Interview by Christina Hunter
This interview with playwright Beverley Cooper, a 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award Nominee for Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott, followed Cooper’s reading of her 2008 play. The reading, which took place at the Humber North Writing Centre Book Club on April 4, 2013, provoked an animated response and heated discussion on the part of the audience. Widely reported in the media was the case of 14-year-old Stephen Truscott, convicted in 1959 for the rape and murder—near the town of Clinton, Ontario—of his 12-year-old classmate, Lynne Harper; the controversial and protracted legal proceedings that followed form the dramatic focus of the play.
HLR: Characterized as a ‘child murderer,’ and initially sentenced to hang, Truscott instead received, in 1959, a commuted sentence of life in prison. He was subsequently acquitted in 2007 after a CBC documentary renewed interest in his case and, in 2008, was awarded $6.5 million in compensation. What inspired you to revisit this historical case?
BC: I was asked by the artistic director of The Blyth Theatre festival, Eric Coates, if I would be interested in writing something about the Steven Truscott case. Clinton is about a 15 minute drive south of Blyth, so the community was very affected by what happened there. I didn’t really know that much about Steven Truscott at the time, but I read a couple of books and watched the excellent CBC Fifth Estate documentary and I was hooked. I couldn’t believe that Canada had almost hung a 14 year-old boy for a crime he did not commit.
HLR: I understand that you conducted interviews with many of the people who, in one way or another, had been directly affected by the case. How integral were these interviews to the play’s composition?
BC: The interviews were extremely important for a few reasons. I wanted to gather a variety of opinions to try to understand how this could have happened. Innocence Lost is about how the murder of Lynne Harper affected the community, seen through the eyes of a classmate of Steven and Lynne, so I needed to explore the impact on a variety of people. I interviewed their childhood friends, a man whose father had been on the jury, the farmer who owned the property where the body was found, people who still believe he is guilty.
HLR: During the reading, you made the point that “everyone seems to have a personal relationship with the story, implying that this probably was owing to the controversial nature of the case. What was your personal relationship to the story? What caused you to see it as a creative challenge?
BC: When I started work on the play, I was looking for a way into the story, something that would make it personal but that would also resonate with audiences. I became fascinated by the stories of the children, the classmates of Steven and Lynne’s. I was haunted by what it must have been like to be one of Steven and Lynne’s classmates: to have one of their friends raped and murdered while another was convicted of that murder. When I began working on the play I had a 14 year-old son of my own. I would look at him and wonder, “Could this have happened to him? What if this happened to him?” I also had to think of how this would not just be a period piece but how this could be a contemporary story as well. The play also examines our trust in authority and when we should question those in charge.
HLR: Please describe what transpired when Steven Truscott and his wife, Marlene, met the cast backstage after its performance of the play at the Blyth Festival in 2008. What kinds of questions were asked of them and how did they respond?
BC: The box office gave me a seat right behind him. I spent the show watching Steven watching a play about his life. It was all very moving. After the show, they came backstage and met all the actors. They were extremely gracious and kind. I asked Steven if it was difficult to watch the play, but he said that he had been through it so many times. But they seemed to think we got the story right, which was very important to us. We were always so aware that real lives were involved, a terrible case of injustice, for Steven, of course, but also poor Lynne Harper and her family.