In Conversation with Hannah Moscovitch – Part 1

Blog Post by Cristina Cugliandro, Oct. 5, 2018

Cristina Cugliandro had the privilege of sitting down with Hannah Moscovitch, the playwright behind our upcoming production ‘Other People’s Children’ during a recent workshop of the play. Hannah’s words and Cristina’s questions were so compelling that, rather than paring it down to a three-page blog post, we’ve chosen to split it into two parts and publish it in its entirety. We hope you enjoy Part 1.

C: So first question: Why do you write?

H: Well, by this time in my life and career, I mean I do partly write because it’s what I have experience at professionally. But…

C: Why did you start writing? From acting you went into writing, and what is it about writing that fulfills you?

H: I think that what I learned about performing from having attended National Theatre School is that people who are performers want to inhabit a character, and I think someone like me wants to create a text. Also I did find from being a performer that what I wanted was more of a voice in the meanings of the piece. And that for me – of interest to me – was the meaningful on every level; the political, the ideational, the existential, the philosophical, the social economic – like all of the ideas I guess that were in a piece, that’s what was of interest to me.

C: Creating the world, really. When do you feel most at ease writing? Do you ever feel at ease writing?

H: Yeah I like writing, I’m one of those writers that does. I like writing. I always more or less feel at ease writing.

C: Are there any specific – you were talking yesterday a bit that this – OPC – was a new experience because you weren’t – there weren’t the monologues in the middle of the piece. It was the first time you wrote more naturalistic dialogue.

H: Yeah, so there’s a kind of structure that I tend to use, and I like the interiority of people’s minds. I like psychology so I’m often trying to get at it in various ways, and also I like a confrontation between characters and audiences (haha) and so I’m often having my main characters more directly speak to and confront the audience… want something; want something from the audience, rather than having the relationship being more conversational, it’s more confrontational. In this case, I chose to do a piece that’s more naturalist with two rooms in which it’s set, and so then, I mean it’s really very technical but then some of the expositional work can’t be done with the audience, you have to do it between the characters. And so then you’re in a world where you’re trying to earn your exposition really hard and with less experience at that I feel like I was – I was learning a new thing. I was learning how to do that.

C: So, when you write to get – when you’re saying – to get something from the audience more directly with monologue pieces, how do you feel that that happens now with OPC when it is more of a dialogue situation.

H: Well there’s something about… it feels like the audience – this piece, as opposed to being a direct confrontation feels like voyeurism, but the voyeurism I’m asking to participate in is voyeurism of themselves, essentially, or voyeurism of people that are often much like them. And because I’m now so familiar with who attends theatre, I can write more specifically to that – or I tend to write more specifically to that audience. And so what I’m asking here, the confrontation, in this case, is more authorial, instead of it being a character confrontation, it’s me going “you know, I want you to ally with some of the characters and I’m gonna slowly walk you through who they probably really are”.

C: Yeah I find that super-effective with this piece actually – just exactly what you said. You do go – you recognize behaviors right, they’re in yourself or other people and you go, hmmmmm and that’s where the discomfort also lies – really interesting.

C: How do you approach a new play?

H: Oh my gosh, I mean it’s a good question and it’s so hard, I think each play is particular, and so I tend to approach them differently. Partly because I think part of the responsibility of the playwright tends to be to innovate with form and so because of that I’m always also – the innovation is happening in form and as a result of that in process. And so – in the development – and so it does feel like each piece has a fairly different development process although I think I am a big fan of developing as many elements of the project as possible at the same time. And so I tend to approach a new piece by wanting to know who the collaborators are gonna be on it; the director, the performers, the designers, what the space is gonna look like, what the timeline is. So I guess I’m fairly practical and ‘of the theatre’ if that makes any sense. Sometimes I’ll start with very little, a fragment, sometimes I’ll have an event or an idea that’s more complete in my head, sometimes I’ll just have a character I’m interested in. So I think some writers do come at it very much one way or another, like always through one entry point in terms of the writing itself and that’s not really my way. I have a tendency to work very differently depending on the piece. Sometimes I’ll have the whole idea up front and so I’ll have the design, I’ll just be executing. Sometimes I execute to design. I just have a fragment and I’m executing it to work out what it is. Sometimes I just have a character that says one line and that’s all I’ve got and then I write from that.

C: Great so that kind of gives you the opportunity to also be constantly learning different ways of approaching the work.

H: Well and I think because I do work in various mediums there are development processes that are specific to different mediums – that each medium is tied to, in a way, or that they have decided is the good one for that medium. And that is sometimes the case and sometimes not in my experience, just because I move between the mediums I can sometimes go, there is this other way in this other medium. I would say that it’s from having worked in radio drama that I really understood the degree to which it can help me to know who the performers are. Because when I worked in radio drama, everyone was cast and I was writing episodically for them, but then it got really addictive to just write for those voices, to know exactly what those voices are, and to fashion and then it helps you to see the character. And so I think pulling out of, I pull that from radio drama to be like ‘who are the actors? Who are the performers? Are they dramaturgical, can I collaborate with them? How early can I bring them in?’

C: Do you channel a lot. Do you have characters – you said you hear characters say a phrase and then that’s your – do they continue to talk to you. I know some writers do channel, others, not so much. It depends.

H: I’m thinking about what the word channel means for some reason. Like is it channeling like – I guess it depends where you think of channeling as coming from. I think you are to some degree channeling from your subconscious or you’re like in a sort of artistic relationship with your subconscious. There’s channeling in it for sure from my subconscious and for sure I talk to myself as I write, or I hear – and especially in a piece like this where each character has a different – they’re different – they are not the same, it’s not three people who are all the same type of person. They’re all quite different voices of characters. So then you are kind of listening really different specifically, and channeling a kind of sense of what this guy Ben is like, versus what the – the sound of Sati is really specific. And to arrive at an authentic sound for that voice I spent a lot of time.

C: Do you – this is a funny question. I’m not even going to ask that.

H: Oh I love those.

C: What does, no I mean – ok well, here. Do you identify as a feminist and why? And if so, what does that mean to you, rather. That’s what I mean it’s a bit of a funny one.

H: I do identify as a feminist, I do. I mean listen, it means a lot of things to me. So many. It’s almost hard to speak too quickly, but I mean, I once heard my mother argue someone down who was asking her if she was a feminist, by saying “you know, well aren’t you, I mean, don’t you believe in the equality between men and women?” So, that’s a starting point. But I think in terms of myself as a writer, yes, you know I’m very interested in the experience of womanhood, in particular. And I address that explicitly in my writing. I’m also interested in it not only because, well, because it’s under-represented, and that’s the political side. But because it’s original, because it’s under-represented. And something I’m always interested in is an unusual voice or an unusual character, something I haven’t heard. And that’s more or less – you can find that with women because they aren’t – they have not been – they have been represented often by men. They often come onstage to complicate the plot for men. Whether they come on as subject rather than object. I think that’s original in theatre, to my generation.

C: So going from there, let me find this question here;

Micheline Chevrier: You didn’t tell her the story about midsummer night’s dream?

H: No, I mean that’s –

M: That’s why you started to write women. Because –

H: I got mad.

M: – You got mad

H: I get angry sometimes.

M: Yeah, yeah. It’s very funny.

C: As we have to, as we have to. So here, this is one that actually follows that one. Are you surprised that OPC is getting programmed again? Because in an interview you said that your female-led character plays don’t see as much production as your male-led character plays. So are you surprised that OPC is being produced again and also do you see changes on the Canadian… – that’s a lot of questions at the same time, that I wrote down as number 6.

H: Well you know what, I feel more optimistic. I have a play called ‘What a Young Wife Ought to Know’, and when I first wrote it a lot of the questions I would get from – in previews and from artistic directors was ‘well what’s relevant about this?’, and it was a play about, you know, it was set 90-100 years in the past and it dealt with the relationship between women and birth control; the illegality of birth control. And I got told, you know, I kept being asked, why is this relevant? Is this relevant? And I kept saying that it’s women’s history, it’s relevant. Relevant. What?! Like I just couldn’t understand the question, which was you know, my naiveté, or my interest in that topic was so pure. And then, that was like, in 2015. Like literally in 2018, people were saying to me ‘oh my gosh, this play is so relevant! This is such a hot topic play.’ And I was like, I had whiplash from it. I was like, ‘you – are you fucking kidding?!’ Like I was so shocked by it, because the questions that I had been trying to respond to just three years prior were all about whether the play had any relevance at all.

So I do think things are changing. You know, with change there’s always backlash, and we have seen successful backlash with feminism in the past so, I don’t know how permanent the change will be. Or how far it’ll move the mark. I hope it’ll move the mark. I definitely think I’m hearing Artistic Directors – it used to be that with Playwrights’ Guild of Canada, there would be these meetings in which we would talk about, like, is there a way we could send like an anonymous letter from, you know, the playwright’s guild with no one signing it, saying to an Artistic Director, ‘congratulations on having programmed a woman in your season this year’, or would that be too forward? And that’s like, you know, seven years ago? And now, Artistic Directors are being called out for not programming, for only – you know, I would see season after season go by that had not a single play by a woman at GCTC, at, like, actually not when you were there – but anyway!

C: Yeah Miche fixed that!

H: But I would see like – I shouldn’t pick on anyone theatre – but I would see it over and over and over again at regionals, everywhere. You know, an entire season with no plays by women. It would never get commented on; no one would ever – you know. The governor generals would be awarded year after year after year to a man, even though there were many women writing who were also up for those awards.

C: And outstanding – yeah.

H: Nobody noticed that. None of it was being in any way paid attention to, and I do think that there is, at least for now a spotlight on that.

C: Do you think that female playwrights get more of that question of relevancy with their plays, more than say, male playwrights?

H: It’s hard for me to speak to, because I’m not a male playwright. I get it. When I write about women. I can say that for sure. And I don’t, it’s not a question that I get – like I have also written other plays set in the past. Like I wrote a play about the children of Nazis’ growing up in Paraguay; coming to terms with having Nazi parents. Nobody ever asked me if it was relevant.

C: So when your – your male-led plays don’t get that question. That was my – they don’t get that question as much as your female-led.

H: Mhm. I’ve never had that question.

C: Interesting.

H: Yeah.

C: I mean, not surprising, but –

H: For sure with OPC I did get the question of its relevance.