Listening In

One of the fun bits about being playwright in residence at GCTC is that I get to poke my head in on a number of interesting projects going on elsewhere in that nice building at Holland and Wellington.

In the present instance, this means accepting the invitation to sit in on some development work for a show called “The Ladies of the Lake,” which will be premiering at the undercurrents festival in February. LotL, as the folks doing the creating are calling it, went into a phase that they’re calling “final pre-production workshop” over the weekend and I was asked to offer my impressions as someone unfamiliar with the work that’s been done on the show to date.

The opportunity was appealing for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was a chance to work with an enormously talented group of artists – Kate Smith, Catriona Leger, John Doucet and Nicolas Alain. Second, I think I was able to make some helpful contributions as the group worked through various issues in the development of the production. Third, it was a chance to learn from someone else’s work as I move forward with my own projects.

This can be a slightly tricky task. Kate, who is in the midst of writing the script for the show, observed at the outset how useful it would be to get feedback from someone who’s coming to the table without any preconceptions or other investments in the project, someone who listens in and says “This is how it looks to me.” Whether how it looks to me coincides at all with what she hoped to say, and whether that matters in any way, then becomes the chewy substance of a conversation that she can then digest and act on as she sees fit.

In short, I get to ask a lot of questions and she gets to worry about the answers.

Which is a wonderful process, actually, and a lot of what I get out of it is a sense of what questions to ask myself in my own writing – and to value all the more the generosity of colleagues who read my work and offer their thoughts on how to improve it.

And by the way, I’m also happy to report that I found the project to be very exciting and can’t wait to see how it develops further – I think it’s going to be a terrific show. These folks have an interesting story to tell and there was a great rapport and chemistry in the room that will help them immeasurably as they tell that story together.

Here’s how it looked to director Catriona Leger, who was sneakily taking pictures while we worked.

The Enigma of Playing Alan Turing

A friend of mine works at the Communications Security Establishment, a Canadian government agency that does a lot of Very Secret Stuff involving codes and such. Like many other workplaces, they were having a “Bring your kids to work” day, though I’m not sure how this works if you can’t show them what you actually do. The day was to start with a little sketch about two of the great heroes of the code-breaking world, William Tutte and Alan Turing. My friend invited me to play the role of Turing.

Now, many people know that my route to writing plays has been a rather circuitous one – away back in my university days I studied the history of science, and strands of the subject do creep into my plays from time to time; this is most explicitly the case in my new play about Marie Curie. But one of the figures in the history of science whom I find particularly interesting – and dramatic – is Alan Turing, so I was very eager to take the opportunity to get to know him a little better.

I do mention Turing in an earlier play, The Lavender Railroad, though he doesn’t appear as a character. Instead, two of the characters discuss Turing in the context of his breaking the code used by the German Enigma machines in World War II.

The presentation took place yesterday, and while I’m not sure the 30-odd kids in the room were terribly interested in Turing’s and Tutte’s work, I had the great treat of getting to examine and handle a real Enigma machine that happens to reside in the agency’s archives. The historian of science in me was absolutely delighted – how often does an opportunity like that come along?

Is Turing worthy of a play about him? Absolutely – but it’s been done. The play, by Hugh Whitemore, is called Breaking the Code. I had the pleasure of seeing it in the 1980s with Derek Jacobi as Turing.