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.

Cold Read

So this new play I’m writing is about Marie Curie, the scientist who discovered radium (and radioactivity) a little over a century ago.

One of the things that will make this project interesting is the team putting it together. The play is going to be presented by Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in the new year, with the wonderful team of Chris Ralph and Teri Loretto serving as producer and director, respectively. The actors are being drawn from the third-year students at the Ottawa Theatre School. OTS has been teaming with local theatre companies in recent years to give their students some “real world” experience, and OTS and Plosive approached me earlier this year to see if I could write something new for them. The fun part is that the students, together with Teri and Chris, are going to be part of the development of the project from Day 1.

Today was Day 1 – the first chance for everyone to have a look at the first draft of the script. We decided to go with a cold read – the actors didn’t get to read anything until they were in the room and knew nothing about the play beyond the basic fact that it was about the life of Marie Curie.

For the playwright this is always a fun (if nerve-wracking) moment because it’s usually the first time he gets to hear the words that have been bouncing around in his head. And because it’s a cold read, the people in the room can serve as a proxy for the audience – they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and so their interest (or boredom) is likely to match that of a potential audience member. Fortunately, the students seemed very receptive and jumped right in – and within minutes I was scribbling away with thoughts about things that were going to need fixing; scenes I could probably cut; new scenes I was going to need … all the inspiration I’m going to need to revise the script in anticipation of the actual rehearsals for production a little farther down the road.

Teri, Chris and I will be meeting with the students over the next several weeks as part of this workshop process, and I’m very eager to hear their feedback as this project evolves.