Interview with Hannah Moscovitch

Mar 12, 2009

What inspired you to write East of Berlin?
I came across two books of the testimonies of the children of Nazis, Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families, by Peter Sichrovsky, and Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich by Dan Bar-On. In both cases, the testimonies of the children of Nazis were recorded by Jewish children of Holocaust survivors. The psychological circumstance of the Nazi children during the interview process was particularly interesting to me. Not only did the son or daughter have to reveal the details of their often painful relationship with a loved/hated parent, but they had to reveal those details to a victim of their parent. It meant that the testimonies became either an abject apology or a violent defense or both. After reading the two books, I envisioned the son of an SS doctor telling his story to an audience whom he believed was hostile to him. I thought it would be interesting to put the child of a Nazi onstage because it would create a complex, dynamic, and possibly uncomfortable relationship between the protagonist and the audience.
You wrote the play while a member of Tarragon Theatre’s Playwrights Unit. What was the development process after that?
Richard Rose the Artistic Director at Tarragon picked up East of Berlin on the strength of the first draft that I brought into the final session of their writer’s unit. I radically rewrote the play during the four-week rehearsal process. I made some of the most sweeping changes after the dress rehearsal and before the first preview. I also rewrote during the preview week, but by then I was mostly polishing. I quite literally rewrote the play out from under the actors over the course of the rehearsals. But I wasn’t finished even after it opened, actually. I rewrote again before this remount of the play.
What type of research did you do for the play?
I read a number of the classics of Holocaust Literature. I read about the 1960s. I read about Nazi organizations that protected refugee Nazis after the war, and I read about the Nuremburg trials. I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I read a book about Nazi doctors and their psychology. While I was working on East of Berlin, I was very intimidated by how much expert knowledge writing the play was requiring.  Also, the emotional nature of the subject intimidated me. I knew there would be Holocaust survivors and German ex-pats with relatives who were Nazis in the audience. There would be audience members who would have lived through the events and times I was describing in my play. I wanted to make sure my research was accurate so that I wouldn’t offend them or misrepresent their experience. 
How is East of Berlin similar or different when compared to your other work?
East of Berlin is the first full-length play I’ve written that’s been produced, and the first of my plays to be produced by established theatre (rather than produced by me and then picked up by established theatre). It’s hard to comment on my own style as a writer. I tend towards dark humour, I use coming of age stories and love stories to write about broad systems of thought. I like unusual slants on old topics, complex stories, and unheard voices. I tend towards theatrical narratives, ones that involve presentational elements such as direct address. East of Berlin is similar to my other work in all that.
What were some of the challenges that came up when writing the script?
Writing the end of this play was challenging. I agonized over it. I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t say anymore.
One of the things that makes the show so unique, (and what surprises people), is often how funny it is, despite the subject matter. Was it important to you that certain parts be injected with humour, or was this something that happened naturally as you wrote?
I write with humour mostly because I see that life has humour in it and I am representing my vision of what life is onstage, so it would be insincere for me to present audiences with a humourless world. I think it’s a lucky thing that I write with humour, mostly because if you’re going to speak about dark topics like a son’s guilt for his father’s gruesome experiments on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, you might want to give the audience something to counterbalance the darkness. Like a few jokes.
Who or what inspires you?
Other people’s art inspires me. The theatre and its possibilities for intimacy with the audience inspires me. Deadlines inspire me. My inspirations are so diverse and so whimsical that it’s hard to speak about them coherently.
You began your career studying acting at The National Theatre School of Canada. When and why did you decide to start writing plays? How has your experience as a performer affected your writing?
I started to write plays in theatre school. After my second year Perry Schneiderman, the artistic director of NTS at the time, called me into his office for the end of year evaluation. He told me he thought I was a playwright. I was very insulted. I told him he was wrong, I was an actor. As it turns out, he was right. I think for sure training as an actor contributed to my practical understanding of what works and what’s playable onstage.
What keeps you writing plays?
I would like to say something pragmatic like I keep writing because people keep commissioning me, but I think the truth is I would write plays regardless of my professional opportunities.  Theatre grants me a voice. It allows me to express my questions and to arrive at a sort of peace with them.