us figuring out who holds authorship,” Gibson said. “Is the group willing to write down what they created? And then we have to ask, is theater that thing that happened on stage, in a moment? If so, can that be translated to texts that can be read by someone who’s not getting the visuals, or any kind of description of the visuals?”
The theater world is also taking a long and hard look at what diversity, equity, and inclusion should look like. As a publisher, Gibson said that increasing diversity in the press’s offerings means being okay with not providing all of the context of a particular text for every reader. “I’m big on not needing a playwright to alter their work so that I understand it,” she said. “I find if something isn’t for me, cool—as long as I know that there is someone out there who will read it and they will recognize it as being for them.”
Among the recent and upcoming titles Gibson is excited about are Women of the Fur Trade by Frances Koncan, a satirical take on the times of Métis cultural icon Louis Riel; Is My Microphone On by Jordan Tannahill, in which young characters reckon with prior generations; and Without Rule of Law by Michaela Jeffery, a “darkly comic coming-of-age story for complicated times.”
With all projects, Gibson said that the goal remains the same: get readers engaged with modern theater. “It takes a bit of different understanding—you’ve got to think about the medium that it was created for—but in the end, it’s literature, and we’re quite fond of it.”
John Loeppky is a freelance disabled journalist, theater artist, and frequent contributor to PW. He lives in Saskatchewan.