“Let’s talk,” says Hannah Moscovitch.
She says this after the longest pause anyone’s ever taken in an interview with me.
I’ve asked her about the personal content in her recent plays. “Bunny” and “Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes” offer bracingly honest accounts of female sexuality and female-male power relations and, while not autobiographical, draw on Moscovitch’s own experience. Taking things a step further, “Secret Life of a Mother” is confessional: it’s about her and her collaborators’ personal experiences of miscarriage, pregnancy and childbirth — blood, tears, sh– and all.
The question I pose — why bare so much, when contemporary culture is saturated with commodified confessions and the invasion of privacy — is clearly close to the bone for Moscovitch, one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights.
“I would say I’m pretty reserved actually, just in terms of temperament and also maybe social anxiety,” she says. “It’s very hard for me.”
Writing from her own experience has not previously been her impulse, but admiration for female writers including Sheila Heti, Sylvia Plath and Frida Kahlo — “those women who rip their own hearts out and just hold it out to you” — inspired her to take this turn.
Those writers’ work “feels like it has a kind of truth in it,” continues Moscovitch. “Not that the art can’t stand on its own, but that you feel the artists working, the relentlessness of that artist.”
She and actor Maev Beaty had long hoped to “leverage their friendship,” in Moscovitch’s words, “to see if it could allow us to go all the way down to the truth.”
It was when they were both seriously considering having kids that the idea for this production started to take shape. “We were looking around at the culture and there just wasn’t anything out there that … seemed to represent us,” says Moscovitch. “Mothers were the butts of jokes. They were covered in barf. And mothers were villains … we were, like, why?”
The show is a collaboration between Moscovitch, Beaty, director Ann-Marie Kerr and stage manager Marinda De Beer. After playing around with different formal approaches, the group seized on the device of Beaty performing a documentary-style solo piece in which she largely articulates Moscovitch’s experience.
“Within the mechanism of Maev playing me, I can expose myself and she can expose herself,” says Moscovitch, “and also we can talk about our friendship on a structural level.”
This sounded like a great idea in principle. In practice it’s been more challenging for Moscovitch: “It happened and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m f–ked a little bit.’” The experience has made her feel “exposed. I legitimately feel exposed. Honestly.”
She persevered because there are so few stories out that truthfully represent women’s lives. “Our experiences are actually normal; they are not extraordinary,” says Moscovitch. “Many women have the exact same set of experiences that I do. No one talks about it. I will be one of the first ones to just get up and speak and maybe that will help.”
While she says she has “no talent” for reading the zeitgeist, Moscovitch allows that the turn in her work toward more personal material — earlier plays treated the legacy of the Holocaust (“East of Berlin”) and soldiers in Afghanistan (“This is War”) — is connected to #MeToo, to women speaking up about the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanagh and other powerful men.
“I have always wanted to talk about this and I have permission now,” says Moscovitch. “I have cultural permission to talk about it and so I am just strong enough now. I can do it now because it’s maybe going to be OK … I feel like something is maybe cracking open.”
Certainly the play has touched a nerve.
“I have not in my career had the level of response from an audience like ‘Secret Life of a Mother,’” says Moscovitch. When it premiered at the Theatre Centre in October 2018, “people just came at us with response. They want to tell all … what it meant to them to have women say these things onstage, and what it meant to be represented and what it meant to hear their story, and what they had been through and how much they’d kept secret.”
When I tell her how much her recent plays have meant to me and other people I know (particularly younger women), Moscovitch is visibly moved, and says again this turn in her career has been scary.
This doesn’t mean she’s stopping.
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Besides a TV project in development about the relationship between circus showman P.T. Barnum and an eight-foot-tall woman, she’s also writing a play for 2b Theatre Company in Halifax, of which her husband Christian Barry is co-artistic director.
Called “Red Like Fruit,” it involves a man telling the story of a woman’s life. “It is really literally about all the stuff we just talked about,” says Moscovitch, “what it feels like to be in the midst of a shift that is happening to you, and as you think about your own experiences … you’re going to have to listen to this man tell this whole story about this woman, and then I’m going to draw your attention to the fact that we’ve done that.”
While our interview was challenging for Moscovitch, she finishes by thanking me. “This is really what I want to talk about right now.”