Excavation Theatre presents What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Jewish-Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, at Performance Works on Granville Island March 24-April 1.
It’s Ottawa in the 1920s, pre-legalized birth control. Sophie (Bronwyn Henderson), a young working-class girl, falls madly in love with and marries a stable-hand named Jonny (Michael Briganti). After two difficult childbirths, doctors tell Sophie she shouldn’t have any more children, but don’t tell her how to prevent it. When Sophie inevitably becomes pregnant again, she faces a grim dilemma. Inspired by real stories of mothers during the Canadian birth-control movement of the early 20th century, playwright Moscovitch vividly recreates a couple’s struggles with reproduction.
The Excavation Theatre production will be playing in the final weeks of Women’s History Month, exactly 100 years after Canada’s first birth-control advocacy group was formed in Vancouver, and fresh off the landmark announcement that birth control prescriptions will be free in British Columbia starting April 1. For tickets, visit excavationtheatre.com.
Emma Slipp co-stars in Bunny. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Emma Slipp co-stars in Bunny, written by Jewish-Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, and presented by the Search Party in the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab March 17-27.
In Bunny, Sorrel – a young woman raised by unconventional parents – tries to reconcile her love of Victorian literature, her intellectual Marxist-feminist upbringing, and her burgeoning sexuality. From high school, through college and into adulthood, Sorrel’s story reveals a woman who feels the weight of societal expectations, wants to make the “good” and “right” choice, while simultaneously embracing her own sexual nature.
Bunny premièred in 2016 at the Stratford Festival, and garnered rave reviews for its bold and honest portrayal of female sexuality. With this upcoming run, the Search Party presents the play for the first time in Western Canada. A relatively new theatre company, their 2019 production of Florian Zeller’s The Father won six Jessie Awards. Mindy Parfitt, artistic director of the Search Party, directs this Vancouver première, which features Slipp, Ghazal Azarbad, Kayvon Khoshkam, Jay Hindle, Nathan Kay, Pamela Carolina Martinez and Liam Stewart-Kanigan.
Temple Sholom treasurer Daniel Gumprich, left, president Melody Robens-Paradise and Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. (photo from JCF)
Temple Sholom has a new $1 million endowment fund that will provide the congregation with stable, long-term income for the synagogue in perpetuity.
“We chose to establish this fund at the Jewish Community Foundation because we know that they will manage it carefully and expertly. We are thrilled that Temple Sholom will be able to rely on income from the fund to meet its needs for generations to come,” said the family who seeded the fund.
It was important to the family that they be able to leverage their giving to inspire others. So, in addition to seeding the fund, they established a program to match contributions, which not only maximized their own impact but that of every donor who joined them in giving.
“The foundation supported our staff and leadership to confidently approach congregants about contributing to the fund,” said Cathy Lowenstein, director of congregational engagement at Temple Sholom. “We were able to give everyone the opportunity to participate, which created the momentum necessary to reach our goal.”
“The endowment will ensure our ability to serve every facet of our congregation through dynamic programming, strong leadership and robust outreach for generations to come,” said Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. “It also means we can undertake a long-term approach to planning, because we have the financial strength to adapt to the changing needs of our congregation.”
Many local Jewish agencies, congregations and other organizations have endowment funds at the Jewish Community Foundation, including the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services Vancouver, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and others. In addition, individual fund holders often choose to support an organization through their own donor-advised or -designated funds.
Diane Switzer, chair of the foundation’s board of governors, said, “We are very proud to manage endowment funds on behalf of so many crucial organizations across our community, and we take our responsibility to manage these investments prudently extremely seriously. This is how we carry out the important work of building and enriching our community.”
People can make a contribution to the Temple Sholom Endowment Fund via jewishcommunityfoundation.com. They can also establish a fund for an organization or an area of need about which they care by contacting JCF executive director Marcie Flom at 604-257-5100.
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Alex Leslie’s Vancouver for Beginners was one of the works shortlisted for the 2020/2021 City of Vancouver Book Award. The honour recognizes authors of excellence of any genre who contribute to the appreciation and understanding of Vancouver’s diversity, history, unique character, or the achievements of its residents.
In the poetry collection, “[n]ostalgia of place is dissected through the mapping of a city where Leslie leads readers past surrealist development proposals, post-apocalyptic postcards, childhood landmarks long gone and a developer who paces at the city’s edge, shoring it up with aquariums.”
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Prairie Sonata by Sandy Shefrin Rabin was named one of the best books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews. The novel tells the story of Mira Adler, a teenage girl growing up on the Prairies after the Second World War, and what she learns about life and love from her Yiddish and violin teacher, Chaver B, a recent immigrant from Prague. Kirkus called it “a compelling work with a wistful longing for days of childhood innocence. A poignant and eloquent reflection on tradition, family, friendship, and tragedy.”
Winner of the Independent Press Award, and named a 2021 New York City Big Book Award Distinguished Favourite in the young adult fiction category, Prairie Sonata has been introduced into high school curricula.
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The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2021 Governor General’s Literary Awards winners include, in the drama category, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Hannah Moscovitch.
“Hannah Moscovitch’s play is an articulate, poetic, beautifully written play with characters who are complex and complicated,” noted the peer assessment committee. “A superb piece of writing that shines as a play, as a living piece of theatre and, no doubt, literature that will endure.”
In the drama, “[t]he archetypal student-teacher romance is cleverly turned on its head for the post-#metoo era…. Jon, a star professor and author, is racked with self-loathing after his third marriage crumbles around him when he finds himself admiring a student – a girl in a red coat. The girl, 19-year-old Annie, is a big fan of his work and also happens to live down the street. From their doorways to his office to hotel rooms, their mutual admiration and sexual tension escalates under Jon’s control to a surprising conclusion that will leave you wanting to go back and question your perceptions of power as soon as you finish.”
Ben Caplan is narrator and co-creator of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, as part of the PuSh festival. (photo by Stoo Metz Photography)
The 2020 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival opens next week. Among the highlights is Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, which follows Chaim and Chaya from the pogroms in Romania they are fleeing, to Halifax’s Pier 21, where they meet in 1908, to Montreal, where they end up living. The show, which runs Jan. 24-30 at Frederic Wood Theatre, is narrated and co-created by Halifax-based musician and performer Ben Caplan, with whom the Jewish Independent recently spoke.
JI: How and when did you become involved in the production?
BC: It all started with a phone call from 2b Theatre Company’s artistic co-director Christian Barry in mid-2015. Christian was familiar with my work as a songwriter and performer in the music world and he wondered if I would be interested in collaborating on creating a theatrical production featuring new songs that we would write together.
To be honest, I was skeptical at first. I tend to be a very solitary writer and, though I had a lot of experience in theatre many years ago, it had been a decade since I had performed in theatre. The first few writing sessions were pleasant enough and Christian and I got along great, but we were struggling to find the story that we wanted to tell. As we were searching and exploring to find the substance of what the work would consist of, a confluence of events conspired to show us the story that would become Old Stock.
The first thing was our growing consciousness of the scale of the human tragedy emerging in Syria as a growing number of refugees started trying to find their way out of the violence. Next came Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments about “Old Stock Canadians” during the 2015 leadership debate. This othering of “non-Old Stock Canadians” seemed to be vile and absurd. At what point does one get to call themselves “Old Stock”? I am the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants who came to Canada fleeing violence in their own home countries. Was I supposed to think of myself as “Old Stock” or did I fit into some other category in our [then] prime minister’s logic.
Around this time, Christian’s wife, who happens to be the celebrated playwright Hannah Moscovitch, gave birth to their first child, Elijah, and came across the immigration records of her own great-grandparents who immigrated to Canada in 1908 through Pier 2 in Halifax. She realized that, if her great-grandparents hadn’t made the journey to Canada, she would not exist, let alone her infant child. It was then that Hannah asked if she could write the scenes for the show we were trying to create.
With Christian’s vision of the artistic whole, my work as composer and lyricist, and Hannah’s work as playwright, we were off to the races and we worked together to create the show. We thought that the Jewish story from 110 years ago had a striking and tragic resonance with the tragedy unfolding in our own time. I should mention that, of course, the originating cast, musical director Graham Scott, our production manager and designer Louisa Adamson, and many others played a huge role in realizing the vision and bringing the music and the play into the world.
JI: In broad strokes, could you describe how the co-writing process worked?
BC: Christian Barry created the structures and conditions that made it possible for any of these songs to be written. I was probably not always the easiest artist to work with – I tend to desire quiet and solitude when I am writing.
The way it usually worked is that Christian would book a time and a space in whatever city we were able to meet up in (we did writing in Halifax, Montreal, Stratford and Banff) and the day would start with conversations and questions. We would talk, share ideas, listen to music, read texts, Google things, etc.
Out of our conversations and questions, the idea for a song would emerge. The first one we wrote was something for their arrival at Pier 2. We didn’t have a scene or a broader context to work with but, after awhile, Christian would say something like, “We know they are going to come through Pier 2, let’s start there.” I sat at the piano and started mashing out some chords and throwing words into the air. Christian had a wonderfully delicate touch after I got rolling, and would provide helpful comments, critiques, and throw ideas into the room.
JI: What is it about the production that drew you back to performing?
BC: I had stopped performing in the theatre after I became somewhat disillusioned of the possibilities of making a career in theatre. In 2005, the year I did my last theatre performance, I was working on academic pursuits, theatre and my hobby as a singer-songwriter. My life was over-full and something had to give. My logic was something like, in theatre, you need to rely on finding a lot of talented people who are willing to work on a project that takes a lot of time and resources to complete. As a singer-songwriter, there is more room to work solo and bring other people into the project as interest and resources permit. So, that’s the path I chose to express my artistic impulses. I gave up the dream of becoming an actor to focus on the more reasonable and safe path of becoming a songwriter. Ha!
When Christian called me to ask me to make a piece of theatre with him, it was a no-brainer. Being a part of this show has been one of the great privileges of my life. Not only did I get to collaborate with a crazy good team on writing the thing, but I had the opportunity to perform on stages that I wouldn’t have dared to dream of stepping onto when I was making theatre 10 years ago. It’s been an amazing learning experience and one that is sure to influence my work as a performer for the rest of my career.
JI: In what ways does the story and/or themes of Old Stock speak to you as a Canadian in 2020?
BC: What is most meaningful for me about the story and themes of the show is the humanization of the character of the refugee. It has been disturbing to see the ways in which migrants have been portrayed by so many politicians and media outlets around the world. They are often spoken of as hordes, masses and statistics. What is lost are the individual human lives – people with hopes, dreams, fears and trauma searching for a safe harbour.
In Old Stock, we tell the story of Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents coming to Canada. We see their struggles to overcome their past and to generate new and complicated identities. I think that we all, as human beings, have complicated and multi-layered identities. I think that, among other things, this show is about demonstrating layered and sometimes tragic identities with compassion and a healthy dose of humour. That’s basically the most Canadian thing I can think of.
For tickets to Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story and other PuSh shows, visit pushfestival.ca. The soundtrack to Old Stock is available on Spotify, YouTube and elsewhere.
Not one normally drawn to psychological thrillers, Little One intrigues me, in large part because its playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, has such an impressive track record. She has not only won multiple awards for her writing, but has done so while tackling an almost unbelievable breadth of heady topics, including, but not limited to gender politics, Stalinist Russia, the Holocaust, the Canadian military in Afghanistan, and the nature of time. In Moscovitch’s words, Little One “is an exploration of guilt, family, trauma and the limits of love.”
The synopsis for the play – which runs in New Westminster at Anvil Centre Theatre from Feb. 4-6 and in Vancouver at Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 9-13 – reads: “When 4-year-old Claire is adopted into the family, 6-year-old Aaron has to learn to ‘love’ his new monster of a sister. Told through the now-adult voices of its two main characters, Little One weaves stories of childhood horror and teenage humiliation into a twisted, wryly funny, and ultimately haunting narrative. One that asks how far you’d let a psychopath control your life, and what you’d do to regain it.”
In a 2011 blog, Moscovitch pondered why she wrote Little One. In contemplating humor and darkness, she noted that the humor allows “the audience to relax and go with me into the darkness.”
In an email interview earlier this month with the Independent, Moscovitch expanded on this topic. “There is humor in life,” she said, “even in the bleakest circumstances (we know, for instance, from diaries written in the Warsaw Ghetto, that starving Jews, imprisoned there, being terrorized by Nazis, told jokes) and so I tend to want to include humor in my work in order to accurately represent life.
“I don’t know why I write about dark topics. They attract me. I also tend to write historical plays for some reason. I write a lot of works set in the 20th century. I can’t altogether explain my voice and my story instincts as a writer. My guess is, in dark circumstances, human nature is exposed, so I head to dark circumstances (war, disaster) to understand the human psyche.”
Now based in Toronto, Moscovitch was raised in Ottawa, which is where Little One is set. Given the complexity and emotional depth of her work, the Independent wondered what the dinner table conversation was like at home when she was growing up.
“My father is an economics and history professor (he teaches in the social work department at Carleton and his specialty is social policy) and my mother was a social worker and a researcher on women in unions and women in the workplace, so conversations growing up were on the serious side,” she explained. “Conversations were generally abstract, about ideas. Not much small talk.”
She seems very comfortable with having a play that ends with some questions unanswered.
“Clarity opens up one possibility in the minds of the audience. Ambiguity opens up two or more possibilities in the minds of the audience,” she explained. “It’s a sophisticated form of storytelling. Makes the story more complex.”
Moscovitch’s own story is relatively complex, and her path to writing a little winding. As high school came to a close, she auditioned for National Theatre School in Montreal, and then spent time in Israel on a kibbutz and in England when she wasn’t accepted. When she returned to Canada, she got into NTS, graduating from its acting program in 2001, though also being introduced there to playwriting. One of the plays she wrote as a student was workshopped by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa.
Moving to Toronto, it only took her a few years to find her niche as a playwright. Her short play Essay premièred at the 2005 SummerWorks Festival; The Russian Play, in 2006, won the festival’s prize for best new production. Her first full-length play, East of Berlin, premièring at Tarragon Theatre in 2007, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. She has won multiple awards for her writing over the years, and her plays have been mounted in several different countries. She also writes for other media, including radio, TV and film.
In a 2014 article on kickasscanadians.ca, she said, “For me, there’s a big question about whether I want to be a Canadian playwright or an American TV writer.” Her answer so far is that she’s “a Canadian TV writer as well as playwright,” though she told the Independent, “My husband and I talk about moving to London or New York for a year, to meet new collaborators and immerse ourselves in a different theatre culture.”
In her work, she added, “I try to show Canada to Canadians. We see tons of work by Brits and Americans. Canadian audiences like to see themselves represented (is my sense).”
Other aspects that enter her plays derive from her cultural background, which is both Jewish (her father) and Catholic (her mother). She told the Jewish Daily Forward in 2013 that Judaism was the core of her identity and that she “write[s] a hell of a lot less Irish plays.” Since then, she told the JI, “I’ve written a play called What a Young Wife Ought to Know that draws on my Irish heritage! It’s set in a working-class Irish immigrant district of Ottawa in the 1920s.
Probably because I was immersed in my Jewish heritage growing up – including Hebrew school, temple, Jewish holidays, bat mitzvah, trips to the concentration camps in Poland and to Israel to work on a kibbutz – my Jewish side has always loomed larger in my imagination.”
She most identifies with Judaism’s traditions and holidays, “especially Passover and Shabbat. I’ve named my son Elijah. The oldness of our culture compels me, our 5,000-year history. I spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust when I was younger and that’s influenced me profoundly.”
With such a talent in writing, it’s hard to believe that Moscovitch initially tried her hand at acting. “When I was younger,” she shared, “I wanted to be a lawyer or a librarian or a war journalist. I wrote poems and stories my whole childhood though. My mother tells me she knew I’d be a writer because I was always reading and writing growing up.”
As to her current projects, Moscovitch is as busy as ever.
“I have a première in Edmonton at U of A in March (The Kaufman Kabaret) and at the Stratford Festival in August (Bunny), I’m working on an opera with a Philadelphia-based composer named Lembit Beecher. Along with a number of collaborators, I’m co-adapting Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald for the stage. I’m talking to a Japanese theatre company about writing a play about Hiroshima. I’m writing a project with Maev Beaty, Tova Smith and Ann-Marie Kerr about modern maternity (in development at the Theatre Centre). I’m talking to 2b theatre in Halifax about co-creating a project that would feature the lives of my Romanian great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya (both of them arrived in Halifax when they immigrated to Canada).”
And dream projects? “There are a number of brilliant artists in Canada I’ve yet to work with,” she said. “I’m a big fan of Vancouver’s Electric Company!”