2019 Blyth Festival season to feature two world premieres - Oct. 25, 2018
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The 2019 Blyth Festival season was officially announced at the Festival’s annual fundraising dinner and auction on Oct. 18, featuring five main-stage shows, two of which will be world premieres.
In an interview with The Citizen, Artistic Director Gil Garratt detailed all five shows that will grace the Memorial Hall stage.
The Blyth Festival season unofficially starts in April when Garratt and his Pigeon King co-creators go on the road to Ottawa to produce the show at the National Arts Centre.
In June, the Blyth Festival season will truly begin with the world premiere of Jumbo, penned by Sean Dixon, who last wrote The Wilberforce Hotel for the Festival.
Jumbo will tell the story of Jumbo the Elephant, the star of P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, in the late 1880s.
Born in Sudan and then bought by Barnum in London, England, Jumbo toured the world with the circus until his life came to a tragic end in St. Thomas, Ontario when he was struck and killed by a train.
While the story is very local to southwestern Ontario, Garratt said he’s thrilled to be putting The Greatest Show on Earth on the Blyth Festival stage, which means he’ll be searching for jugglers, unicyclists and all manner of circus performers to round out the show’s cast.
The circus had performed in Guelph and then St. Thomas before Jumbo was struck and killed by an unscheduled train. The elephant’s massive body stayed in St. Thomas for a number of days where Barnum, ever the showman, facilitated hundreds of people taking pictures with the corpse, which was eventually stuffed.
Not only will the show focus on Barnum and Jumbo, who will be brought to life via a life-sized puppet crafted for the production, but on several real-life characters from Barnum’s travelling company, including a bearded woman and Jumbo’s long-time trainer whose relationship with the elephant dated back to his time in the United Kingdom.
The second show of the season will be a nod to the fact that the Festival will be celebrating its 45th anniversary. Garratt is bringing back a show that has been produced twice before at the Festival (it premiered in 1984 and returned in 1986) and is the second-most requested play by audiences when a new season is being considered.
Cake-Walk by Colleen Curran tells the story of six fiercely competitive women all vying to win a small-town cake competition.
Garratt said the play is hilarious and it’s not a surprise that it has topped Festival-goers’ lists for over a generation.
The production is full of rich, funny characters, he said, who will do anything to get ahead in the competition. Whether it’s the cutthroat lead baker, a nun who left the convent to compete or a woman dodging her daughter the whole play because she’s entered her wedding cake in the competition without her daughter’s knowledge, the play is full of compelling characters.
The season’s third play is Team on the Hill by Dan Needles, the man behind the wildly-successful Wingfield plays.
The play premiered in 2012 in Orangeville, Garratt said, and it tells the story of three generations of a farm family in a rural Ontario town in the 1970s, all with very different ideas as to how the farm should run. In addition, there is a developer wanting to turn the land into a golf course, which complicates the family’s future.
Garratt says that Needles is able to tell rural Canadian stories like few other playwrights and that his wit and sense of the community is second to none.
Between a grandfather frustrated with his lack of control over the day-to-day operations of the farm, a father working the land and his son, a recent agricultural college graduate who wants to grow soybeans on the farm, there are plenty of discussions to be had regarding the future of the farm and the future of the family.
Needles has a strong history of producing plays at Memorial Hall and has just recently been named to the Order of Canada.
The fourth play is conceived by Kelly McIntosh and written by her with the help of Garratt and other members of the company. Called In the Wake of Wettlaufer, the story follows a family who has just placed a loved one into an old-age home at which (now convicted serial killer) Elizabeth Wettlaufer worked.
He says that the story focuses on the deep love for a parent and the decision to put that parent in a home. The parent does not end up as one of Wettlaufer’s victims, but the family soon takes a deep interest in the case.
McIntosh, Garratt said, attended some of the hearings and has consulted with numerous people involved with the case, including the family of one of Wettlaufer’s victims, many of whom have been supportive of the play, saying that story needs to be told more through the Canadian media landscape.
He says that McIntosh and the other writers of the play have not sought to sensationalize the stories and the experiences of the victims, but to tell a local story about people trying to cope in the wake of a tragedy.
With the closing of In the Wake of Wettlaufer, the repertory season will close, but there will be a fifth show, produced individually in September, Bed & Breakfast, written by Mark Crawford.
The show is Crawford’s only adult comedy that didn’t premiere at the Blyth Festival, but it has been produced at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre and will soon be produced in theatres in Regina and Vancouver.
It tells the story of Brett and Drew, a young couple trying to live in the rat race of Toronto.
As condominium owners who are just trying to keep their heads above water (and losing hope of potentially owning a house in Toronto as house prices soar), they leave the city when Brett’s aunt passes away and leaves him a stately, Victorian home and they decide to move to the small Ontario town and open a bed and breakfast.
Garratt said that while Brett and Drew aren’t quite ready for life in a small, southwestern Ontario town, residents of the town aren’t quite ready for Brett and Drew either.
The results are hilarious in the comedy that has been proven to be a success at several theatres across the province since it was written just a few years ago. It is funny, he said, but it is also profound in that it forces residents of the town to confront their own prejudices in the face of this unique situation.
For more information on the Blyth Festival and its upcoming season, visit blythfestival.com.