Emily’s Piano

Study Guide

Welcome to YPT’s new study guide format!

As you scroll through the guide you will find the usual sections included in all our guides: curriculum connections, designer’s note, discussion questions, units of study and more. You will also be able to click on templates, worksheets and graphic organizers. If you wish to create your own lesson plan from the study guide copy, we have created a lesson plan template for your use. We hope you will find this guide to be a useful resource.

Should you have any questions or feedback or have inquiries about the use of this guide (which is copyright protected), please feel free to contact Karen Gilodo, Associate Artistic Director, Education at kgilodo@youngpeoplestheatre.org.

Download the Lesson Plan Template.

Contributions to this Emily’s Piano study guide were made by Belarie Zatzman and her Theatre for Young Audiences class in the Department of Theatre, School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design, York University: Colin Bamsey; Milka Beker; Adriana Berardocco; Marissa Blagrove; Mila Bordt; Marco Castelli; Caroline Chorzepa; Kim Cumming; Nicole D’Amato; Melissa Domingos; Hannah Gallant; Christine Kinghorn; Stephanie Kinsman; Haley Mawby; Gerardo Ulises Minor Vazquez; Drew Murdoch; Conor Murphy; Amanda Muzzin; Summer Tiley: Stefanie Zamperin.



  • The Arts (Drama)
  • Health and Physical Education (Mental Health and Wellness)
  • Social Studies
  • Family Studies

Character Education:

  • Kindness & Caring
  • Empathy
  • Perseverance


  • Belief & Hope
  • Taking Initiative
  • Holding a Family Together


 Emily is a young girl coping with the breakup of her family – her parents are separating, dad is starting a new relationship and her grandmother is being placed into a care facility. Emily remains with her mother, who is slowly sinking into depression. Emily is becoming more caregiver than cared for. Emily’s resourceful spirit leads her to a solution that she hopes will bring light back into the home. The play shows how a young person can be unfairly forced to grow up quickly when family dynamics change. Emily’s Piano continues YPT’s exploration into mental health and wellness in the lives of young people.


One of the many joys of parenthood is being introduced to new and dazzling books, you wouldn’t otherwise have a clue about, at every stage of your child’s growth.  I remember trotting off to the library, every week or so with the kids, coming back with a stack of crazy, wonderful creations to dive into.   Amongst these, Emily’s Piano, stood out for its gritty and honest depiction of family breakdown, leading to a quest that celebrates the healing power of art.   One of the reasons that our kids responded so well to this book, I think, was that the author, Charlotte Gingras, addresses topics which are not often discussed, but in a way that is people, rather than issue, oriented.  She does not judge her characters, or divide things up into categories of good or bad, right and wrong.  She sets out, instead, to create a vivid portrait of a young person grappling with a range of feelings we experience as we move through crisis situations in our lives:  fear, anger, loneliness, love, determination, and strength.

During the process of turning Emily’s Piano into a play, I have tried to be truthful to the book, while seeking to translate its rich inner life into theatrical language.  For all the exercises, improvisations, discussions, debates, and decisions that have been part of the workshops on the piece, I have been fortunate to be in the same room with a dedicated creative team who has embraced the telling of this story with equal parts, empathy, imagination and artistic flair.
-Mark Cassidy


The beginning of the process of designing the sound for Emily’s Piano started with how the piano works in the context of Emily’s life. There is the memory of piano, the piano as her mother played it, and a dream-like piano state. I decided to stick with the piano as my main source of sound based on how central the instrument is to the theme of the play.

The process began before rehearsal with compiling solo piano music from various composers that I felt would suit the mood of the show. In rehearsal, I manipulated the music I chose using Ableton Live (music computer software) either by changing key or eliminating parts I did not want. I then employed the services of a professional piano player, giving her the music I manipulated to then be replayed to my exact requirements. 
-Nicholas Murray



Ask students:

  • Define family.
  • What does the word “fair” mean within the context of a family?
  • In tough situations, how do people stay positive and believe things will get better?
  • What gives someone the feeling of control over their life? If someone is feeling “out of control over their life” how can they change their situation?
  • What is stigma?
  • Would you go on an adventure to find happiness? If so, what kind of an adventure?
  • What can children do when they feel they have been unfairly treated by adults?
  • What makes someone an adult? When does one become an adult?


Exercise:  Gallery Walk for Emily’s Piano

A Gallery Walk offers students an opportunity to explore multiple texts from Emily’s Piano. It is a strategy to help students respond to a collection of quotations from the play. 


  • Photocopies of the quotes in large font, each on their own page.
  • Masking tape.
  • Post-it notes.


  1. Place the Emily’s Piano quotes around the room (see below).  Texts should be displayed “gallery-style”—in a way that allows students to disperse themselves around the room, allowing for several students to cluster around a particular quote.  Quotes can either be hung on walls or placed on tables.
  2. Ask students to read all the quotes and then stand next to the one quote that they think resonates the most with 10 year-olds.
  3. Have students individually record a response to the quote on a post-it note, and place it beside the quote.
  4. Ask them to share their reflections about the quote with their peers who have gathered around that quote.
  5. Ask for a volunteer from each group to share the highlights of their reflections with the whole class.

Quotations from Emily’s Piano for the Gallery Walk:

  • “Sometimes it feels like you don’t [have control]. Your life has all kinds of twists and turns, ups and downs. And you just try to react as best you can”
  • “Do grown-ups know what they’re doing to me?”
  • “No one in our family seems to love anyone anymore”
  • “An evil curse seems to be hanging over us”
  • “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you”
  •  “I’m scared that my mom is not ever going to get better”
  • “I absolutely have to find it. It’s a matter of life or death”
  •  “I wish it didn’t have to be this way”
  •  “[She] will go crazy too, if she’s not careful”

Exercise: Playlist Story


  1. Divide the class into groups of three.
  2. Give each group a quote from Exercise 1.
  3. Ask groups to brainstorms songs that could accompany the quote. Songs can be classical music pieces or popular contemporary music – it is up to them.
  4. Have students bring in a few options of songs that they could match to the quote and as a group decide on which one suits the quote the best.
  5. Once students have decided on their accompanying songs, have students present their quote and play the song for the class. Each group should spend about five minutes explaining to the rest of the class why they chose that piece of music.

Note: At the end of the exercise, the students should have a musical outline of the whole play.

Ask students to create a movement piece to accompany their song. They can do this by creating a series of five tableaux that physically portrays the quote and the song.

The purpose of this exercise is for the students, based on their knowledge and understanding of the online and digital realms and their own views about personal responsibility and online accountability, to draft for themselves a mutually agreed upon Code of Ethics with regards to digital media and internet activity.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Have the students explain why they chose their songs.
  • Ask them to speculate what they think Emily’s Piano will be about.

Ask the groups to write a story based on the songs they have chosen and the lines from the play they have been given. They must try to write a story that can connect all of the lines so they are woven into one complete new story.

After the students see Emily’s Piano at YPT, have a discussion comparing the story they wrote with the production they saw. What elements were the same? What was different?


Ask Students:

  • What surprised you the most about Emily’s Piano?
  • Describe how each family member (Emily, Mom, Dad, Sisters) deals with their emotions through the play.
  • What does the piano mean to each family member?
  • Is losing the piano what made Emily’s mother sad?
  • Why do you think Emily’s mom painted things gold?
  • Is it fair for Emily’s dad to leave? Why/why not? Is it fair for Emily’s dad to stay? Why/why not?
  • What are the differences between Emily’s nightmares and her daydreams? What do you think they mean?
  • Why do you think Emily is the only character with a name?
  • What do you think happens to Emily’s family after she finds the piano? 
  • What kind of woman do you think Emily will grow up to be?



Exercise: Piano on the Wall

This activity provides an opportunity for students to look closely at the characters and to develop a deeper understanding of the play.  This activity is a variation on “Role on the Wall”, a drama strategy that invites students to document their responses to a character, as a collective.


  • Large sheet of paper.
  • 3 different coloured markers.


  1. On a large sheet of paper at the front of the room, draw an outline of a piano. The piano represents Emily.
  2. Ask students what they know for sure (based on the information the playwright provides, rather than interpretation) about Emily and her family. (For example, they just moved to a smaller apartment; Emily’s mom used to play the piano; Emily has two older sisters; her Grandmother moved into a nursing home, etc.)
  3. Record students’ observations about everything they know for sure about Emily and her family along the inside edge of the piano outline using a coloured marker.
  4. Now ask students to speculate and interpret the story, and to generate and record words that they imagine might describe all the external pressures on Emily.  Use a different coloured marker to record the external pressures on the outside edge of the piano outline.
  5. Finally, ask students to record everything they think they know about Emily’s internal life—her feelings, struggles, worries, fears, frustrations, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  Use a third coloured marker to record words describing how they imagine Emily’s internal life in the middle of the piano on the wall outline.

Post the image of the piano in the classroom. Take a photo of it and send it to YPT!

Exercise:  If I were you…The Meeting of the Fictional and the Personal

This exercise allows students to bring their personal responses to the play, as a way of further exploring the issues. It encourages students to reflect on each character’s situation while also and encouraging empathy.


  • A space in which to move.


  1. Divide students into pairs.
  2. Give each pair a copy of the scenes below and ask them to choose which one they would like to re-enact.
  3. Ask for one pair to volunteer to re-enact one of the scenes for the rest of the class. 
  4. As the rest of the class watches the scene ask them to think about what advice they might give to the characters in the scene.
  5. When the scene is over, ask two students to stand next to the actors and before they start the scene again offer them advice starting with the sentence, “If I were you…”
  6. Have the actors play the scene again, incorporating the advice.
  7. Continue the exercise with new pairs performing both scenes and new pairs offering advice until every student has had an opportunity to participate.

Debriefing Questions:
Ask students:

  • How did the scenes change when the advice was offered?
  • What did you learn about the lives of the characters through these scenes?
  • What did you discover about your feelings and responses towards various scenes?
  • Did the character change tone or impression after having been given the advice? If so, how?

 Option 1

DAD: Emily, I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

EMILY: But Dad, you’re the one doing it.

DAD: Maybe, but it’s based on things bigger than just me.

EMILY: You mean, because you don’t love mom and me anymore?                                         

DAD: No, that’s not it. Of course I still love you.

EMILY: What about mom?

DAD: I love both of you.

Option 2
MOM: This will be our Christmas tree this year Emily. (Emily doesn’t respond) What do you think?
EMILY: Mom you realize it’s only November right?                                                                    

MOM: It’s never too early to get into the festive spirit.
EMILY: Mom, did you eat your lunch today?                                                                                                  

MOM: We could spray paint the tips of the poinsetta leaves, that would be so beautiful. (Emily doesn’t respond. Mom begins to plant the dead gold branch in a large flowerpot.) And we could collect some pine cones, paint them and put them all around the base.

Exercise: Family Dynamics Through Tableaux + Proxemics

The purpose of this section is to help students explore how family dynamics change in response to mental illness; and to encourage reasoning and reflection.  Proxemics is an exercise that highlights and makes explicit an exploration of the physical distance between characters that carries meaning.


  1. Divide the class into groups.  Print and cut out each quote from Emily’s Piano on a slip of paper.  Give one quote to each group. 
  2. Have each group discuss the quote and then create a tableau to respond to it.
  3. As the groups create their tableaux, remind them not only to consider gestures and facial expression, but also the physical distance between characters, because the space between characters carries meaning in theatre. 
  4. When the groups are ready, have each group read their quote to the class and then show their tableau.  
  5. Once the group has shared their tableau and quote, ask them to once again take up their tableau positions and hold it.  The rest of the students in the class can then be asked to place themselves meaningfully in relation to the characters within the tableau in order to physically show where their sympathies, and be able to explain why.  For example:  “I am standing close to Emily at this moment because I feel she feels abandoned by her Dad and needs support” or ““I am standing away from Emily’s sisters because neither of them has my sympathy but I’m standing closer to Sister 1 than Sister 2 because she seems to be a little more sensitive.”
  6. Use the prompts accompanying the quotes to help students refine their tableaux.

Quotes and Teacher Prompts:

 “How long have you been seeing her? Since when?” – Mom 
Teacher Prompt:
What does Emily’s Father do when her Mother becomes ill? Why?

 “No, that’s not it. Of course I still love you.” – Dad
“What about mom?” – Emily
“I love both of you.” – Dad
Teacher Prompt:
How does Emily’s Father feel about her? How does Emily’s Father feel about her Mother?

“My sisters are so clueless. They never understand anything. Of course, our mother cried when they took away the piano. What do they expect? It’s important to her” – Emily
Teacher Prompt:
What do Emily’s Sisters do when their Mother becomes ill? How do they treat her?

 “He needs to be changed.” – Sister 2
“And when you’re done, you might as well give the boys a bath.” – Sister 1 
Teachers Prompt:
What does Emily do for her family? Why does Emily do all that?

“My mom isn’t out of her mind. She’s just sad, which explains the whole gold thing. People slap on a bit of gold to help them pretend they’re happy as princes. In this family, it seems like no one is happy.” –Emily
Teacher Prompt:
How Does Emily’s Mother cope with her illness?

Have students write a short letter to a character they felt most connected to in this exercise. What support can they offer this character? How will they offer it in this letter?


Jon Kaplan’s Introduction to Student Reviewers

Theatre is, for me, an art form that tells me something about myself or gets me thinking about the world in which I live.

Whether going to the theatre as a reviewer or simply an audience member, I think that watching a play is an emotional experience and not just an intellectual one. I always let a show wash over me, letting it touch my feelings, and only later, after the show, do I try to analyze those feelings.
That’s when I start to think about some of the basic questions you ask when you’re writing a review – what did I see (story, characters, themes); how did I respond to what I saw; what parts of the production (script, performances, direction, design and possibly other elements) made me feel and think what I did; why was I supposed to respond in that fashion?

When you go to the theatre to review, take a few notes during a show if you feel comfortable doing so, but don’t spend your time writing the review during the show; you’ll miss what’s happening onstage.

Writing a review doesn’t mean providing a plot summary. That’s only part of the job; you have to discuss your reaction to what you saw and try to explore some of the reasons for that reaction.

I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a totally objective piece of criticism. We are all individuals, bringing our own backgrounds, experiences and beliefs to a production. In some fashion, every one of us sitting in the theatre is a critic, no matter whether we’re writing a review or not; we all react to and form judgments about what we see on the stage.

When I go to a production, I always keep in mind that the people involved in putting it on have worked long and hard – weeks, months, sometimes years – getting it onto the stage. Even if I have problems with the result, it’s important to respect the efforts that went into the show.

Jon Kaplan is senior theatre writer at NOW Magazine, where he’s worked for the past 34 years.


CAMH: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world’s leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.

The Hincks-Dellcrest Centre
With centres located in north Toronto and downtown, the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre is a non-profit children’s mental health organization which offers a wide range of mental health support services to children, youth and their families. In addition to its treatment programs, the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre is also committed to education and research in the field of young people’s mental health.

Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention
Boost is committed to eliminating abuse and violence in the lives of children, youth, and their families. The centre is a registered charity and provides programs and services to children, youth, and their families in Toronto and surrounding areas.

Kids Help Phone
Kids Help Phone operates 24/7, 365 days a year. It is an anonymous, non-judgmental and confidential phone and online professional counseling service provided for children and young people free of charge.

Artists’ Health Alliance
The AHA’s mission is to promote the health and wellbeing of all professional and emerging performing and creative artists. They focus on partnership between the artistic and medical community for healing, strengthening and empowering the creative community.  

Children’s Aid Society of Toronto
The mission of the Children’s Aid Society is to: prevent situations that lead to child abuse and neglect by embracing, strengthening and supporting families, and communities; protect children and youth from abuse, and neglect; provide safe and nurturing care for children and youth; and advocate meeting the needs of children, youth, families, and communities.

Family Service Toronto
Family Service Toronto (FST) helps people face a wide variety of life challenges. For 100 years they have been assisting families and individuals through counseling, community development, advocacy and public education programs. Their services are available to everyone who lives or works in Toronto. Their Families in Transition programs focus on practical strategies for coping with the challenges children up to 18 and parents face in their day-to-day lives when parents no longer live together.

Unity Charity
UNITY engages youth 10 to 18 by implementing school and community programs helping youth positively express their stress and develop skills for success. UNITY empowers youth to make better choices as leaders, mentors and positive community role models leading to more productive citizens, safer schools, and healthier communities.

CMHA: Canadian Mental Health Association
The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes mental health awareness and supports the recovery of those dealing with mental illness. It provides a variety of information and resources, both local and nationwide.


MacWhinney, Betsy. “Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poems.” The New York Times. Feb 16, 2015.
Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/style/bringing-a-daughter-back-from-the-brink-with-poems.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1

Christie, Michael. “All Parents Are Cowards.” The New York Times. Feb 12, 2015.
Web: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/all-parents-are-cowards/?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=MostEmailed&version=Full%C2%AEion=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article&_r=0

Dobbs, David. “A Musician Who Performs With a Scalpel.” The New York Times. May 20, 2008.
Web: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/20/health/20prof.html?

Moorhead, Joanna. “Children and Divorce: ‘I just want to know why they broke up.’” The Guardian. Aug 31, 2013
Web: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/31/children-divorce-separated-documentary-olly-lambert

Timson, Judith. “Are we responsible for our children’s lack of ‘resilience’?” Toronto Star. Feb 26, 2015.
Web: http://torontostar.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx

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