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GGBooks Special: The Chat with Hannah Moscovitch

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be chatting with each of this year’s seven English-language winners of the Canada Council Governor General’s Literary Awards. We start the series in conversation with celebrated playwright Hannah Moscovitch, whose powerful play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes (Playwrights Canada Press) was chosen as the 2021 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama.

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“Hannah Moscovitch’s play is an articulate, poetic, beautifully written play with characters who are complex and complicated. A superb piece of writing that shines as a play, as a living piece of theatre, and no doubt, literature that will endure. The committee could not be more thrilled to have chosen this winning play.”—2021 Peer Assessment Citation

Hannah Moscovitch is an acclaimed Canadian playwright, TV writer, and librettist whose work has been widely produced in Canada and around the world. Recent stage work includes Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes and Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (co-created with Christian Barry and Ben Caplan). Hannah has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Trillium Book Award, the Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award, the Scotsman Fringe First and the Herald Angel Awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize administered by Yale University. She has been nominated for the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Drama Desk Award, Canada’s Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, and the Governor General’s Literary Award. She is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. She lives in Halifax.

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Congrats on your Governor General’s Award, Hannah … among your many other awards! How does it feel to be recognized by your peers in this way?

Thank you! This is the first time I’ve been the recipient. I’ve been nominated in the past. I’m happy I’ve received the Governor General’s Award for this particular play. I’m proud of my work on it. It was a risk—an aesthetic risk, and a personal one. And of course it’s meaningful to me to be recognized by my country, and recognized alongside other great writers. And I appreciate the recognition from my peers.  

The play follows “the archetypal student-teacher romance … cleverly turned on its head.” Can you talk more about what inspired the work?

There are a lot of depictions in our culture of young women and teenage girls who come onto older men and seem to want to have sex them. For the most part that reads to me as a male fantasy. It reads to me like a lot of male writers and male porn directors wish that teenage girls were hot for them. I say this because I was a teenage girl and I know what my desires were. I know personally I wanted mentorship from older men and I was stunned and confused by their attractions. With Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, I wanted to write a version of this archetypal story, the student-teacher romance, that would first show the audience the standard culturally normative male point of view on them and then shift to a female point of view.

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Tell us more about what was involved in getting the play to the stage.  

The play went through a lot of development, including a series of workshops, some public, some in-house, some in Seattle, some in Toronto, and some in Halifax. I worked hard to make the play communicate in the way I wanted it to. We worked all through the eight or so previews before we opened—making substantial changes to the text, performance, staging, and design, to get all the various elements to coalesce. And I worked with a number of dramaturges on the play over the course of the long development process, including Joanna Falck, Sarah Stanley, and Kristin Leahey.

Are there particular theatre artists, creators, or others who inspire you in your practice?

Many! So many! It’s hard to write a list of admired theatre creators because I’m so often amazed and inspired by my colleagues. That’s part of this art form for me: creating work that is speaking back to everything happening in theatre in Canada and internationally.

49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?
 
I’m reading Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians and I just started reading The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill.  I recently read Makambe Simamba’s play Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers and Kanika Ambrose’s play Our Place. Before that I read Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life. All of these I’ve loved or am loving. And I’m looking forward to Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour.

My son is six, and so I also read a lot of children’s books. I recently read him Stolen Words by Melanie Florence and A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sarah O’Leary.

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Excerpt from Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

JON is writing. He’s struggling to focus on his work. After a pause, he closes his laptop or pushes papers away. He looks up and without hesitation speaks to the audience.

JON: Well, he was agitated: he didn’t know why, nothing came to him.

JON stands and picks up his Thermos of coffee, lifts it to his mouth, then hesitates.

A few weeks ago, the janitor forgot to unlock the men’s washroom before office hours, so he’d had to urinate into his Thermos. Then he’d opened his door, and met with students, and discussed their essays with them, with a hot Thermos of his own urine sitting on the windowsill.

JON looks down at the Thermos. He looks back at the audience.

Urine was, he knew, dissolved salts with a little organic yellow colouring in it. You just rinse it out and it’s fine.

JON hesitates, then forces himself to drink from it, forces himself to swallow, and then he puts the Thermos back down on his desk.

He’d been trying to jot down lecture notes, but he’d been too agitated so he’d switched to grading papers and now he couldn’t even fucking do that. What the fuck was wrong with him?

Pause. JON considers. Then realizes:

And, huh, a dim image came to him. It was of a girl in a red coat . . .

Pause. JON sees the girl in his mind . . . Then:

Could it be a fragment of . . . ? His publishers were waiting on a novel about turn-of-the-century lumberjacks, so hopefully this girl was a part of that, or . . . could be shoehorned into it? Because also: come on, a girl? A young girl? Wasn’t there something deadly about the “young girl” as an object of fiction? Wasn’t it where writers went to expose their mediocrity? Because wasn’t it so often the “young girl” who was grossly underwritten, a cipher, a sex object, reduced to a cliché by lust-addled men?

JON looks at his watch or device.

Nearly two o’clock.

Perhaps JON gets out an earpiece (a microphone) and puts it on.

Which meant a lecture on the death of postmodernism and the rise of transrealism with its adjacent mainstreaming of genre fiction to some ninety or so second years, so, that should really meet them where they were at.

JON regards the audience, to see if his joke registered.

That was a joke.

Beat.

Lately he’d had to point out to his students when he made jokes, as in, “That was a joke.” Maybe his delivery . . . ? Was too dry . . . ? That or he was getting old.

Pause. He takes a last look at his notes before putting them away. Then to explain, still taking a last look at his notes:

He uh—he—he—he liked to lecture without notes and address his students with a casual, jokey style, as though he was saying to them, “We’re all just trying to make sense of these beautiful texts of staggering genius: I just happen to have spent a little more time with them than you have,” because this was 2014, and anyway it didn’t help to intimidate the students. He was on the side of the Greeks: learning is a seduction.

Beat.

The erotics of pedagogy . . .

Beat.

That was the sort of thing you couldn’t say out loud without getting fired.

Beat.

He watched as the throngs of students came into the auditorium, flung their book bags down, milled about small-talking, posturing, texting, scarfing cheap food. And—strange—he was still agitated as though he was waiting for something to happen? As though he was waiting for . . . ?

A person enters. It’s a girl in a red coat. This is ANNIE. JON sees her. He is surprised to find the contents of his imagination are walking around in the world:

It was the girl. The girl in the red coat.

Shift.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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