GLS alumnus wins Governor General’s Literary Award for story on loss and grief

May 11, 2023
Dorothy Dittrich holds a copy of her play "The Piano Teacher: A Healing Key." (Pat Neuton Photo)

Dorothy Dittrich, who completed her Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) MA in Spring 2014, has won the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language drama for her play The Piano Teacher: A Healing Key, joining the ranks of Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Michael Ondaatje. The prestigious award is administered by the Canada Council for the Arts and recognizes and celebrates the best in Canadian literature.

Members of the peer assessment committee for the award called Dittrich’s play a “moving and compelling” story that “delves into a multi-layered exploration of love, loss, isolation, and friendship, reaching beyond words to reveal the healing and redemptive power of music.” The story follows classical pianist Erin as she experiences a family tragedy and, as a result, loses her passion for music. As Erin navigates through this life-altering change, she meets an unconventional piano teacher and finds solace in friendship, compassion, and the piano she thought she left behind. The Piano Teacher is, therefore, an odyssey from intense grief and hopelessness to self-rediscovery and overcoming.

Before this play was published as an award-winning book, it was an Arts Club Theatre’s “Silver Commission” that went on to win the Jessie Richardson Award for Outstanding Original Script in 2017. And before it was a completed play, The Piano Teacher found one of its sources of research in a GLS course on rites and rituals for grief and mourning in Ancient China, taught by Paul Crowe of Global Humanities:

“This was a remarkably rich and fascinating course of study. It is also a subject one could spend a lifetime in, and I am aware that I barely scratched the surface; however, the impact was enormous and helped me find both the tone and the metaphor I needed to help me ground and write the play.”

Beyond that one specific course, Dittrich also credits her overall experience in GLS for the sense of wonder and growth that fed her creative process:

“I loved the GLS program. I loved the variety of subjects, the reading, the conversations, ideas that were generated, and the sense of community. My experience in GLS in general was one of expansion. It felt like an enormous gift to have the opportunity to spend time in a community of open-minded individuals, exploring ideas in a setting where intellectual exchange is encouraged.”

Though there are common interpersonal themes among Dittrich’s plays, The Piano Teacher is somewhat of a departure in genre as most of her previous works took on a more comic (even if darkly) approach to similar, serious subject matters. According to Dittrich, humour can make the grave side of life more accessible, which then allows for empathy. While there is still some humour in The Piano Teacher as even the “heaviest grief can have lighter moments (grief, after all, ebbs and flows),” it was important for Dittrich to treat Erin’s grief, and her lack of control over what has happened, with respect:

“I think it is safe to say that grief is one of the most difficult emotions we have to deal with in our lives. It is unpleasant, painful, and messy, and I believe many of us try to minimize and/or reject it—I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to open the experience of grief up and show a person doing her best to move through this very difficult passage. I felt at the time of writing the play that grief as a subject often gets pushed aside, pushed away, pushed down, but rarely gets centre stage.”

On the heels of The Piano Teacher’s success, Dittrich is working on a play called “Family Channel,” a comedy that deals with intolerance, acceptance, humility, arrogance, judgement, and spirituality. She is also currently working on a small three-character musical and continues to write an absurd series called “Tippi and Stan.”

About the Author

Dorothy Dittrich is an award-winning playwright, musical director, sound designer, and composer. Her plays include The DissociatesLesser DemonsTwo Part Invention, and If the Moon Falls. Dittrich’s work has garnered her several Jessie Richardson Awards and nominations, including two Dora Mavor Moore nominations for When We Were Singing. She is the proud recipient of the Sydney J. Risk Award for Emerging Playwright. Dittrich has recently moved to Vancouver Island where she continues to write and play music.