Math and Music: Connections between Long Division and the Piano Teacher

Peter Dickinson’s recent Vancouver play Long Division uses mathematics as a framework to tell the story of how seven characters are intimately intertwined in their grief over the death of a child.  Famous historical mathematicians have their images projected on the set throughout, and mathematical equations and a Venn diagram are used as a metaphor for the human interaction that takes place in the story, while the script cheekily weaves phrases like ‘in addition’ throughout the dialogue to ‘add’ another layer.

Dorothy Dittrich’s new play at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, The Piano Teacher, does all of this too—but replace the math with music. There are no projections, but many famous historical musicians are mentioned and some of their compositions are played.  Here we have only three characters, but as above, the reason for their connection with each other is because a child has died (and in this case, a husband also).  In her playwright’s note, Dittrich describes the story as being “about one of life’s most difficult passages,” – a play on words that means her character Erin needs to conquer her grief the same way a musician conquers a difficult musical passage.

Other connections between the two plays abound.  In each play, much of the story is told through monologue.  Long Division’s characters rarely interact with each other at all, but deliver almost all their lines directly to the audience in a lecture format, even looking up at the screen behind them to acknowledge images or photographs there the way a teacher would during a class.  The Piano Teacher’s characters interact with each other more often than this, but both the piano teacher Elaine and to a lesser extent, her grieving student, Erin, do directly address the audience at various points.  Despite this unusual choice in plays that are essentially about how much people interact with and need each other, in each play, the monologue technique works.  The audience is invited in as a character in the role of sympathetic therapist.  We listen patiently in our seats so the grieving can share their stories with us.

Each play’s production took stylistic risks.  Long Division used choreography in which characters would line up and silently perform ritualized hand motions or walk briskly between each other like cogs in a clock as another actor delivered their monologue to the audience. I’ll admit that at times I found their movements robotic and distracting, but at other times the action succeeded in underscoring the arc of the story, as when all the actors found themselves gradually intertwined in a tableau.  Where The Piano Teacher took its risk was in set design; at one end of the corridor stage, a series of wires or strings were strung between the ceiling and the floor.  They were clearly meant to invoke the wires in a piano and it was therefore unsurprising when during the course of the play, Elaine, the piano teacher, plucked them—however this action left me ultimately confused.  Although it was a striking theatrical set piece, I found it didn’t contribute to the story in any meaningful way.  Perhaps the intention of the chorography in the first play and the strings in the second was to take us out of a traditional stage set and create a kind of dissonance or tension to underscore the fractured feelings of the characters in their grief.

Both Long Division and The Piano Teacher were impeccably acted and directed, and the stage management in both productions in terms of props, lighting, projections and sound cues were flawless. Both enjoyable experiences at the theatre.

— Cathy Collis

long divisionpiano teacher