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Moscovitch, Hannah

Hannah Moscovitch
Hannah Moscovitch

Acclaimed and prolific feminist playwright, born June 5, 1979, and grew up in Ottawa Ontario. Hannah Moscovitch is the oldest child of two left-wing social activists: an atheist/feminist mother of English/Irish background, and a Jewish father of Romanian/Ukrainian background. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada (2001), and studied Philosophy and English at the University of Toronto. She is currently based in Toronto and Halifax, and is playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre.

Hannah Moscovitch came into national recognition with East of Berlin (Tarragon Theatre, dir. Alisa Palmer 2007), which examines the ways in which the traumas of World War II haunt the expatriate son of an SS Nazi doctor, and the American daughter of a holocaust survivor. Rudi has grown up in Paraguay, his family having fled Germany after the war. He learns about his father's horrific medical experiments in the concentration camps from his gay friend, Hermann, also the son of a Nazi, as they do their own science experiments in high school. Rudi attempts to deal with his guilt by returning to Berlin, where he meets a Jewish girl who is also searching for her lost family history in the Auschwitz archives. But he does not tell her the truth about his past. Their relationship is inevitably doomed, and Rudi returns to Paraguay to again confront his father with the personal consequences of his crimes against humanity.

Moscovitch explains in a program note that "the word "East" was used by the Nazis to refer to the genocide of the Jews. The official party line was that Jewish communities were being 'resettled in the East.' This euphemism entered into the language of Berlin Jews during the war. The word 'East' was used to refer to the death camps, and 'to go East' of the city signified 'going to your death.'" East of Berlin was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award.

Moscovitch
East of Berlin, Tarragon Theatre production at Theatre Network, with Dianna Donnelly and Brendan Gall. Photo courtesy of Theatre Network 2009.

In the program note for the Tarragon production of East of Berlin at Theatre Network (2009), Moscovitch explains that her works tend towards dark humour. She uses coming-of-age stories and love stories to write about broad systems of thought. She tends towards theatrical narratives that use presentational elements such as direct address to draw in and involve the audience. In a Forum at the Stratford Festival, she explained that her work is character-driven. It always constructs ambiguities in exploring questions of morality. She likes plays that expose characters in extreme events and that reveal psychology, and cross boundaries.

Several of her short works were co-produced by her company, "Obsit Omen Theatre": in Essay--a response to David Mamet's Oleanna-- (SummerWorks 2005), a teaching assistant debates the value of a student paper with a senior professor; and in The Russian Play (SummerWorks 2006)--a monologue set in Stalinist Moscow--a flower seller discloses her love for a gravedigger. Both were remounted at Factory Theatre in 2008. In USSR, a young woman describes her journey to Canada from Russia, and in Mexico City a couple recalls a vacation in 1960 (Summerworks 2007, Tarragon Extra Space).

Other People's Children and Little One played at the Tarragon Extra Space as a double bill in 2013. The first examines a mother's dilemma when she returns to work after maternity leave, and she and her husband hire a live-in nanny to care for their young daughter. At first, the mother is pleased by the close relationship between her daughter and the nanny, but then she begins to question whether she is becoming redundant. Little One (SummerWorks 2011) is a two-hander about sibling rivalry, psychopathy, and the limits of love, set in Ottawa in the 1990s. Moscovitch draws on the personal experience of family friends for source material. An adopted girl, abused by her father as a young child, enacts her confusion and anger on her adopted brother, who struggles to help her, then to disengage from her obsessive love for him.

Her play for young audiences, In This World opened at Youtheatre, Montreal in March 2009. Two teenage girls, one black, the other white, confront each other during a detention after getting into a vicious fight at school, and discover that their preconceptions about nationality, race, poverty and sexuality are false. In This World explores the challenges girls face in a multi-cultural, media-saturated, post-feminist society.

The Children's Republic, set in the Warsaw Ghetto, premiered at Great Canadian Theatre Company; and The Huron Bride at Toronto's Theatrefront.

This is War (dir. Richard Rose) opened at the Tarragon in 2012. The plays is based on Moscovitch’s extensive research into the daily lives of soldiers, and explores the morally conflicted role of the fighter as "peacekeeper." She had written extensively about Canadian troops in Afghanistan for the CBC radio drama series, Afghanada, which first aired in 2006. In his critique of the play for Canadian Theatre Review 157, Matt Jones describes how Moscovitch "take[s] us onto the battlefield, which she does by jumping between scenes in which the actors address the audience as if they’re being interviewed and naturalistic scenes of life on the base that appear as flashbacks. From the beginning, Moscovitch sets up a context of heightened violence and anxiety that relieves itself in sex and moments of misjudgement. In their monologues to the audience, the characters betray their terror at the situation they are in, as they reveal details about dealing with an enemy that is capable of extreme brutality, that uses children as soldiers, and that often seems invisible."

What a Young Wife Ought to Know, based on a compilation of letters women sent to birth control advocate Dr. Marie Stopes in the 1920s, examines the physical and mental dilemma of a young woman without access to birth control in Ottawa the 1920s. She is torn between her love for her husband, and her dread of the pregnancies that drain her health and impoverish the family. It premiered in a co-production with by 2b Theatre Company and Neptune Theatre in 2015 (dir. Christian Barry).

Infinity, a Tarragon/Volcano Theatre co-production, directed by Ross Manson opened in the Tarragon Extraspace in 2015. It explores the concept of time as reality and illusion through an entropic relationship between a physicist and a musician that conceives a mathematician daughter, whose monologic memories of her parents' dysfunctional marriage scar her own relationships. It won a Dora for best new play, and is published by Playwrights Canada Press (2017).

For the University of Alberta Studio Theatre, she was commissioned to write The Kaufman Kabaret, about the controversial introduction of birth-control devices by A.R. Kaufman to working-class women in Canada in the 1930s. The Kaufman Rubber Company in Kitchener, Ontario was home to Canada’s first birth control information centre—the Parents’ Information Bureau. It was also a manufacturing site for contraceptive products distributed through the PIB. However, "Kaufman was drawn to birth control as a eugenics device—a means by which the social elite could hope to shape Canada’s population profile" (Linda Revie, “More Than Just Boots! The Eugenic and Commercial Concerns behind A. R. Kaufman’s Birth Controlling Activities.” CBMH/BCHM 23:1 [2006]:119-143). The Kaufman Kabaret premiered March 24, 2016 at the Studio Theatre, with twelve graduating actors from the University's Fine Arts programme, directed by Kathleen Weiss.

Bunny, commissioned by the Stratford Festival, premiered in July, 2016 (dir. Sarah Garton Stanley, with Maev Beaty as Bunny). The protagonist relives the sexual experiences she has enjoyed from her high school years to her present status as a married woman and English professor, and their consequences for herself and others. For Bunny, desire supersedes intellect and morality. It is published by Playwrights Canada Press (www.playwrightscanada.com).

For Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, written for 2b Theatre Company with Christian Barry (dir. Barry), she collaborated with klezmer-folk artist Ben Caplan to tell a Canadian refugee story inspired by the immigration of her great-grandparents, both Romanian Jews. Although about loss, it’s also a love story; the show takes the form of a humorously dark folktale performed as a high-energy concert. It opened Off-Broadway in March 2018, and then toured across Canada. In 2019, it won three Toronto Theatre Critics Awards: for best director (Christian Barry), best new musical, and best supporting performer (May Fay Coady).

Her autobiographical solo piece about motherhood, The Secret Life of a Mother opened at The Theatre Centre in October 2018. Maev Beaty played a character named Hannah Moscovitch, recounting in graphic detail the processes of miscarriage, post-natal bleeding, and the trials of motherhood. In her Globe & Mail review, critic Martha Schabas had mixed feelings: "There’s a fearlessness and irreverence to Moscovitch’s writing that’s consistently refreshing; she can create incredibly fraught, complex and challenging ethical scenarios. But sometimes she seems to rest on their shock value, letting herself off the hook in terms of what they mean in the context of her story (30 Oct 2018)."

Sky on Swings, a chamber opera about the relationship between two women with Alzheimer’s composed by Lembit Beecher with a libretto by Moscovitch, premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2018.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes premiered at the Tarragon in January 2019 (dir. Sarah Garton Stanley, with an expressionistic set by Michael Gianfrancesco). It interrogates the cliched scenario of a student-teacher affair from the point of view of a successful but jaded middle-aged professor and author, who eventually realizes that his nineteen-year-old student has talent of her own, and that he has inhibited a much more significant creative relationship.

Moscovitch is co-adapting Ann-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees (with Alisa Palmer) for the Shaw Festival.

She also writes for film, and television, including the WWII thriller, The X Company for the CBC.

She has won several Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Carol Bolt Award, the Toronto Arts Council Foundation Emerging Artist Award, the K.M Hunter Award, and the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. In 2016, she was awarded the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize by Yale University (US $150,000).

East of Berlin, 5 Hot Plays, The Russian Play and Other Short Works, and Bunny are published by Playwrights Canada Press.

With her partner, director Christian Barry, she has one son.

Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2020-07-17