Hannah Rittner is a playwright, screenwriter, and producer from Toronto. She has worked for leading Canadian and American companies and festivals including Signature Theater, SummerWorks, Canadian Stage, Neptune Theater, Theaturtle, and LunaSea Theater. Her play “Estate” won the Open Spaces 2012-2013 award at the Neptune Theater and was staged at the Scotiabank Studio January 2013. Her play “Love & Exile” is a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize 2014-15 nominee. She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts MFA in Dramatic Writing where she received the Chairs Award in Excellence. Her play “Three Women Mourn the Apocalypse” premiered at The Theatre Centre September 2015. She is represented by Ian Arnold of Catalyst TCM.
In our conversation below, we discuss her recent transformation with playwriting and self-care.
What is your earliest memory of the arts?
I’ve always had this strong urge to have a voice because my family structure had a lot going on. I lived through other artists and stories at a very young age. I remember wanting to be an actor after watching Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I read her biography when I was six. I identified with her desperate need to express herself. Writing began when I auditioned for the Claude Watson School for the Arts. I decided to write my own comedy piece for the acting audition. It was about Harriet the Spy trying to track down the Queen of England. The piece concluded with me performing a rap about how difficult it is to be the Queen of England with a broken hip.
I’ve met lots of artists who relied on storytelling when they were young to have some kind of stability.
It was a place where I could invent a reality where I belonged, and made sense of everything that was happening around me. It was also a place where I could give other people voices.
Do you show family members or people you grew up with your art projects?
I don’t have contact with a lot of people I grew up with at a young age. I have one friend from high school that I’m close with, but besides her, it is very separate. In terms of family, my parents have seen everything and they’re very supportive. I think it was hard for my mother to watch my last show that was produced. It was the first time I tackled abuse in a show and I think she felt guilty because it had to have come from a place of understanding.
Did you say anything to your parents before they saw it?
I told them what it was about, but I think they were very struck with the aggression and anger that compelled me to write the piece.
It’s tricky figuring out the best way to expose your work to your deep, close relationships.
I don’t think there’s an answer. My strongest full-length play “Elijah” is inspired by a personal trauma and how it informed my Jewish, feminine, and sexuality identity. Despite all of this, it is complete unadulterated fiction. However, when the play is produced, I plan on being very conscientious about making sure my loved ones are given adequate context and preparation. Especially because the reality I’ve constructed in the play closely resembles the reality of my recent past.
So your life influences your writing, but also vice versa.
Absolutely. I actually think I want to make more of a boundary between the two. I’m very fortunate that a play of mine is getting a production in the summer, but it’s totally consumed me. I want to have a life where not all of my emotional contingency is on my projects. I’ve generated so much in the last few years; I want to try slowly writing things and to build a life that is also separate from it.
You’ve had quite a bit of early-age success. Was that also a double-edged sword?
Yes, because it also happened very quickly. While finishing my undergrad I was preparing for acting school auditions. My acting teacher Martha Irving told me to start writing after she noticed I enjoyed talking about my characters far more then being them. Her theater company commissioned me to write a play when I’d never finished a play in my life. All this happened when I was figuring out my sexuality and identity, and it was incredibly painful sometimes because I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes I really hit the mark and sometimes not, but I didn’t know how to harness that because I didn’t know myself enough.
When I studied with Eduardo Machado, he said, “You have to separate your talent from who you are.” I hadn’t done that yet because I hadn’t had the time. My detriment is that when things don’t happen right away, I get very hard on myself. I was recently informed that I did not get prestigious residency in Canada that I was hoping for, and I was so upset in a way that I shouldn’t have been.
Would you say you’re someone who’s hard on herself?
I’m radically hard on myself. I hold myself to a very high standard. I’m so uncompetitive when I speak to other artists about their work, but there’s an ego in my head that tells me the only way I can have a career is if I’m the 1% of the 1%, and the only way to do that is to be viciously aggressive.
Is that a current challenge for you as far as self-care?
I struggle with not giving myself the space to just live before I solve a problem. Sometimes I’m not good at establishing boundaries because I want to be available. Although I’ve had a lot of positive affirmations, I’m still working on my own gift of self-confidence. I still feel like everyone will forget me tomorrow if I don’t come up with something. The patriarchal person in my head says, “You’re just a cute girl who’s charmed people into getting here, but you actually have nothing to say.” It’s a waste of energy and I don’t want to live like that.
The last two years have been revolutionary in my self-care. I struggled with an eating disorder in my early 20’s and there was a lot of damage done to my body. I was introduced to Ayurveda through one of my best friends, which is a science and medicine associated with yoga. As a result, I stopped drinking coffee. I have two drinks a week, if that. I was living with eyeballs-high anxiety and I didn’t even realize it. Now that my health balance has changed, it’s more like a puddle of water. Sometimes it gets to the knees, but I’m at peace with it, in a way. Now, I’m working on self-esteem, an authentic confidence in the value of my writing, and nurturing a rich and balanced personal life.
What’s your favorite thing about writing and what the hardest thing about writing?
My favorite thing about writing has changed radically in the last year. It is that clairvoyant moment when you are emotionally connected to exactly what you want to say, and you see the structure of the story. Lately, I’ve gotten off on knowing the exact medium a story belongs to, because structure and content are so intertwined. The hardest part is the moment when you realize you have to ditch 50% of your script. [Laughs] It’s knowing that the script is still not there, and in order to get there, I have to be brave and attack it from a different direction.
What was your experience like at [NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing]?
It was so many things. I feel fortunate because I left that program with incredible mentors and collaborators. I left with mentors in every medium: TV, play, and screenwriting. Moreover, I feel like I have some wonderful allies across mediums and classes. We all understand the desire to work between mediums so our conversations about work are similar. Just a few months ago, I was having an existential crisis about a play, and Eleanor Burgess and Matt McInerney-Lacombe responded to me within a day and gave me a chunk of their beautifully precious time to talk out my questions. I know I’d do the same for them in a heartbeat.
Having said that, DDW was pretty rough on my confidence. I was just getting a grasp on my personal identity and what I wanted to say. Sometimes when my voice appeared, I did not recognize it because I didn’t recognize myself yet. This made it very challenging. I think I found my voice just as [I graduated], and I’m just now able to process the incredible lessons my teachers gave me. I think the most formative experiences of our lives bring out a wide emotional spectrum. That’s what DDW did for me. I am certain I grew from it.
Is mentorship something that is important to you?
The great lesson my mother taught me is no one is above you and no one is below you. I truly believe that. I’m so drawn to people who inspire me, so it’s not even a conscious decision. It’s more like an infectious curiosity, with their permission. Our work is so hard and unpredictable, and I’ve noticed two ways people respond to that. Some people think we have to eat each other’s heads off and the last man standing will get a script made in L.A., but they live in a world where everyone’s moving too fast, is in a profound amount of un-attended pain, and spend money on poisonous distractions.
Then there are people who feel this is all kind of a mystery, who have true faith in each individual’s gift and uniqueness, and they uplift each other as they dedicate themselves to the craft. That’s what I want and it’s what I try to do for other people. The more we all succeed, the more humanity benefits. The existence of TV, film, and theatre relies on its ability to include as many perspectives as possible, since the power of these mediums depends on reaching the widest audience possible. This cannot be done with one voice alone.
What are some themes or topics you frequently explore?
Everyone has specific images that they need, and all my protagonists are trapped. They don’t have enough to be seen and heard, but they will go on a journey to find and invent a space for themselves.
Being a queer activist and feminist, your work is also intersectional.
This sounds ambitious, but I’m trying to reinvent the wheel of how we view the universal human. I’m trying to shake up how we see gender and whom we think is allowed to conquer the unconquerable.
You’re Jewish and a person of faith. Has that always been the case?
I wanted to be a reconstructionist feminist Rabbi growing up, and I’m still considering doing that in retirement. I feel like I’m going to retire in some commune with my life partner and host non-patriarchal, non-binary Bat Mitzvahs with my grandchildren and usher them into adulthood. My Jewish identity has really informed my work.
When I’m writing, I feel I’m listening to spirits who are talking to me, and my best writing has been when I’m not “writing.” I went to this incredible Passover ceremony when I was little, and it was the first time I understood that Jews were the slaves of Egypt. I turned to my mother and asked, “When I was a slave, what did I look like?” I had this strong conviction that my soul had been reincarnated through these different Jewish archetypes. I’m still figuring out what that means.
I feel a Jewish responsibility to tell certain stories, a Jewish identity that reflects a culture obsessed with thinking and justice. I also feel responsible to giving voice to Jewish characters that we don’t usually see. My favorite character I’ve written thus far is a gender-queer Sudanese Israeli farmer who will do anything to protect their partner’s baby. I really hope Ariel gets their stage one day. I’m very tired of the white, straight-washed neurotic to the point of insanity Jewish character in contemporary media.
How do you sustain your spirituality in our modern world?
In my early 20’s, I felt misunderstood and lost. Now, I actually love the Chekhovian beauty of pedestrian boredom. The more I was able to embrace that element of life, the more truthful I became rather than trying to experience these metaphysical moments.
So yes, I love shopping and being a babe sometimes. I’m a nice Jewish girl who loves Sephora and gorgeous things (I covet all things cream and gold), but I’m also a radical feminist who has weird hyphens in my diet. And yes, I do read Anne Carson’s “Eros the Bittersweet” when I’m bored. It is a masterpiece of linguistic philosophy and it makes me relax. I was afraid to embrace girliness for a long time. The queer space is where I felt seen in my politics and sexuality, but the bad thing is the internalized misogyny where we sometimes had to appropriate masculinity in order to be heard. That’s something the queer community is still working through.
What are some writings that have profoundly influenced you?
[Pause] One of my favorite films of all time is “Ida.” There’s a Turkish film that was just shown this year called “Mustang” that was incredible. And of course, anything by nayyiraah waheed, Anne Carson, and Anne Michaels. There are so many things. [Pause] If I need an immediate inspiration, music takes me there the fastest.
Do you listen to music when you write?
I listen to it before. Recently, I’ve been listening to the British band Daughter. I’m always listening to Beach House; they are basically the sound track of my life. Janelle Monae is very inspiring and one of my dreams is to write a rock opera with St. Vincent.
In terms of plays that I love, it is a little overwhelming to decide. “John” by Annie Baker changed my life. “Ivanov” by Chekhov is one of the most formative plays I’ve ever read. It’s all about the negative space a death leaves behind. “Ghosts” by Ibsen is an example of form and content beautifully echoing one another; it’s a masterpiece. “East of Berlin” by Hannah Moscovitch just galvanizes history in this way that left me buzzing for hours after reading it. Finally, “An Octaroon” by Brendan Jacob Jenkins is one of the most metaphysical plays I’ve ever seen.
I love that you mix classics with new work.
I’m all over the place. I’m very inspired by the ancient Greek structure. My answer also changes every time I’m asked this question because I think I’m affected by everything that I read. I’m still affected by “The Danger” by my classmate Stacey Rose. I think she’s one of the most amazing writers to happen, ever.
I am also an eclectic, and I’ve found that it can make me feel a bit directionless at times. Do you relate to that?
Yes, I do! I’m feeling that’s slowly shifting, at least with my plays. It’s still foggy and dancing in the TV and film arenas. It is hard to have multifaceted interests but at the end of the day, it makes everything you do more complicated. It just means it takes longer to distill ideas sometimes, and that’s okay.
If you think back to the girl who was pushed by her acting teacher to write plays, what would you tell her?
Oh man. [Pause] I would just give her a big hug and tell her that she’s a beautiful person. People will love her and if she wants something, she should go for it. She probably would’ve said fuck you and hid in her room. [Laughs] She was a good, tortured, intense little soul. I had the unfortunate experience of having someone in my life almost lose their life, spawned by mental illness. It really shocked my system. I think that was when I started socializing a lot more.
I was in my worst shape when I was escaping sadness. When I didn’t get that residency, I just let myself be in a foul mood with my friends for a day. I never would’ve done that a few years ago. A few days later it was gone. There’s a yogic aspect to it; you meet things as they come. The biggest gift is to let people hold you.
You also seem to have the capacity to know that these realities are temporary, that it comes and goes.
It’s all about love. Giving full disclosure to everybody is not healthy, but it’s about really honoring and leaning into the love that is there. It makes all this other stuff easier to deal with. Ultimately, love is what makes life worthwhile.
What are some of your current and upcoming projects we should be looking out for?
Through my company LACE Productions I am producing a play that I have written called “The Unbelievers.” It will be presented in Toronto this summer. Set in Iraq, the play follows Orli a conflict journalist and Sanaa a Yazidi refugee after their capture by ISIS. It’s about the indomitable power of sisterhood and what women do to overcome injustice. There will be a formal announcement regarding the play’s venue in May. But, all I can say is I am incredibly excited. Right now we are waiting on grant results and preparing our strategy for acquiring funds. It’s stressful but worthwhile. “The Unbelievers” is the most “me” thing I’ve ever done. It combines my social and creative interests. There is not a doubt in my mind that it is relevant. Our creative team is out of this world. I am also partnering with Yazda (A Global Yazidi Organization) for research and will be donating the revenue of opening night to their cause. That’s my huge project. I hope it gets a life in the U.S. as well. After that, I plan on slowing down, and focusing exclusively on writing powerful TV and film work so that I’m ready to pitch summer of 2017.