Albert Einstein once called time a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, but tell that to a busy playwright who’s juggling deadlines for TV scripts and stage openings with parenting a four-year-old-boy.
“I’m in an insane relationship with time as a mother—this agonized relationship with time,” writer Hannah Moscovitch laments with a laugh, speaking to the Straight from her Halifax home before her show Infinity opens here after the holidays. “This work-life balance: I was like, ‘What the fuck is everybody complaining about?’ Until I had to do it.
“I mean, if I don’t work less I will wreck his childhood. So it’s not like a theoretical ideal that I should have work-life balance,” she continues, sounding as self-effacing, funny, and candidly introspective as some of her best-known female stage characters. And then she reflects more seriously, “Writing Infinity gave me the chance to grapple with that. And now I’m in a constant existential relationship with time; I’m constantly thinking about it. Time is intricately linked to death, they’re inevitably linked. When you come back to time you come back to death.”
Spending years diving into the abstract theme has clearly given minutes and hours new meaning for Moscovitch. These days, she is well-known in the theatre scene across the country. In Vancouver, productions of her smart and sometimes dark-edged works, like Little One, The Russian Play, and East of Berlin, have won high praise; in 2016, she even saw her Bunny premiere at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Infinity dates back a little before her rise, and it was six years in the making. As she quips, “The irony is that it did take us a long time to develop it—and the title became a joke.”
The process reflects her ability to delve into deep study to build stories on subjects she’s not familiar with—a knack she credits to her upbringing by an Ottawa economics-professor father and a researcher mother.
In 2008, Ross Manson, artistic director, of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, approached Moscovitch with an article in Harper’s magazine about the history of timekeeping, with the idea of commissioning her to write on the theme. Moscovitch went on to read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, in which American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, challenges Einstein’s idea of time as illusion.
With Manson’s help, she would go on to meet Smolin as she worked on her play, turning to him as an expert source on the science she was trying to convey in her story. Along the way, she formed a friendship with the man she was once intimidated to meet.
“Oddly enough, while all the specifics are different about what we do, some of the generals are the same,” she explains. “We have no language in common, but we really enjoy hanging out with each other. There’s a critical endeavour in both of our work that is thought-based, and we both very much live in our minds.”
In the resulting script, which won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play after it debuted in Toronto in 2015, she interweaves two stories. One focuses on the brilliant young mathematician Sarah Jean (played here by Emily Jane King), who’s been diverting her fear of emotional intimacy into a string of unsatisfying sexual hookups. The other follows the rocky relationship between a physicist (Jonathon Young) and a violinist (Amy Rutherford). The characters have epiphanies about what time might mean to their lives, playing with concepts of whether or not it might actually exist—with all references to quantum physics vetted by Smolin for accuracy.
“Physicists can never get women—like, they never get laid on TV or in a movie,” Moscovitch adds of Young’s character. “So the main character here was really good with women.”
Just as she had to work with a physics expert, Moscovitch drew on the knowledge of Njo Kong Kie, who composed the violin score for the show—especially to understand the complex way time works in music.
Infinity took almost seven years to build, but looking back, Moscovitch doesn’t see it as overly daunting—especially when compared with the research she had just completed previous to it, for 2011’s This Is War, about the conflict in Afghanistan and the psychological toll of combat. “That level of research was so extreme, like years,” she relates. “So after that I was inoculated.”
Moscovitch continues to take on stage projects, even as she watches new demands and deadlines roll in for her TV scripts—as she describes it, madly writing in the hours her son is at daycare. Her theatre work continues to make it across the country: from January 24 to 26 and 28 to 30, her celebrated new Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a klezmer-driven cocreation with Ben Caplan and Toronto’s 2b theatre company, hits the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. One might assume the increasing work not only puts ever more pressure on her time, but also adds to the burden of high expectations that now surround her output.
She laughs heartily at the suggestion.
“I write by myself in my sweatpants in Halifax. I have to remind myself there’s expectations!” she says. “Because I live in the middle of nowhere, it never feels like it matters what I do.” Or perhaps there is just no time, real or illusory, to stop and consider it.
The Cultch and Volcano Theatre present Infinity at the Cultch Historic Theatre from January 7 to 19.