Playwright Beverley Cooper talks about her powerful drama, Innocence Lost, A Play about Steven Truscott.
The Blyth Festival gave you a nearly impossible deadline to write the play. How did you cope with the pressure?
The Artistic Director at Blyth, the wonderful Eric Coates, asked me in August of 2007 if I would be interested in writing something about Steven Truscott, to be produced the following summer. I didn’t really know that much about the case so I did a little reading and, of course, immediately said yes. However, at the time, I was producing the CBC radio drama series Afghanada so I knew I wouldn’t be able to write a word until January. So I asked if I could deliver the script in a year and he said “no”. Steven’s recent acquittal had put the story back in the news and the topic was hot. When Eric threatened to give the story to another playwright I said “yes!!” But I had to write the play in a very short time so it would be ready for rehearsals. I threw myself into PILES of research: court transcripts, autopsy reports, letters, books, on-line articles… and spent many days lying on my office floor having a panic attack. Newspapers were calling me for interviews when I hadn’t written a word.
The delicate circumstances and emotions surrounding the case must have intensified the challenge. When Steven Truscott was acquitted of the 1959 rape and murder of Lynne Harper, the news came as a shock to the girl’s grieving family.
I was always aware that this was a tragically real story for those involved, not just a topic for a play. I tried to listen to all sides, trying to understand the human element, exploring how this could have happened. I wanted to get it right. That meant interviewing everyone I could, including Steven’s childhood friends, the son of a juror, Isabel LeBourdais’ son and people who still thought he was guilty. I didn’t speak to Steven Truscott. I felt that he had been interviewed so many times, I’d better have a question that no one had asked, and in the end I didn’t. And I didn’t want to bother the Harper family, to prod at their grief. However, the whole time I was writing, images of twelve-year-old Lynne Harper and fourteen-year-old Steven Truscott were very present.
Premiering Innocence Lost in Blyth was a courageous move. The place where the tragedy occurred is less than twenty kilometres away.
Yes. Everyone there seemed to have a personal relationship with the story. In fact when a previous artistic director at the Blyth Festival had proposed doing a play about Steven Truscott, he received several threatening letters warning him off the subject. Families and friends had been torn apart debating Steven’s guilt or innocence. Knowing that the community would be coming to see the play kept me honest, kept me on my toes every step of the way. Opening night I was a wreck. I was so relieved when the play was embraced and supported by the people of Huron County. It was a huge hit for the Blyth Festival.
Did Steven Truscott see the play?
He came to see the show, with his wife Marlene. Afterwards they came backstage to meet the cast. He was very gracious, supportive, quiet, shy. I asked him if it was difficult to watch the play. He said it wasn’t, as he had been through every detail so many times before. He seems like the most grounded person, not bitter, which is remarkable. I was honoured.
Suzanne Shugar is a Montreal journalist, broadcaster and Centaur Theatre's PR and Web Writer. Interview courtesy of the Centaur Theatre.