Arts & Culture

Q&A with Hannah Moscovitch

Ottawa native Hannah Moscovitch recently won the prestigious and valuable Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize, administered out of Yale University. Awarded to writers of fiction, non-fiction and drama annually, Moscovitch will receive her $150,000 U.S. prize at a ceremony in the fall.

Moscovitch grew up in the Glebe and graduated from Glebe Collegiate in 1996. Although she left Ottawa to study theatre in Toronto, the playwright still has strong ties to the city: her parents live here and the Great Canadian Theatre Company has staged three of her plays. They also commissioned one in 2009, The Children’s Republic.

While this is the largest of Moscovitch’s wins, in 2014 she was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award and her play This is War became the first play to win the $20,000 Trillium Book Award.

Hattie Klotz spoke to Moscovitch about her reaction to the prize, opera, growing up in Ottawa, and her summer-reading book list — as well as an excerpt from her play: What a Young Wife Ought to Know.

How did you react when you heard that you had won this prize?

I felt stunned. It was a physical feeling. Like the aftershock of a physical blow. Then I felt something like validated — though validation sounds like self-help vocabulary. I think the award will give me confidence. I’ve been writing plays quietly up in Canada without much visibility outside our borders. And because Canada’s theatre culture is very young and small, and because our theatre scene values the work of Europeans and Americans over our own, it’s hard to feel like what I do is any good. (Not in Quebec, I’d say they appropriately value their theatre).

How will this change things for you?

I’m a freelancer — I am hand-to-mouth as a result — I don’t have any security beyond the projects that are currently on my slate. This prize will make me feel less frightened of running out of money, and I think make my work stronger. It’ll embolden me to take risks — i.e. make original work.

Why did you choose playwriting as a career?

I attended the National Theatre School of Canada as a performer, but I switched to writing. I was better at it than acting. I think I also wanted to have creative control over the work I was a part of, and to speak about how I saw the world. That, in the end, meant I was a writer.

What is it about playwriting, rather than say, fiction, that appeals?

If you write fiction, you’re writing an object. If you write theatre you’re writing a temporal-spatial event. You’re writing text that will — in collaboration with designers, a director and performers — become a finished work. I attended the National Theatre School and so I spent those formative years between 19 and 22 learning about the theatre and immersed in a conservatory program. They turned me into a playwright. I learned how to structure narrative for the theatre, how to write dialogue and scenes and characters that would support the performances of actors, and I learned to work with directors and designers to create a live event that occurs in a theatre. When I write essays for print (I’ve written a couple in the last year) I struggle because it’s not a medium I know.

Did you go to the theatre a lot as a child?

My parents took me to Great Canadian Theatre Company and National Arts Centre. But I didn’t go an exceptional amount.

You’ve written an opera — I have no stories to tell you — that was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. How was that experience? 

It’s a collaborative performance medium, so in many ways it’s familiar. The emphasis is different. It’s on the music rather than the writing or story. And what’s required of the writing is different. Your main audience member is the composer you’re working with because they have to be inspired to compose by what you write.

Will you be doing more opera?

I have an opera in development in Philadelphia, composed by Lembit Beecher, the same composer for I have no stories to tell you.

Do you have a dream theatre where you’d like to see your work produced?

The Royal Court in London. Soho Rep or The Public or The Lincoln Centre in New York. Canadian Stage in Toronto. Steppenwolf in Chicago. I’d like to see my work go up in translation in Quebec.

What’s your best memory of growing up in Ottawa?

Skating to school on the canal and pulling my school bag on a sled behind me.

Favourite play?

I am a big fan of John Mighton’s The Little Years.

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Favourite theatre (worldwide), both building and/or by artistic output?

The Royal Court in London. Ex Machina, Robert Lepage’s company. I like the work of Forest Fringe and Deborah Pearson (she’s an ex-pat Canadian living in England). I like PunchDrunk’s work (like Sleep No More). I like the work associated with The Public in New York.

Five people you’d invite to dinner? 

  • Malala Yousafzai
  • Alice Munro
  • Caryl Churchill
  • Ta-nehisi Coates
  • Graeme Smith (the journalist)

What’s on your summer reading list? 

Right now I’m rereading The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. My son is eight months old – I’m reading a lot of children’s books. Honestly this summer I am going to read the work of all the other Windham-Campbell Prize winners:

  • C.E Morgan
  • Jerry Pinto
  • Tessa Hadley
  • Hilton Als
  • Stanley Crouch
  • Helen Garner
  • Abbie Spallen
  • Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins

Except from Hannah Msocovitch’s play, What a Young Wife Ought to Know

We are in a 1920s Ottawa working class tenement house. Patches of newspaper on the walls. None of the furniture matches (any chairs should be mismatched) and it should all be scratched and broken down. There is darkness onstage, around the edges, so that characters can emerge and disappear.

We see a glimpse of ALMA at the top of the play.

SOPHIE looks at her.

Then SOPHIE addresses us.

SOPHIE: My sister’s taken to talking to me. She’s dead. If I’m going mad, my one consolation is the asylum’s just up the road, at least I won’t have far to go.

Beat.

SOPHIE: I might be mad, just warning you.

Beat.

SOPHIE: The Health Visitor seemed disgusted with me when I asked her to tell me how to come by it, she said: “it’s wicked to use unnatural means to stop life for what if it’s the child of God wanting to be born?” I said: “in Ottawa?” I said: “even the Virgin Mary would use the prevention if she had children eleven pounds and with a prolapsed womb.” She’s never been near me since.

SOPHIE regards the audience.

SOPHIE: You all look… I can tell just looking at the Ladies that you don’t have more than one or two children a-piece and it’s not for want of…union, is it? For the Gentlemen, God forgive me, don’t look as though they’re thwarted in the sex instinct. The sex instinct? Gentlemen? I know you know what I’m speaking of, even if you won’t say so, or even nod your heads?

Beat.

SOPHIE: Ladies, you’ve come by it, have you? Can I ask, do you tell your Husbands…that you’ve come by it, or do you keep it from them…?

Beat.

SOPHIE: My husband Jonny, he’s what they call ‘a machinist’ up the paper mill and gets seventeen dollars and twenty-five weekly, and rent is eight, and coal is two, and that leaves seven dollars and twenty-five to feed and clothe man, wife and child, so you see I don’t want more children for their own little sakes to practically starve or be a burden to the taxpayers, but no matter how careful I try, I seem to fall wrong.[1]

Beat.

SOPHIE: I married a poor man, so there was my first mistake. But Jonny, I don’t mind telling you, was – is still – a handsome man. If he was standing before you this minute, the Ladies would cross their legs and many would pass a restless half-hour, that’s how handsome he was.

Beat.

SOPHIE: I first laid eyes on Jonny up at the hotel. He worked as a stable hand: I saw him standing outside the stables…

Shift.

SOPHIE turns and we have the sense that she’s just stopped dead.

We see JONNY in a doorway, outside, smoking a cigarette.

He sings to himself, unselfconscious.

SOPHIE watches JONNY.

JONNY: (sings an old Irish tune, haunting and romantic) Dún do shúil, a rún mo chroí

A chuid den tsaol, ‘s a ghrá liom

Dún do shúil, a rún mo chroí—

 JONNY turns a little and sees SOPHIE standing there.

JONNY: Well, you caught me, singing like a fucking idiot.

Beat.

JONNY: My Ma taught it to me, and I like it, so I sing it.

Beat.

JONNY: It’s Irish.

Beat.

JONNY: Cat got your tongue.

SOPHIE stands there looking at him, mesmerized.

JONNY: I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t think you’re an imbecile…?

SOPHIE starts a little and turns to go. But now JONNY’S narrowing his eyes at her: he recognizes her.

JONNY: You…? Wait—you have the look of girl I know—you might know her: she’s named Alma?

SOPHIE’S turned back by now and is listening to and looking at JONNY.

JONNY: Do you know her?

SOPHIE: (low) I—yes—she’s my…

But then JONNY’S turns away. He’s distracted by something – someone – offstage.

JONNY: (calling to someone offstage) Yeah! Coming.

JONNY puts out his cigarette, glances at SOPHIE, smiles or winks, and goes back out.

SOPHIE turns back to the audience.

Shift.

SOPHIE: (to the audience) Ladies? Would you make the same mistake?

Beat.

SOPHIE: (to the audience) I want to say plainly I’m not an unclean woman. The worse that I’ve done – just to say it – is before I was married there was a post-boy I kissed in the face. I just—I felt sorry for the boy who had tuberculosis consumption, and teeth all crooked in his head, and bone legs, and skin like paper stretched over his skull, I tell you this so you see it wasn’t for the sex instinct more like charity. I was just a girl, then. Fifteen.

Machinist pronunciation: ‘masheenist’