Hannah Moscovitch has learned a thing or two about theatre in the four years since she was anointed Canada's hottest young playwright. For instance: "If someone gets attacked by an elk, you'll lose the audience."
Moscovitch passes on this quintessentially Canadian wisdom in between sips of a latte at the downtown Toronto coffee shop that she regularly colonizes with her laptop. It's no metaphorical maxim, however – and there's actually a direct link between a raging wapiti upstaging her and the caffeinated beverage the petite, tank-topped playwright is nursing on this hot summer day.
But we'll get to the elk in a moment.
This week finds Moscovitch back at Toronto's SummerWorks, the influential indie theatre festival that launched her career with sellout shows in 2005 and 2006, with a new two-hander about adopted siblings called Little One. It reunites her wicked words with the director and star of her previous SummerWorks smash The Russian Play – Natasha Mytnowych and Michelle Monteith, respectively – with in-demand talent Joe Cobden rounding out the cast.
A play about "sibling rivalry, psychopathy and the limits of love," Little One is set in Ottawa in the 1990s, the very years Moscovitch came of age in the Canadian capital's liberal, prosperous Glebe neighbourhood.
Canada is hardly short of writers who tap their upbringing as source material, but a hometown drama is a change of course for Moscovitch, who has tended to set her self-described "dark and weird" plays further back in the 20th century and outside of the country.
Her monologue The Russian Play took place in Stalinist Moscow, while her most widely seen hit, East of Berlin – which has made its way in all cardinal directions across Canada and has a Chicago premiere this fall – ranged from Argentina to Germany and concerned an odd romance between the son of a Nazi and daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
"I can't help but be interested in the set-up to now," Moscovitch says of her love of 20th-century history and immersing herself in research.
Near the end of 2007, Moscovitch's career really lit up in Toronto when East of Berlin premiered at the Tarragon Theatre and then The Russian Play and a previous SummerWorks sensation called Essay were remounted at the Factory Theatre a couple of months later.
The then-twentysomething suddenly found herself with a shower of commissions from theatres at home and even abroad, all of which she eagerly accepted.
"It's such a young writer's move," she says now. "You've starved and you can't say no; you say, 'Hell yes.'"
While other writers may have spent their advances and then cracked under the pressure, Moscovitch – well trained in the art of guilt by her Catholic mother and Jewish father – socked away the cash to return in case she fell behind schedule (she tried to, once, but failed). She was later relieved when mentor Daniel MacIvor gave her the following elk-free advice about commissions: "When they say December, they mean May."
Nevertheless, Moscovitch – also a regular writer for CBC Radio's Afghanada – approached her mushrooming métier like an athlete in training. She stopped drinking alcohol, cut coffee and sugar out of her diet and peeled off play after play for three years: In This World, a teen drama for Montreal's Youtheatre; The Children's Republic, set in the Warsaw Ghetto, for Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company; and The Huron Bride, her contribution to Toronto's Theatrefront's ambitious horror-history cycle.
Little One is her first play in years that was written without a theatre company in mind, but she has at least two other prominent commissions nearing completion.
The Anatomists, a play about body snatching and organ trafficking penned for the Pulitzer Prize powerhouse Manhattan Theatre Club, will have its first reading in New York this fall.
And then there's a work about Canada's mission in Afghanistan tentatively titled We Are at War – and this is where the elk comes in.
We Are at War had its first reading in the bucolic setting of the Banff Centre in June. Moscovitch recalls she was already unsettled that day because she was seated with her back to the invited audience – and she always prefers to observe reactions while developing a work. (If you happen to see Little One at SummerWorks, she'll be the black-haired woman with the wild-looking eyes in the back row watching and listening to you.)
Then, in the middle of the Banff reading, a man with a coffee appeared outside the window – and promptly exited from view, pursued by an angry, charging elk. "The fragility of theatre," Moscovitch sums up.
That was two days before her 33rd birthday, and the night Moscovitch ended her personal prohibition era. There are some wildlife-related incidents where a glass of wine is the only sane reaction. Caffeine and sugar intake resumed soon after.
"There's something about your early 30s, when you feel like you're in your life," Moscovitch says, the smell of roasted beans wafting all about her in the coffee shop. "You're not trying to get to it, any more." Indeed, she is in the thick of it.
SummerWorks runs at various venues in Toronto until Aug. 14; Little One premiered Friday at Theatre Passe Muraille, with additional performances on Aug. 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14 (summerworks.ca).