Q&A with Playwrights Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths
What inspired you to write this play? Is this story based on, or inspired by, true events? Were the characters, or any aspects of the story, drawn from personal experience?
The play is inspired by true events, but is entirely fictional. Our first inspiration was the Tamum Shud mystery, a real cold case from Australia that shares some of the same mystifying clues as our cold case in Cipher. We were particularly interested in the obsessive drive of the people who are still devoted to solving that case all these decades later.
We transplanted the story to Canada and found echoes within our country’s history. One was the Gouzenko Affair, in which a Russian spy defected in Ottawa—which kicked off the Cold War. Another was PROFUNC, a decades-long RCMP program that surveilled known and suspected Communists in Canada, with a plan to intern them and their families in locations like rural Ontario country clubs and Casa Loma, a historic house and museum in midtown Toronto. We read hungrily about the Five Eyes alliance, a program through which Canada receives and shares information from its surveillance operations with the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. We were fascinated and disturbed to learn more about CSIS surveillance of Canadians, and the people it impacts most. Not all of this research made its way into the play, but it definitely informed the story we created.
We didn’t consciously draw on our personal experiences for Cipher, although our habits and interests have probably bled into the script. Ellen claims to have Grace’s sparkling intelligence, but without the arrogance. Braden, like Clive, once owned a puka shell necklace.
What was the writing process like? How did you collaborate in writing the script?
This is the second play we’ve written together over the last seven years, but we first started working together as part of a creation ensemble that made three other plays. We have a pretty unusual process in that we literally sit next to each other using one laptop and write the piece together line by line (…ellipsis by ellipsis, comma by comma). Lots of deleting the line the other person just wrote and saying “what about…” as we type something new. We’re both trained as actors, so the rhythm of what we’re writing feels almost as important as the meaning—or perhaps it is that the rhythm and the meaning are bound up together.
We probably spend more time outlining collaborative projects than we would solo ones, which ensures that we start with a unified vision—and then inevitably evolves as we create. Our director Craig Hall was with us at the outlining stage and helped us incorporate thriller tropes and structure.
We have different strengths and interests but share a strong feeling of mutual admiration, which is probably why we’ve managed to stay friends even while routinely eviscerating each other’s ideas. By the end of it all, it’s almost impossible to track who thought up which ideas first.
How do you imagine this working on stage—particularly its more unconventional elements?
We knew very early on that we wanted the story of the Beacon Hill Body to be brought to life by dancers. This was first inspired by a detail in the Australian cold case about the victim having the highly developed calves of a ballet dancer. That detail cracked open a lot of possibilities for us.
We started actively seeking unexpected ways to hold space in our script for different avenues of communicating meaning—through movement, sound, and theatrical imagery. We knew that our collaborators would bring thrilling contributions we couldn’t even imagine, and our workshops have already proven that to be true.
What project or projects are you working on now?
While researching Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park during the 1950s for Cipher, we came across a news item about the bird pen in their tiny zoo. This became the bizarre inspiration for one of our next works, Johann and the Peahen on the Occasion of his Thirtieth Birthday. It’s an absurd comedy with intricate tabletop puppets that whisks the audience through the mind of a delusional crane. Think A.A. Milne, but on acid.
By Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths
February 6—March 7
Granville Island Stage
After 63 years, the Beacon Hill Body remains a Vancouver Island cold-case murder. Forensic toxicologist Grace Godard thinks her scientific expertise is leading her close to an answer, closer than anyone has come before. But when she meets Aqeel Saleemi, a young man with a personal stake in the mystery, their efforts to crack the case have consequences neither of them imagined. This theatrically innovative and exhilarating world premiere will keep you on the edge of your seat.
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