In a bid to sensitize herself to the daily horrors encountered by Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Toronto playwright Hannah Moscovitch thought she needed to observe video of a Taliban beheading.
"My expectation was that it was going to be a fast thing, but it wasn't; there was a lot of holding down the victim and hacking," she says over the telephone, still sounding appalled by the images. "I watched it and I kind of lost my mind.
"Soldiers witness this stuff first-hand, day after day. It certainly made me aware of what Canadians ask of them, because if I can be traumatized from doing research, imagine the scale of what returning soldiers have experienced."
Her deep empathy for Canadian combat personnel informs This Is War, which premièred last month at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre and arrives at Prairie Theatre Exchange Feb. 21. It focuses on three soldiers and a medic who are being questioned by an unseen journalist about a tragic incident, the consequence of having to make a split-second decision on whether to shoot or not.
The prolific Moscovitch decided to declare war as the subject of her next work after reading a newspaper story that questioned why Canadian playwrights were seemingly ignoring the country's military engagement in Afghanistan. At the time, she was writing for the CBC Radio dramatic series Afghanada, which gave her free access to high-level military consultants, as well soldiers who had served there.
With 10,000 veterans now back in Canada, Moscovitch thought it was time to tell their stories, which have received little exposure.
"I was also interested in how we ask them to kill in our name, which in our society we punish with the harshest penalties the law permits," says the 34-year-old National Theatre School graduate. "We ask them to do a 180 on our morality. I was curious as to what that does to the psyche of a soldier."
Moscovitch was talking war and not love during this Valentine's Day interview. There is no time for Cupid when you're the most sought-after playwright in Canada. Moscovitch was up early and off to story meetings for Played, a new CTV police procedural she is writing for. In mid-afternoon she took a taxi to the Tarragon, where she is playwright-in-residence, for a dress rehearsal of one of her new plays. Then she conducted interviews in English and French before attending the previews of her latest scripts, Little One and Other People's Children. Afterwards she would go home and begin rewrites on them before preparing for Played the next day.
"It wouldn't be too much if I wasn't working on TV full time," says Moscovitch, whose last play seen here was East of Berlin at RMTC Warehouse in 2009. "That's the thing that's really pushed me over the edge.
"I'm hardly complaining. It would be awful to be complaining. It would make me a disgusting person."
The new year is hardly two months old and she has already premièred three plays, including Little One and Other People's Children, which opened at the Tarragon Feb. 20. The Moscofest continues there next month with another new work, In this World. Little One then tours to Banff, Victoria and the Yukon. In This World hits the road for eight weeks in Ontario before heading for Quebec. Even This Is War is being picked up by a Chicago theatre.
The exposure of having four plays performed in such a brief period in Toronto leaves Moscovitch a bit uncomfortable.
"I do feel vulnerable when audiences get to see four different facets of my psyche," says the Ottawa-born playwright, who has been living in Toronto since 2001. "Onstage, it's not such a pretty picture, actually.
"My fiancé read all four of them and suggested I might want to write something more redemptive, perhaps a love story. These plays are pretty bad ass."
Not that she has time to take on another project even if prompted by her beau. She has a stack of commissions, literally from here to New York City, and work in progress for television, film and opera. Moscovitch is also dramatizing Ann-Marie MacDonald's bestselling 1996 novel, Fall on Your Knees, into three three-hour plays.
"I'm just an idiot," she says of a workload that has pulling out her MacBook on the streetcar to get in extra writing time.
Despite her all-work and no-play Valentine's day, Moscovitch counts herself as a authentic romantic. She didn't think she was into all that mushy stuff until her boyfriend, Christian Barry, got down on his knee last October and proposed, but she says she's loving having a big diamond ring on her finger.
Then there is her enduring love affair with theatre.
"If that wasn't true, I'd go to TV and make the big bucks," she says. "I don't because I'm a romantic. I'm like a teenager whose first love was theatre. I have painful teenage love for theatre and it would be really hard to rip that out of my identity."
This Is War
Prairie Theatre Exchange
Opens today, to March 10
Tickets: $20-$47 at www.pte.mb.ca
See a scene from This is War:
WARNING: Strong language.