- Hannah Moscovitch, facebook status report, September 7, 2007 In the hothouse world of Canadian playwriting, professional jealousy is in a near-perpetual state of blossom. Over the past year, green eyes have begun gazing at Hannah Moscovitch, a young Toronto-based writer who is bursting on to Canadian stages with seeming effortlessness. So the fact that Moscovitch recently described her work-in-progress as “stupid”, with all the implied blockage and writerly angst, contradicts the notion of some shining career path - and the green eyes can avert their gazes. For a minute or two.
On the surface, Moscovitch is indeed enjoying a charmed career. In the next few months, she is having two productions in Toronto: the premiere of East of Berlin at the Tarragon Theatre, and a double bill of The Russian Play and Essay on Factory Theatre’s mainstage. The latter plays are being picked up by other theatres around the country and Playwrights Canada Press is publishing The Russian Play this winter. Hannah is currently playwright-in-residence at Youtheatre Montreal, where she is working on a commission, In This World. She has another play, The Mill, in development for Theatrefront. She is also writing for Theatre Volcano, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Great Canadian Theatre Company, Company Theatre Crisis and Theatre Panik. Her resume is a packed flurry of activity, adding to the notion that she is that most envy-inducing of theatrical phenemona – the overnight success.
But the truth is, Moscovitch has been preparing her entire 29 years for this and, over the past decade, has tread her share of artistic water. Moscovitch grew up in Ottawa, in a home with theatrical leanings; indeed, playwright Arthur Milner lived with Hannah’s parents before she was born. As a child, Moscovitch was taken to shows at the National Arts Centre and Great Canadian Theatre Company, but her parents were part of Ottawa’s left-wing chattering class and, at the dinner table, the discourse was resolutely political. “My parents were good old left-wing. My mother breast-fed me until really late. She went to parent teacher interviews in bare feet. I grew up not having met anyone normal.” Nor was Moscovitch a drama brat in high school, though she did act in student productions of Anouilh’s Antigone – playing Antigone and “feeling a deep mystical teenage connection to it” – as well as Strindberg’s The Stronger (“I played the character without lines, and for some reason really felt that I had the better role.”)Her drama teacher, Magda Rundle, encouraged her to audition for the National Theatre School (NTS) when Moscovitch was a precocious 17. She did well enough to get a callback but wasn’t admitted. That rejection – instead of killing her dream of a career in theatre – “set me on fire.” She auditioned again at 18 and this time was accepted into the acting program.
An interesting thing happened to Moscovitch (the actor) en route to graduation. Perry Schneiderman – then Artistic Director at NTS – took her aside and made a proposition that “totally horrified and insulted” Moscovitch at the time, but would prove incredibly prescient. He suggested she switch from the NTS’s acting stream to playwriting, and gave Moscovitch a month to think it over. Moscovitch – who was wondering if the offer was made because she was a good writer or simply a bad actor – turned him down flat, and graduated in acting. But Schneiderman had made the better call; Moscovitch (the writer) had been blooming in Sheldon Rosen’s playwriting course at NTS and, she says, “So much of my work that I’m doing even now began in Sheldon’s class.”
Moscovitch says there is an NTS advantage that goes beyond the training and network of useful contacts the school provides. “They tell you you’re an artist. You’re socialized into thinking it is part of yourself. I don’t know how people invent themselves as artists without that. If I hadn’t got that, I’d definitely be a lawyer now.”
After graduation, Moscovitch moved back to Ottawa, and her career promptly went into idle. She spent one summer conducting the hugely popular Miss Mariah Graves’ Haunted Hike. Dressed in Victorian garb, Moscovitch would lead tourists past that city’s apparently numerous eerie landmarks. But she said she was immensely depressed; despite some good work with Ottawa’s Salamander Theatre, she realized she didn’t want to be an actor – and certainly not one who led haunted hikes. “I just wasn’t that interested in being part of work that I wasn’t involved in creating. I wanted to hear my own voice too much. I was unwilling to do early career type work as an actor, like understudy or work for free, but I would do anything as a playwright, I LOVED writing. I was ready to admit Perry was right about three months after I graduated.”
She was encouraged during this time by a variety of mentors; Lise Ann Johnson, then dramaturge at GCTC, Marti Maraden, Peter Hinton, and Brian Quirt, who brought her to Toronto to join the Factory Theatre playwrights unit. Once in Toronto she began supporting herself in time-honoured fashion – waitering, at an upscale restaurant-bar. “I saw lots of coke, lots of people just disposing of their income like maniacs, spending a thousand bucks on dinner. And I was an Ottawa girl, my parents were left-wing feminist socialists who believed in equality and social welfare and “fairness” and here I was surrounded by capitalists who viewed me as a sex object… and I was making between $300 and 400 a night in hard cash, sometimes more…It was a pretty intense re-education.” It was a long re-education as well; she waitered for six years.
Only recently have her grants, royalties and self-confidence allowed her to write full time. And it’s those earlier years of waitering coupled with the anguish of wondering whether playwriting was a viable career choice that don’t appear on her effortless-looking cv. Nor is the act writing itself effortless, though Moscovitch is definitely prolific. Her creative output is facilitated by an ability to write outside of her own experience. She obviously was never a naive peasant girl, as is the lead of The Russian Play. Nor did her Ottawa upbringing bring her into contact with the subject of USSR - the post-glasnost trade in sex workers - though undoubtedly she drew on her years spent waitering. And the upcoming East of Berlin centres on a young Paraguayan who discovers the truth of his father’s past and must make atonement – again, Moscovitch is writing outside her own experience. But, as she points out, although there were limitations to her Ottawa-bred world-view, the flipside is the creative fuel it is providing. “If you come from a left wing background, you can’t help but become infused with anger,” she says, and she channels this anger into satire.
The Russian Play began life as Rhubarb Festival workshop at Buddies in Bad Times in 2006, and went on to that year’s SummerWorks Festival (where it was awarded the Summerworks Jury Award for Best New Production), and then to Harbourfront and the Magnetic North Festival. It’s the story of Sonya, a young Russian woman who falls in love with a gravedigger. The course of their love is not smooth and what begins as a charming love story on the steppes soon grows deeper, more tragic and satiric. Essay, the second half of the upcoming Factory bill, is an ambitious play that takes deadly aim at academia. When a university teaching assistant takes issue with a young, female student’s choice of essay topic the department’s head comes to the student’s defence – but not for the noblest of reasons.
“I want to try and write about the complexity of experience,” Moscovitch says. In Essay she creates a world where the audience is thrust into different allegiances throughout the play, sometimes in rapid succession, and often according to the viewer’s gender, age, and personal politics. Whereas The Russian Play began life as an image – a young woman holding a piece of bread, the hiding of which will become germane to the plot as the play progresses – Essay grew out of an entire scene. And although Moscovitch calls it a response to David Mamet’s Oleanna, it was also a highly personal reaction to a university course she was taking, ‘The History of Warcraft 1648-1945’. (Moscovitch is completing a 4 year arts degree at the University of Toronto.) To her horror, Moscovitch discovered she’d stumbled into the academic version of ‘Boys Life’; the professors and teaching assistants were all men, as were almost all of the students and, apparently, everything else to do with warcraft. Moscovitch suddenly she realized that all the warnings of her comfy Ottawa leftie childhood were coming true. “That big scary sexist world actually existed,” she says. And wrote a play about it…
CVs make it look easy. Productions, accolades and residencies crowd on to a page or two. But they leave out the gaps: the doubts, the fears, the sleepless nights, and the wasted hours slinging hash. Overnight success is just as deceptive and, in Canadian theatre terms, probably an oxymoron. On the other hand, the hard-working Moscovitch does appear to be embarked on a career that will be marked both by the diversity and enduring quality of her output.
1996 – Graduates from Glebe Collegiate Institute, Ottawa
2001 – Graduates from the National Theatre School’s acting program.
2001 – Founds Absit Omen Theatre with Michael Rubenfeld. Absit Omen means ‘Escape Your Fate’ in Latin.
2003 – Giving It Up premieres at Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival. Rebecca Brown directs.
2004 – Begins studying at U of T.
2005 – Essay is workshopped at Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb Festival and premieres at SummerWorks Theatre Festival, where it wins the Contra Guys Award for Best New Play. Michael Rubenfeld directs.
2006 – The Russian Play is workshopped at Buddies’ Rhubarb Festival and then premieres at the SummerWorks Theatre Festival. It wins the SummerWorks Jury Award for Best New Production. Natasha Mytnowych directs.
2006 – Begins work on East of Berlin, while in Tarragon Playwrights Unit.
2007 – USSR premieres at Harbourfront, in company with The Russian Play. The RussianPlay tours to Magnetic North Festival in June.
2007 – Writes an episode of Afghanada, an ongoing CBC radio drama
2007 – East of Berlin opens at Tarragon. Alisa Palmer directs