Blyth Festival to produce three world premieres in 2017 - Nov. 17, 2016
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Blyth Festival will tackle some of the country’s most serious issues, while also hitting a celebratory note, as it welcomes patrons into the newly-renovated Memorial Hall for the 2017 season.
Artistic Director Gil Garratt told The Citizen he wanted to kick off next year’s season, in the year of Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, on a celebratory note before exploring some pressing Canadian issues.
The 43rd season of the Blyth Festival will begin with Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo, written by David Scott.
Scott, who last wrote The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom for the Blyth Festival, has been working on Mr. New Year’s Eve for nearly 10 years, Garratt said. The production was originally planned for The Grand Theatre in London, but never quite found a home after multiple workshops.
Lombardo was a London, Ontario native who, with his band The Royal Canadians, sold over 300 million records internationally. He also hosted the biggest New Year’s Eve broadcast in North America.
Scott, Garratt said, is a devotee of old vinyl recordings and he fell in love with the music of Lombardo and his band. Garratt attended one of the early workshops of the play in London and now that so much time has passed, he feels the show is the perfect way to welcome Blyth Festival audiences into the new and improved Memorial Hall.
Garratt says that by today’s standards, it’s difficult to comprehend the “meteoric success” of Lombardo from 1929 to the mid-1970s. To this day, Garratt says, it’s Lombardo’s recording of “Auld Lang Syne” that is played in Manhattan as the ball drops to usher in the new year.
It was many of the behind-the-scenes stories, however, that interested both Scott and Garratt.
Lombardo’s father, a musician in his own right, insisted that his children learn to play music. Lombardo’s career took off, while his father’s went nowhere.
Between the two men there was also a great struggle as Lombardo began playing jazz music, a decision his father strongly opposed.
In addition, Garratt said that Lombardo and his band still had a deep, grassroots connection to Huron County.
After playing the Grand Band bandstand for many summers, when the band hit it big, Lombardo and the band would religiously return to Huron County for shows, performing in communities like Bayfield and Seaforth up until the 1960s as Lombardo’s career drew to a close.
Garratt has lofty expectations for the production, which will take the form of one of Lombardo’s famous New Year’s Eve productions. There will be performances with an eight-piece band while the “show” is “on air” and during “commercial breaks” the production will delve deeper into Lombardo’s history and personal life.
The reason Garratt chose Mr. New Year’s Eve to open the season is because he wanted to present something celebratory in the year of Canada’s 150th, Blyth’s 140th and as the new and improved Memorial Hall is reintroduced to audiences. For opening night, Garratt hopes to host a dance in the hall after the premiere of the show to cap off the celebration.
The season’s second show will be The Berlin Blues written by Drew Hayden Taylor. The Berlin Blues premiered in Los Angeles in 2007. It then toured to New York, Washington D.C. and Germany before making its way to Canada with productions in Thunder Bay and Saskatchewan.
Taylor is an Ojibway from Ontario’s Curve Lake First Nations and has worked in many creative capacities, including playwright, stand-up comedian, journalist, novelist and Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s leading Native theatre company.
The Berlin Blues is a comedy that tells the story of the fictional Otter Lake Reserve, which is visited by two Germany developers who want to turn the land into a Native theme park complete with bumper canoes, an international longhouse of pancakes and a giant laser dreamcatcher.
When Garratt was working as the Associate Artistic Director with the Festival, he often spent winters working as a dramaturge at Port Dover’s Lighthouse Theatre. It was there that he encountered The Berlin Blues for the first time, working with Taylor in a completely different capacity 10 years ago in Port Dover.
The play would go on to premiere in the United States and eventually return to Canada.
The play, Garratt said, is extremely funny and full of rich characters that he’s excited to bring to the Festival stage.
The season’s third play is The Pigeon King, based on the saga of Arlan Galbraith and his company Pigeon King International. The production is still in development, but it will be written by the Festival company, which currently consists of Garratt, his wife Gemma James-Smith and Festival regulars Severn Thompson, J.D. Nicholsen and Rebecca Auerbach, although Garratt says the group is always expanding.
The story has enthralled Garratt for a number of years, but the idea made its way to his family’s dinner table one night after The New York Times Magazine published a feature story on the Galbraith story last year. It was then through a discussion among Garratt, James-Smith, Nicholsen and Auerbach that the project became a likely Festival production.
The story of Galbraith and his storied career as a breeder took a turn in 2001 when he began approaching local farmers, friends and neighbours, asking them to invest in lucrative pigeon-racing markets in the Middle East, signing 10-year contracts and guaranteeing profits.
The empire expanded, growing to be worth tens of millions of dollars until it finally collapsed into bankruptcy. Galbraith was eventually convicted of fraud in a Waterloo court, sentenced to seven years in jail.
The story is outrageous and ridiculous, Garratt said, with some aspects of it bringing about laughter, but there were very real implications for many Ontario farmers taken in by the scam. It also serves as a commentary on farming in Ontario, where if, he said, farmers weren’t always living hand-to-mouth while working off-farm jobs, they wouldn’t be quite as receptive to a get-rich-quick scheme.
Garratt said that one of the biggest challenges was how the story should be told and he and the collective have decided that it will be told by way of a country string band musical. The play won’t be a musical full of song and dance, Garratt said, but rather a play with music.
The play will run until Sept. 23, Garratt said, much later than a traditional Festival play in the second half of the season. Garratt said he’s hoping that many attending the 2017 International Plowing Match in Walton will find their way to Blyth to take in the agriculturally-themed production.
The writers are still working on the play, Garratt said, so they’re hoping to hear from anyone who has had dealings with Galbraith over the years. If people wish to come forward, Garratt asks them to call the Festival office to be put in touch with Garratt and his fellow writers.
The final production of the season will be Ipperwash, the story of the slaying of Dudley George in 1995, written by Falen Johnson and Jessica Carmichael.
Johnson served as the Festival’s playwright in residence last year and both women are young First Nations writers who Garratt said are beginning to turn heads in the world of Canadian theatre.
In the year of Canada’s 150th birthday, Garratt said, the story of Dudley George, which really is ongoing, seemed like an important one to tell.
After 50 years of legal appeals and demands over land from the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, George was killed during one protest. It was only earlier this year that a settlement was ratified to return the site of Camp Ipperwash to the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation.
Garratt said that the land Blyth sits on is part of Treaty 29, and the Kettle and Stony Point Reserve is the closest reserve to the area, so the story felt local and immediate to him.
The incident, Garratt said, still has an impact today with the official apology from the Stephen Harper government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the promises Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made to work with First Nations communities.
To round out the season, the Phillips Studio will host two productions, as well as the season’s Young Company production.
For more information on the Blyth Festival season, or to buy tickets, visit blythfestival.com.