Responsive image
Responsive image



**Please note this is an abridged version. Read the full interview in the October 2018 issue of Jewish Renaissance.

By Judi Herman - October 3, 2018

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is a touring musical from Canada’s 2b Theatre Company about Canadian refugees at the turn of the 20th century. Judi Herman speaks to husband and wife team Hannah Moscovitch and Christian Barry to find out why the show has such resonance with contemporary audiences.

“It’s the story of them falling in love in Canada and with Canada,” says Canadian writer Hannah Moscovitch. She is talking about her great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya, who fled pogroms in Romania in 1908 to arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the entry port to Canada. Their story is the inspiration for Old Stock, a genre-defying show that is part theatre, part gig and wholly entertaining, informative and intensely moving. “They have to fall in love despite all the trauma that they carry with them from the old world – and despite loving Romania.”

Hannah wrote the show with her husband, theatre director Christian Barry, and charismatic Canadian singer/songwriter Ben Caplan. The musician’s songs for the show are richly varied in style: lovers of klezmer, niggunim (Jewish songs, usually hummed without words or with repetitive sounds like ‘bim bam’) and even rap, won’t be disappointed. “Ben also plays the Wanderer, an MC character in the style of Cabaret. He’s mischievous, raunchy, a sort of hipster rabbi and storyteller who guides you through the story,” says Hannah.

The show begins with the set, designed as a shipping container, splitting open to reveal four multi-talented musicians. Violinist Mary Fay Coady plays Chaya, and Dani Oore, a woodwind player, is Chaim. Caplan the Wanderer leaps out to his vantage point above, from where he comments on the action and gleefully interacts with the audience. Christian outlines the thinking behind this striking image: “We wanted the musicians to have an active role in the storytelling. We imagined them as a travelling band of troubadours who come into town to entertain and we gave it a contemporary twist. Halifax is a port city, with periodic stowaway stories. The container looks like a railway cart too, which has dark resonances for Jews. That container became our cart, to roll into town and pack up and ship to the next town.”

The ‘old stock’ of the title refers to a phrase used by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in a 2015 election debate. Responding to a question about health care for refugees, he used the term “old stock Canadians” to imply that there were some nationals who had a more legitimate claim to be Canadians than others.

So how did the idea for the show come about? “Photos of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee toddler who was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, were circulating around the world,” says Christian. “He had a Canadian aunt who had been expecting to sponsor him. So Ben and I decided we wanted to make something dealing with the refugee crisis. And not wanting to appropriate a story that was not ours we were searching for something that might give us access to that story. Fast forward a year or so and, coincidentally, Hannah took our baby son Elijah to a museum in Halifax called Pier 21.”

“Anyone who came into Canada by boat would have come through Halifax and Pier 21, as my great grandparents did,” explains Hannah. “At Pier 21 we found their records: the boat they came on and the day they came in. Plus we know they stood where we were standing when we visited.

“Hannah had this amazing realisation,” continues Christian, “that had they not taken that risk – that journey across the ocean – Elijah wouldn’t be there with her in the push chair. She came home and told me and I said, ‘We’ve got our story!’ This is the refugee story that’s very close to home.”

'A Refugee Love Story': How Hannah Moscovitch's new play honours her great-grandparents

'When you're surrounded by trauma for so long, you have to find a way to laugh at it'

By Chris Dupuis • CBC Arts • May 8 2017

Most playwrights begin their careers telling autobiographical stories. Hannah Moscovitch is not most playwrights.

Up until this point, the Ottawa-born theatrical wunderkind has dedicated her craft to subjects foreign to her own experience. Her 2006 breakout The Russian Play was a love story set in a Siberian gulag; 2007's Governor General's Award-nominated East of Berlin, centred on the son of a Nazi war criminal; 2013's This Is War depicted the lives of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

"My work has almost always been consciously anti-autobiographical," Moscovitch says from Halifax, where she's lived since 2013. "I intentionally write about things I don't know anything about. I've never really thought my own stories were that interesting, and so I haven't been compelled to tell them — until now."

With 14 plays under her belt, a shelf full of awards and commissions from companies across North America in development, Moscovitch is doing a creative 180 with her latest work. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story tells the real life tale of her paternal great grandparents, Chiam and Chaya Moscovitch, who arrived in Canada in 1908, fleeing pogroms in Romania — large- scale massacres of Jews that were becoming increasingly frequent.

"It's probably counterintuitive, but to deal with more personal material, I think I needed the confidence of middle-age," she says. "Most artists start with what they know. But I always wanted a mask to be able to see the work from the outside so I could understand its impact on the audience. A show like this feels riskier, because it's a lot harder to see it objectively." Old Stock was catalyzed in 2015. Moscovitch and her husband — director Christian Barry, who helms the production — had just welcomed their son Elijah that summer, and the usual flurry of family visits ensued. In September, her Aunt Enid arrived in Halifax with a dual purpose: she wanted to see Elijah, but she also intended to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, a detailed archive of the 3.7 million immigrants who passed through Halifax from 1895 to 1971. The goal was to learn more about their family's arrival in Canada — a subject that had, until then, proven elusive.

"People who come from wealthy, aristocratic backgrounds often maintain really detailed genealogies because they think of their history with pride," Moscovitch says. "But it's kind of a trademark of poor families that they don't know anything about their past. The story is usually just something about how they were fleeing terrible conditions or violence, but everything else tends to be willfully forgotten."

What they'd expected to be a one hour excursion expanded to fill an entire day, with Moscovitch rocking her son in his stroller to keep him docile and stealing away to breastfeed while the staff pored over records. The visit to the museum was driven by personal
curiosity, not the thought of researching a play — but as her family's history poured out, she began to think there might be a story worth telling.

Of course, the tale of refugees fleeing genocide, hoping a new country would welcome them, also had contemporary political resonance. The fallout from the Syrian civil war was gaining international attention at the same time that Canadians were preparing for a federal election. Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper was ginning up enthusiasm among his base with dog- whistling like his "barbaric cultural practices" tip line — the show's title comes from his infamous quip about "old-stock Canadians" during an anti-refugee riff at a 2015 leaders' debate.

But the urgency to write the play was really crystalized by one of the most famous photographs of the last decade: the image of three year old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family tried to escape Syria in a tiny rubber raft.

"I remember it so clearly because Elijah was two months old and we'd taken him to be vaccinated," Moscovitch says. "He started to cry after he got the shot and Christian and I just held him together and started to sob. Before I had a kid, children were largely symbolic to me.

Old Stock’s dark relevance

Theatre’s dark and humorous folktale about xenophobia has a striking relevance to today’s headlines.

By Michael Lake –THE COAST May 4 2017

In 2015, Stephen Harper was much derided for using the term "old stock" during a federal leaders' debate to describe a group of Canadians.

"It was a moment that jolted me," says Christian Barry, co-artistic director of 2b Theatre and director of their upcoming play Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch, the play stars musician Ben Caplan as an MC telling the true story of Moscovitch's great-grandparents, both Romanian Jews who immigrated to Canada in 1908. In addition to Caplan, a cast of actors and musicians will populate the stage to bring the tale to life.

For several years, Barry and Caplan wanted to create a show together and began the process by building songs. "I'm a fan of his work," says Barry, "and I wanted to work with Ben, but the seed of the idea was in talking about what was going on in the world."

As the show was being developed, the Syrian civil war was gaining media attention, and both Barry and Moscovitch point to this as a pivotal event in reinforcing the kind of story that felt important to tell.

"The play shows xenophobia 100 years ago and though it's slightly less veiled today, boy, the headlines look familiar," says Barry.

"It's gained a dark relevance over the time that we've worked on it," says Moscovitch. With the Syrian conflict continuing to decimate a nation, and Trump trying to turn his racism into policy, the plight of refugees is far from a story of the past. "I take my lead from a hero of mine, Primo Levi, who survived the Holocaust," says Moscovitch. "He talks about history as identity, and that you cannot know yourself without knowing your history. And genocide is an attempt to wipe out history. We know that from residential schools in Canada, and Jews know that from the Holocaust. In telling this story of Canada, we are speaking about identity, which feels very relevant."

In doing research on her great-grandparents, Moscovitch discovered that they had landed in Halifax when they came to Canada. "My great-grandparents met at Pier 21 for the first time. I'd gone there to see if they had any information and they told me they were here. It made me cry. I had no idea."

Despite its serious subject matter, audiences can still expect the joy and exuberance that is typical of a Ben Caplan show. "There is joy," says Moscovitch. "It's very true of my work that I thematically choose dark subjects and then I address them tonally with a lot of humour and sexuality and joy. And that's very Jewish of me to do that."

After a long pause, Moscovitch adds: "It's about loving for a second time. It's about looking into the eyes of god. It's about the experience of your home becoming an apocalypse. And I think there are a lot of fucking good songs by Ben Caplan."

  • “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story my favourite thing so far.”
  • “An absolute masterclass in song and storytelling”
  • “just brilliant!”
  • “Highly recommend #OldStock”
  • “Virtuosic performances, sparse, beautiful, hilarious script about immigration, death and love, and a travelling circus of a set”
  • “absolutely outstanding, hilarious, heartfelt and ingenious”
  • “Each @EdFringe you hope for a stand out show: Old Stock. Spectacular in so many ways”
  • “#OldStock by @2btheatre @canadahubfringe is unmissable!”
  • Well done @bencaplanmusic with the brilliant! #oldstock So moving and fun #fringefestival
  • Well done @bencaplanmusic with the brilliant! #oldstock So moving and fun #fringefestival
  • Loved #OldStock by @2btheatre at @canadahubfringe @Summerhallery very moving, funny and surprisingly dirty. Very Powerful.🔥🔥🔥
  • Saw Old Stock @2btheatre +No Show @ellie_dubois Both Brilliant Both Bold Both @heraldscotland #HeraldAngel winners-like our own #LittleDevil
  • Blown away and moved tonight by #OldStock @2btheatre @bencaplanmusic - an incredible and beautiful piece of theatre that must be seen. -CN
  • Blown away and moved tonight by #OldStock @2btheatre @bencaplanmusic - an incredible and beautiful piece of theatre that must be seen. -CN
  • Old Stock from @2btheatre tonight was incredible, an absolute #edfringe must-see
  • Only 3 words needed for #OldStock at this years @edfringe ...GO & SEE!!! @2btheatre
  • Still in shock the morning after. Nothing I say can live up to @2btheatre 's 'Old Stock: A Refugee Story'. GO & SEE THIS SHOW. #EdFringe17
  • #OldStock by @2btheatre with @bencaplanmusic is a very special show. History + trauma laid out in a music box. Compelling and feeling.
  • Absolutely enthralled by @bencaplanmusic's OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY. One of my all time favourite fringe shows. Unmissable #edfringe
  • Highly recommend @2btheatre 's Old Stock @Summerhallery for Tom Waits/Hadestown fans. @bencaplanmusic is magnetic + the design is excellent.
  • Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, starring @bencaplanmusic. Best thing you'll see this year!!
  • Saw #Oldstock by @bencaplanmusic and friends, part of @canadahubfringe at #EdFringe17 . Perfect light and dark, brilliant performances.
  • @2btheatre @canadahubfringe a coupla night ago. Wowzer what a musical energetic poignant ride this is. Great perfs.
  • Having just seen Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story at @canadahubfringe I cannot recommend it enough. Absolutely magnificient.
  • Well done @bencaplanmusic with the brilliant! #oldstock So moving and fun #fringefestival

PRESS: For all interview requests and press enquires please contact Michael Eppy michael@michaelppypr.com or 07825 837274

ACE logo
Canada Council
Arts Nova Scotia
Port of Halifax
Nova Scotia
Red Door

2b theatre company is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Arts Nova Scotia, and the city of Halifax. Thanks to the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage for their support of this show and of arts and culture in Nova Scotia. Thanks to The Citadel Theatre and the Theatre Arts Residency program at Banff Centre for their contributions to the development of Old Stock, and to our co-production partners at the National Arts Centre. UK tour funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and Canada Council for the Arts, with support from the High Commission of Canada and produced by DTP.
Photos by Stoo Metz Photography and Fadi Acra.