The Self Isolated Artist
I have either read or heard of Hannah’s name over the years in the entertainment section of the newspaper (is there such a section anymore?) or in discussion with others who have a keen interest in Canadian theatre. When I sat on play reading committees for various amateur theatre groups years ago, I can’t recall if I had read anything by Hannah or not.
After reviewing two extraordinarily fine productions of her plays ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes ‘and ‘Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story’ at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, I certainly want to keep aware of Hannah’s upcoming works. I found both productions exceptionally theatrical while crossing boundaries of all sorts with a fine mixture of psychological drama added to pepper character development. While a prolific and exceptional playwright, Hannah is also a TV writer (‘X Company’ which I did watch on CBC) and librettist.
Regretfully I bow my head as I did not have the chance to see ‘The Secret Life of a Mother’ or ‘Bunny’ where I heard artist Maev Beaty’s stunning work was captured exquisitely. I hope and trust there is an opportunity to see both works in the future once we’re all allowed back in the theatre.
Hannah and I conducted our interview via email:
1. It has been nearing three months now that we have been under this lockdown. How have you been doing during this period of isolation and quarantine. How has your immediate family been doing?
We are good. None of us are sick. We have money. We live in Nova Scotia where there are a small number of people – it’s easy to stay isolated here. My work is solitary for long stretches so I am used to being alone.
2. Were you involved or being considered for any projects before the pandemic was declared and everything was shut down?
I’ve had, I think, seven shows cancelled or postponed so far. New productions of ‘Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes’ in Edmonton and Melbourne Australia and international tours of ‘Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story’. A couple of workshops of new projects have been pushed back – ‘Post-Democracy at PTE’ and ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’ at Opera Philadelphia. More will be cancelled or postponed soon, I think. But there’s a worldwide pandemic so, uh, that seems like the right choice.
3. What has been the most difficult and/or challenging element of this period of isolation for you?
I have half the work time because my son is home. He’s only four. There are still big expectations on me to meet deadlines, as though I don’t have a kid at home, so that’s been harder, I feel crushed by work. On the bright side, I have work.
4. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time of lockdown?
I think this question applies to people without children. I am busy all the time. There is not a minute I’m awake that I am not working flat out or with my son. It feels relentless at times, in fact. It’s complicated because I love my son and my life, but it’s hard not to let the work pressure colour what is actually beautiful time with my son. Anyway, I am not lonely or bored or in need of distracting activity.
5. Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists who are concerned about the impact of COVID-19? What about to the new theatre graduates who are just out of school and may have been hit hard? Why is it important for them not to lose sight of their dreams?
Jeez. Pandemic circumstances are new, so I can’t draw on any experience or theories of mine to offer advice or consolation.
6. Do you see anything positive stemming from this pandemic?
I hope that empiricism and science and rigorous truth-making systems will be re-established, and that the right wing won’t so breezily make up facts like “coronavirus is a hoax”.
7. In your estimation and informed opinion, will the Canadian performing arts scene somehow be changed or impacted as a result of COVID – 19?
I think it already has. There are theatre companies that are going bankrupt. There are artists who won’t be able to hold out, financially, and will opt out of this industry, taking their talents with them. There are established artists who are turning to other mediums – publishing for instance – to get through. Artistic Directors speak regretfully about how new works will be stalled. Listen, there may be good outcomes too – we aren’t at that moment yet.
8. Many artists are turning to streaming/online performances to showcase/highlight/share their work. What are your thoughts about this format presentation? Any advantages to doing this? Disadvantages? Are you participating or will you be participating in this presentation format soon?
I gave a 20-minute talk on this recently for Canadian Stage. The short version is I think it makes sense to maintain audience bases via archivals. I’m interested in live online work, and I have no doubt iterations of it will blow my mind. I do also think theatre people going online live could consult with people in the TV industry who are more familiar with the medium and get good help.
9. What is it about the performing arts scene you still love given all the change, the confusion and the drama surrounding the theatre community from Covid 19?
I love that it’s a supportive community, and that everyone is managing to be kind in a difficult situation.
With a respectful acknowledgment to ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ and the late James Lipton, here are the ten questions he asked his guests at the conclusion of his interviews:
a. What is your favourite word?
b. What is your least favourite word?
Words used to demean people.
c. What turns you on?
I’ve given long and short ones below, Joe. (Note: I had no issue with this, especially when you read Hannah’s answer to question d.)
Short Answer: Right now I’m into the TV show Normal People.
Long Answer: Right now I’m into the TV show Normal People, and I have been listening to Connie Walker’s podcast which is so extraordinarily good – Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo and Who Killed Alberta Willians, and I just read “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Mohsfegh which I loved.
d. What turns you off?
Short Answer: Right now? The murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers.
Long Answer: I’m turned off by reconciliation in Canada without justice or a reckoning for Indigenous communities. I’m Jewish, and we don’t believe in forgiveness without justice – that’s a Christian concept. I’m turned off by the failure in Canada to take responsibility for the genocides and atrocities of the past and the present on a systemic level.
I love Canada, and so I’d like Canada to be better, I’d like our country not to just pay lip service to taking responsibility. I want us to actually reckon with our fucked up prisons, fucked up child welfare systems, fucked up police forces where racism is entrenched, fucked up drinking water, fucked up governments responses and our overt and insidious racism towards Indigenous people. I feel strongly about it because I come from a people against whom atrocities and genocides have been committed. I can’t distance myself from it.
And listen I want to say I didn’t know very much about what was going on with Indigenous communities until the last few years – and it took me a while to really get the full scope of the horror, and to wrestle with my own false ideas about Canada, so.
e. What sound or noise do you love?
The wind. In particular on Northern Atlantic beaches.
f. What sound or noise bothers you?
It distresses me, on a physical level, when babies cry. Even though my son is four now when I hear that sound I get ready to run towards it.
g. What is your favourite curse word?
h. What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
i. What profession would you not like to do?
j. If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say to you as you approach the Pearly Gates?
I guess if I think about God as being my mother and father, and my sister, and my husband and my son, combined, I can say I’d like them to say to me: “Hannah, I love you and you’re a good person. You have made my life good. You’ve done your part. It’s going to be okay.”