The Conversation: Hannah Moscovitch

Hannah Moscovitch. Photo: Ian Selig

The award-winning writer works to change the way we look at each other and our relationships

Hannah Moscovitch’s writing journey began while studying acting at the National Theatre School of Canada. She discovered a passion for creating stories, beginning a journey that led her from her home in Ottawa to Toronto and then Montreal, before settling in Halifax in 2013.

In 2007, she became a full-time writer, penning many powerful stories for TV, opera, and stage. And her work is changing the way audiences see themselves, and each other. She recently won a Governor General’s Literary Award for drama for her play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes.

With more than 14 years of writing experience, Moscovitch has a unique perspective on power dynamics, racism, social inequality, injustice, and power struggles, drawing on her experiences and her childhood.

Premise of Sexual Misconduct: “It’s a romance between a professor and an undergraduate student in his second-year modernist class. The story takes place from John’s masculine point of view. He’s the professor, so you follow him. He speaks to the audience, and you see the romantic view, including all his struggles around whether it’s OK to have an affair with a 19-year-old student, and will he get fired for it, because it’s university policy that you don’t have sex with your student. You follow it through the romance, and then the end of the romance and then you meet Annie and John, four years later in a hotel. Annie hasn’t seen John in three years, and she questions him about why he had this affair with her when she was 19 years old, now that she’s 23 years old. They fight and he walks out. In the very last scene of Annie coming in her 30s now to tell John that she’s written a play about what happened from his point of view because she was trying to understand what happened between them … A woman wrote it in order to understand her own experience.”

Flipping the power dynamic: “Before #MeToo was happening, I was working on this play, and in that period of time, I thought, the audience is going to be so shocked to hear that this young woman had mixed feelings about this affair with her professor and that it’s going to have this feeling of her exposing him to view … I was writing this in 2014 and 2015, and then putting this up in 2019. (During that time there) was such a revolution in how people were thinking, and about whether people felt like women should be believed when they said that life experience was complicated … and this man who had power over me was coming out and saying, ‘We should have sex’ and I went along with it, because he was the adult and as a child, I just assumed he knew better about what sexuality should be because he was teaching me. I wanted to express all of that, because there’s a way in which we show young women having sex with older men in our culture that’s like, ‘I’m so into it,’ as opposed to ‘I have really complicated feelings.’”

Alice Snaden and Matthew Edison in a 2020 production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Photo:
Joy von Tiedemann

On highlighting power, racism, inequality, and injustice: “There’s always a desire on my part to show a more nuanced version, to show an unusual voice, to hear something we haven’t heard about what the world is … I always want to go into those places … Flattening the story out that has nuance and complexity. I am often interested in that, and it just happens to align with those kinds of ethics that I want there to be (so it’s) an original authentic story rather than a story that just affirms the cultural norms.”

What readers should take away from Sexual Misconduct: “I was trying so hard to go ‘this is what it’s like to go from being in a male perspective to be in a female one.’ This is what it feels like. There’s a destabilization or a revolution happening, where we’re going, ‘this was how we thought, and now we’re going to think like this, some of the time, we hope we’re going to be able to see from two points of view, not just one.’ I was really after that in particular … This play is not about me or my personal experiences. There are elements of it — I have personal experiences that align with what happened in the play, and so I’m able to talk about exactly what it’s like when a girl goes through an experience, grows up, becomes a woman and is able to reflect on it, from the point of view of no longer being a child in a relationship with an adult, but being an adult, looking back on having been a child in a relationship with an adult.”

Winning the Governor General’s Literary Award: “I was waiting for a call from my doctor to renew a prescription. I pick up the phone and it was the Governor General’s Office saying I won, so they got like a full shock reaction because I hadn’t looked at the number. I had no idea as I picked up the phone what was coming. Then I cried and told them how much it meant to me.”

The impact of art on advocacy: “There’s this kind of a culture that we live in and … racism is permitted within this culture … So, it feels actually more important than you would think that the story be different than the stories we used to tell … It feels important that we get those stories right and then we tell a story that is the story we want going forward … And that we tell stories that are inclusive and diverse.”

On optimism: “I’m in my 40s and there’s been this long trajectory … It was a such a monolithic world that I lived in when I first started out writing. You would get yelled down so quickly if you said ‘Oh, should we maybe like not tell a sexist story here?’ Like immediately get screamed to hell and also, all artistic directors were men, and all producers were men, and all critics were men — like it was just so one thing and they were all white.”

Five years from now: “What I hope is that the trajectory that I have seen continues and does not backtrack … I’m optimistic that rather than contracting, everything will continue to open, and I say that knowing that in our era, there’s an undertone and not even an undertone of Nazis and … there is an incredible backlash. I’m just trying to be hopeful that in five years, things will have gotten more open.”

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