Getting Ready to Open

FA-poster-finalMarie Curie is about to come to life!

No, I am not musing about anything so metaphysical as the raising of the dead. But the cast, comprising the graduating students of the Ottawa Theatre School, have been in rehearsal for the last few weeks and are busy now with costume fittings, going over their lines, working out the finer points of their characters with director Teri Loretto, and eager discussions about ways to get word of the play out in the world of social media. It’s been great fun to watch.

Along the way, the script has evolved enormously from the days of our first reading together back in September. Among other things, for example, the title of the piece has evolved from The Notebooks of Marie Curie, which as a working title really did convey what the play was about, to False Assumptions, a title which I hope the audience will agree conveys what the play is really about as it looks at those notebooks. For me this is one of the most interesting aspects of the journey, and it’s one I highlighted in that first reading many months ago to the others around the table: the script that the actors will present to their audience at the Gladstone is very much evolved from the one they first met in September.

That’s as it should be, of course. The whole point of the work in these last few months has been to improve and refine the story on the page, and I am deeply indebted to Teri, to producer Chris Ralph, and to the actors (among many others), whose counsel and suggestions have made a vast difference to the quality of the script and so to the story that these actors will be presenting as of next week.

My job, then, is done. All the changes to the text that will be made have been made. I leave it in the many good hands of my friends at OTS and Plosive and look forward to settling back in my seat on opening night and watch the magic of the theatre do its thing.

If you’re in the Ottawa area and would like to see the show, you can order your tickets online at the Gladstone.

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.

First Draft

I’m writing a new play.

(Okay, I think that statement is in a state of constantly being true: if I’m not actually writing at this moment I’m certainly thinking about it, or revising something I’ve written, or worrying about the fact that I’m not writing. This is how I spend my days.)

But this particular new play is on my mind at the moment, of course, and I’ll be writing a bit more about it in the weeks to come as well. It’s still very much in its earliest draft – I’m not even sure it’s a first draft. More like a zero-th draft, if you will.

When I was in Ireland last month I had the chance to spend an afternoon with my old writing group at the Derry Playhouse, which is where a good bit of the writing and re-writing of Lavender Railroad took place. It was fun, of course, to see old friends and to make the acquaintance of new writers as well. Someone asked me what I was working on these days, and so I took the bait and explained that I had a new play in its earliest stages.

Without telling anyone present anything more, I proceeded to read the first couple of scenes of the play. This is by nature a terrifying thing to do: it’s the first time anyone outside of my head gets to hear the words. Will it make sense to anyone? Will it amuse? Entertain? Provoke?

To my relief (and delight), the people around the table liked what they heard – and very much “got” what I was trying to do with the piece. And they wanted to know what happened next in the story! This was incredibly reassuring; they were very much a proxy for an audience that will likewise not know what to expect and will likewise (I hope) want to know what happens next.

Of course, I still have a tremendous amount of work to do in making sure that the entire work is reasonably coherent in telling its story, but at least I have some reason to be confident that I’m on the right track. More on this project anon…