The day Hannah Moscovitch wins the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, Halifax’s most decorated playwright is sipping milky coffee, untying and retying her half-up messy bun while soft light diffuses around her. It’s a serene Wednesday afternoon in her north end home, no champagne popping in sight.
“I feel like I paid in pain with this one. I feel like I fucking paid for this play,” Moscovitch says of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Class, her 16th script—now recognized by one of the country’s most lauded cultural awards.
Recently published as a book, the story centres around a 19-year-old student and her 40-something professor, while obliterating readers’ expectations—and their notions of power. The play, based on composites of her own lived experiences and stories from her friends, is classic Moscovitch: heavy and messy; addictive and validating; sending postcards from the grey swamp where sex and power intersect.
When asked what she’s most proud of about the piece, she runs into another room, grabs a slim copy and cracks its spine as the sticker announcing its award winks on the cover. “I’m proud of this,” she says, pointing at the dedication. It reads: “To future women.”
Here, we talk with the Drama Desk nominated and Nova Scotia Masterworks winning playwright about her bombshell, post-#MeToo era play, how it feels to be one of the most exciting names in Canadian playwriting today and more.
The Coast: How do you handle the difficulty of writing these heavy topics? Since most of your plays delve into the atrocities of war or gender-based violence, how do you shrug that off when you close your laptop or set down your pen at the end of the day?
Hannah Moscovitch: It's embarrassing, to some degree, how willing I am to go into dark material—and it's consistent. I don't know. I have my moments of it being too much or feeling like I'm traumatizing myself, for sure. I've had those moments on particular projects. But generally, because whoever I'm writing about, their lived experiences is what I'm writing about. And their lived experience is so much worse than anything I'm experiencing writing about it. But it gives me a constant source of perspective.
And also I grew up at a synagogue where there were a lot of Holocaust survivors. So I grew up in the shadow of genocide. So that gives you a particular perspective. It gives you a slant, in terms of how you see the world, and what is normal to you.
I think because of my childhood: I think because of that, I just have a built in capacity for darker topics, honestly.
So is most of your work true stories about real people?
I made it really sound that way with what I just said. I mean, rarely, although I really like research, or I do a lot of research-heavy projects.
I've only written fiction. And yet, you know…one of the plays I've written was about children of Nazis who grew up in Paraguay post-World War Two. It just takes a huge amount of research to access writing that in any kind of a respectful, specific, authentic way. And so, again, you're just like in the pool of reading endlessly about the children of Nazis and the Holocaust and the aftermath of World War Two. It's always fiction—just with a heavy research component underlying it.
So in terms of balancing all the heavy stuff, does it almost feel like you're swimming in this big pool and then you take a little cup of water and leave the pool with that? And so everyone's all like: ‘That cup looks really heavy.’ And you’re like: I was just kind of in this—
—This whole pool, back there, behind me! Welcome to a glass of it! That’s a beautiful metaphor, exactly. And it feels like that pool has people in it to whom I owe something.
Like they live there and they let you come swim.
Yeah, and the current project I'm working on is about the ‘60s scoop of Indigenous children, with a co creator named Jennifer Podolski. And it's a TV show, a limited series for Crave. And again, you may be writing it, but if behind you in that pool is every ‘60s Scoop survivor, then your trauma is limited in writing about it by the depth of theirs.
Like real life, a lot of times it feels like your plays end but they aren’t resolved—they have an endpoint, they just aren’t tidy. Why is it important to you to not put a bow on things?
It sometimes feels mean to do that, you know? Because what you are doing essentially, is whether audiences like it or not, you're outsourcing to them the meaning: You're going ‘I'm going to present you with this thing, in some ways, neutrally, you know, without the ending, which would give you the moral message, right would give you a hit of morality. I'm going to just show it to you and let you decide what you should think about it.’
I was like: ‘Oh, God, the audience is gonna kill me for this. Like, they're gonna be mad at me for writing it this way.’ But that isn't what happened.tweet this
Sometimes people don't like that in my writing. I get in trouble for that. People getting angry that I haven't given them a specific way to look at the material. I think that just comes down to aesthetics. I think for me, I prefer to leave it in the hands of the audience.
I think, sometimes maybe to a fault, I lean away from that and go, like: ‘I leave it with you, the audience. You're smart. You can figure out what to think and feel about this.’
One thing I love about your work is that your dialogue is so real it feels like a gut-punch. When I saw Matchstick Theatre’s production of your three earliest works this fall, FOOTNOTES, the dialogue was so true to life it wrecked me. How do you manage that?
I think, for whatever reason, part of the art that I like doing of playwriting is authentic dialogue. And I've always liked it. And I think it is maybe about any number of things in my life: Like being a bit of an outsider, being an outsider as a kid, and then working in a bar for five years and constantly overhearing dialogue at the formative moments of my life—like always being outside of conversation and listening to it.
I come to that part more easily. And then there are other parts of writing that are a lot harder for me, like structure. All of that is to say, plays are dialogue, they are still that medium that is in the zone of like, the interpersonal relationships between people. And so, a facility with dialogue of any kind is going to help you.
I think because I spent all of this time working in a bar for five years, overhearing how men talk, I gained a capacity to write like that: To listen and hear how men were talking when women weren't at the table. And it was right when I was writing [my first play] Essay, I was working at that restaurant. So I was like, right up in contact with it.
What inspired Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Class?
I think in this case, it's fair to say that while the piece is not autobiographical, I had personal experiences that align with some of what happened in the piece. It'll feel dated now saying this, but at that time [around 2017, when it debuted], I was super aware that romances between students and teachers were often framed through a male point of view. And it was around the time when everything was happening with #MeToo: Steven Galloway was happening. So I was interested in what I could write about it, that would turn that age-old student-teacher romance, and write it for a post-#MeToo world, with the information I had as a grown up woman looking back on my experiences being a kid: What happened when I was a kid, in my teens.
I don't think that it's dated, because I think that for a lot of us during #MeToo, we're kind of still trying to figure out what it means going forward.
There was a reading of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes in Seattle in 2017, in June—like, three months before the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out. And it was about 150 people in the audience, and I sat there beforehand, heart pounding a bit, being like: ‘They're gonna hate her. They’re going to hate me.’
Because what the play does is take you through a student-teacher romance from a male perspective, and then it switches it to a female one at a key moment in the end. And so then you suddenly are forced to look back through her perspective on what's been happening. So you only hear from the male professor about what's been going on until I switch it at the very end, and you hear from her. So you've only really seen it through his eyes until the end.
I was like: ‘Oh, God, the audience is gonna kill me for this. Like, they're gonna be mad at me for writing it this way.’ But that isn't what happened.
I was completely off about what I thought, whose side the audience was gonna be on. I expected it to really, like, fuck the audience up. And they were like, with her, and it seemed like a real change. But I still look back on it and think: ‘Wow, like the level at which I was scared about how much they would hate her for exposing him.’
It speaks to that moment when women didn't think that they would be believed and weren't able to come forward.
Why is the intersection of sex and power, or gender and power, such a fertile inspiration for you?
I feel like I always end up talking about my childhood. But my mother is a feminist nonfiction writer. So I grew up very much thinking all the time about these questions at a time when feminism was a pejorative. So I think it's always been the lens through which I look, whether I like it or not, because I was given that lens.
And I mean, that's the thing about being a feminist, right? It is not always fun. A lot of times it's not.
You don't get to just float, right? Just float in your culture. You're always looking at your culture and looking at what it's doing to you and other people like you. And other people generally. So I think that yeah, it's just like, my mom is a hero. And she gave me that lens, for better and worse.
You’re at the point in your career now, too, where you’re inspiring other playwrights: People are looking to you as a light in this male-dominated industry. What do you wish you could tell these young theatre-makers?
Don't stop at including women. Push yourself to the limit of inclusion. But if I were to speak to the young version of me, it would be: The stories you're telling are relevant. They're important. Women want to hear them. Some of the most meaningful experiences of my life in the theatre and of my art have been writing specifically for and to women.