Samuel French is America’s oldest dramatic publishing company; but we do not draw the line with exclusively American pieces of theatre. Hardly! Our catalog contains a variety of works across the western world, and today we are delighted to share an interview with one of Canada’s most sought-after playwrights, Hannah Moscovitch. Some of Hannah’s plays include Bunny, East of Berlin, and This is War. We are thrilled to count her among the brilliant playwrights we publish, and we are eager to let our Breaking Character readers know more about this daring writer and some of her work.
Where are you from? (originally and currently)
I grew up in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. I heard recently that the American Ambassador to Canada receives hardship pay for living in my hometown because of the cold. I lived in Toronto for most of my professional life. Now I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I also spend a lot of time on the road. Most of my theatre commissions and TV contracts require me to be in TO and most of my opera work is in the States.
When was the first moment you considered yourself a playwright/writer?
I felt reluctant to call myself a writer for a long time. It felt hard to claim something so glamorous. And I think, in the end, it ended up being incremental. My first professional production at Tarragon Theater in 2007 was a sea change. I got a call from Richard Rose, the artistic director, and he agreed to produce my play East of Berlin and invited me to be in residence. I had admired the work going up at Tarragon Theater my whole life so I was euphoric. And in fact, I am still a playwright-in-residence there, and the support of Tarragon remains the bedrock of my theatre career and of my identification as a playwright.
What are you most interested in exploring through your playwriting right now?
These days, I’m in the middle of writing a couple of confessional projects. I have a project coming up at the Theatre Centre in Toronto with a performer named Maev Beaty – a close friend of mine – in which she plays “Hannah Moscovitch.” I’ve always admired confessional writers like Sylvia Plath and Sheila Heti, and lately I’ve started to think I can be just like my heroes, because why not? Also, womanhood fascinates me nonstop these days and I want to get at it by writing very directly about myself. Conversely, I’ve agreed with a theatre company that I’ll write one piece under a (male) pseudonym because I’ve also become interested in not being myself at all.
Can you talk more about what it’s like for you to write about womanhood from a confessional perspective?
I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, in terms of how I work, because I do not like to expose myself very much. And I know it. I knew that about myself. But I’m willing to do it in this case, because I think that I’m sort of fascinated by being a woman. It just felt like the right way to get at that was very directly by speaking about my own experience, because there’s something about the truth that has a light shining on it. It’s just irrefutable to speak from absolute authentic truth. But it’s pushing me. It’s not comfortable.
How would you describe your play(s)?
East of Berlin is about a teenager growing in an ex-pat German community in Paraguay. When he realizes his father was a Nazi, he rebels. His rebellion takes a number of bizarre forms, including sex with a man and a romantic attachment to a Jewish woman. I wanted to write about how we live in the shadow of history: how large the past looms in our lives.
This is War is set in 2007, Panjwaii Afghanistan, and it follows the stories of four Canadian soldiers in the 24 hours around a war crime; it shows both their innocence and their complicity. It shows the audience how decisions get made in war. I spent about five years, on and off, interviewing soldiers who were returning from tours in Afghanistan in order to be able to write it.
Bunny is the story of a woman who is struggling with old ideas about womanhood. I borrowed from the structure of Victorian novels (in which the only thing women tend to do is choose between two men) to show how that traditional Victorian structure still has power over us and about how entrenched old ideas about femininity are in our literature.
So you have these three plays, two of which are about war, while Bunny and your upcoming work are driven by themes of womanhood. Do you see a thread connecting them?
I have a branding issue! I don’t know what the organizing principle is, actually. I think it might be extreme periods in history and transformation within the psychology of people that often links my work. Extreme changes in psychology are interesting to me, and people who are up against the wall with large shifts and breaks in their paradigm of the world. I think that takes you right across women who are transforming into different kinds of women than they already were, and that takes you to people that are in war who are facing the actual inability to be moral in a war zone.
Where did you draw artistic inspiration from for your play?
I don’t know. I can talk about structure and vision, but I can’t talk about inspiration. I don’t know where I get my ideas.
Any favorite plays or playwrights?
I am a big fan of Daniel MacIvor, Judith Thompson, John Mighton, George F Walker, Michel Trembley, Michel Wajdi Mouawad, Michel Marc Bouchard and Robert LePage. They are my heroes. I like the work of my colleagues in Canada: Jordan Tannahill, Anusree Roy, Nicolas Billon, David Paquette, Olivier Choiniere, Haley McGee and Jordi Mand. And I have eclectic tastes. I follow the work of a number of playwrights and theatre makers all doing different kinds of work and living in the UK, Germany, Poland, America….
What differences do you observe between the American and Canadian theatre scene?
Honestly, in America, you guys have a long tradition of theatre. You have dead playwrights. We don’t. Any Canadian playwright you can think of is still alive. So in a weird way, in Canada, we’re operating without a legacy. And, well, we have very little commercial theatre in Canada. There are good things about that. There are less avenues for success for playwrights, probably, in Canada. But I do think, also, there is a de-emphasis on the commercial value of theatre, and that it does mean … Our theatre does tend towards ambiguity and complexity, for lack of a better term. Those things can backfire and be really boring to watch, but they can also be really moving and beautiful. I always think that in America there’s a kind of bravura and confidence to tell really uplifting stories, and in Canada we’re always like, “incest on the prairie!” Our theatre can get pretty dark and gothic in Canada.
When you’re not wearing your playwright hat, how do you spend your time?
I have a son, Elijah. He’s two years old. I write from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. daily, and the rest of the time I am in the backyard (tomatoes, flowers, grapes, mint) or by the ocean with my family.
Were there any theatrical influences in your life growing up?
My parents are real social activists, radical DeMarxists. I wasn’t allowed to watch television or eat candy. I was allowed to see theatre. The stuff I saw growing up was indescribably weird. My parents were also really involved in the founding of Great Canadian Theatre Company, in Ottawa, where I grew up. But they’re both researcher academics in the social sciences and not actually involved in theatre, just real believers in the importance of theatre and Canada having its own. So, I guess I got tricked into it by my parents.
To purchase a copy of Hannah’s plays or learn more about licensing a production, click here.