'Bunch of Munsch' show a true community effort - April 19, 2018
BY DENNY SCOTT
When it comes to putting on a play, Blyth’s Duncan McGregor, the driving force behind the recently-finished production of A Bunch of Munsch at the Blyth Festival, says the community is fertile ground.
“It really takes a village,” he said in a recent interview with The Citizen. “Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes Blyth to put on a show.”
A Bunch of Munsch ran April 9 to 18 at Blyth Memorial Hall and featured dramatizations of Robert Munsch’s stories Angela’s Airplane, Stephanie’s Ponytail, Something Good, Love you Forever and Mortimer.
First, the crew itself was rife with people from Blyth, including McGregor himself.
“We had a lot of local support in the company itself,” he said. “We had people like Steve Cook, who acted in the play, Cheryl Peach, the stage manager, and Jane Smyth who operated lights and took care of the buses.
“She was a facilitator for the children to get them where they needed to go,” McGregor said.
When he was preparing for the play, McGregor did what he normally does and turned to the community to help make it happen.
“There were certain things we needed for this play, so I went out into the community,” he said. “One of the things we needed to figure out was the hair in Stephanie’s Ponytail.”
McGregor explained that all the children in the play end up copying the main character Stephanie’s hair, ranging from the titular ponytail to a shaved head.
“I had the hair, but I didn’t know how to deal with it,” McGregor said. “At one point you have a hairdo on people’s heads, then hair over their faces, then, finally, they have to be bald. With theatre, you can only do the bald thing once without planning ahead.”
McGregor decided to do what anyone with a hair problem does, talk to his barber. In this case, McGregor turned to Dana Weber of The Village Barber in Blyth.
“She came and we had a good chat, and, one day, I went over to her shop because that’s where I get my hair done all the time,” McGregor said.
Unfortunately, finding some private time to talk to Weber proved difficult, as she had a full schedule of reservations. In the end, to find time to chat with her, McGregor had to push up his own haircut schedule.
“So we talked and she came to a rehearsal, saw the hair we had and took it all home with her,” he said. “She came back with incredibly interesting hairdos the kids could put on very quickly.”
McGregor said the hair made for one of the most delightful and well-received parts of the play, when the young male actors come on stage with ponytails sticking out high above their relatively short hair.
“These are all voluntary activities,” McGregor said. “I offer to pay, but people just want to help make these plays happen.”
Next, McGregor needed to find a puppet to play the part of a two-year-old in Love You Forever.
“Normally, we get a puppet from a person in Clinton who is always willing to loan us one,” he said. “Unfortunately, her house was flooded, so everything in her basement was in storage. We couldn’t get the puppet out.”
After some discussion, McGregor was reminded that Blyth East Side Dance Studio and Queens Bakery co-owner Les Cook is involved in puppetry.
“I went into the bakery and asked Les and he quickly found us a puppet of a two-year old,” he said. “It was a beautiful part of the play, and we couldn’t have done Love You Forever without Les.”
With the help of Don Scrimgeour, who sold Scrimgeour’s Food Market late last year, McGregor was able to talk to the Blyth Food Market’s new co-owner Krunal Patel about acquiring some props.
“The last time we did this play, six years ago, Don gave me the grocery carts we needed for the play,” he said. “We always need six of them. We went to the new owner and, of course, Don, still involved, helped as well and we got six carts.”
In Something Good, many boxes were needed for props and Blyth Food Market also contributed to that drive, alongside Blyth resident Brad Lewis, a manager at Zehrs in Goderich.
“Brad got us these big chocolate Easter candy boxes,” Duncan said. “He just asked us how many we needed.”
Finally, McGregor realized that, while the costumes and props the Blyth Festival provided were fantastic and a helped significantly, the play required a super-hero style cape for Mortimer, the last part of the play.
“We needed something sewn on,” McGregor said. “Mortimer, the noisy boy, needs a big M on the back of his Super Mortimer cape. When you need sewing, who else do you go to in Blyth but Irene Kellins of Stitches with a Twist?”
McGregor said he walked into the sewing store and was ready to pay, but Kellins did the work for no charge.
“That’s just the way it is,” he said. “People want to support us.”
McGregor also said that the efforts of Lisa Harper of the Blyth Festival was a big part of making the play a success.
“Lisa fits into all of our projects like that and, now, she’s a Blyth citizen,” he said. “Her way of working with people on the phones and online is just extraordinary. It goes beyond the job that she does for the Festival because if you don’t have that kind of response to people, things don’t work.”
He said he has been involved in theatre long enough to know that what Harper does is one of the most important roles in putting on a production.
Blyth Arts and Culture Initiative 14/19 Inc also supported the show.
“The key player at 14/19 is Karen Stewart,” McGregor said. “She brings all these volunteer ushers in. They work the lift, greet the children on the street and help in the theatre. They were extraordinary.”
McGregor said he knew all the volunteers that Stewart had brought in because many are from local communities.
“They are mostly from Blyth and Karen, also from Blyth, organizes all that, making it easy for us to do all that,” he said. “They are very efficient, but also very warm. We couldn’t do it without them.”
While a lot of the support came from Blyth, it also came from the surrounding villages. Actors in the play this year hailed from Auburn, Wingham, Goderich, Zurich, Bayfield and many points in between.
McGregor said that other organizations have helped support past endeavours, like Guys in the Garage in the fall, which Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company supported significantly.
The Munsch play featured the largest cast McGregor has put together for a school-age shows, and ticket sales, mid-run, had already hit 4,500.
“One thing that was quite interesting was the people who just came in off the street,” he said. “They saw what’s going on and ordered tickets for their children if they are from schools or classes that weren’t scheduled to come.”
He said the production cast a wide net, bringing in students from as far away as Kincardine in the north and as far east as Stratford. The schools that sent students were of all stripes, including elementary public schools, Christian schools, separate schools and groups of home-schooled children.
“We sold out for a number of performances,” McGregor said, adding those shows have the best atmosphere.
All of that happened because of the local input, McGregor said.
“Without the village, the play wouldn’t happen as it did,” he said. “We could have presented it otherwise, but without that local support, it just wouldn’t be as welcoming an environment.”
McGregor added that the recent renovations at Blyth Memorial Hall have been a big benefit as well, saying they provide opportunities for schools from further away to meet in the lower hall and relax before jumping on the bus for the trip home.
“It makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
McGregor also pointed out that the cast and crew honoured the Humboldt Broncos, a hockey team from Saskatchewan that was involved in a motor vehicle collision that resulted in 16 fatalities and 13 injuries. The incident has seen all of Canada stand in solidarity with the team, marking Thursday, April 12 as national jersey day. The acts of remembrance also include hockey sticks being left on porches to honour the players.
For the shows on Thursday, actors wore jerseys as part of the play. The idea came from actress Leigh Anne Van Aaken, who has two sons in the play as well.
“She suggested it and I thought it was a great idea to acknowledge the Broncos,” McGregor said. “We had a number of pictures in team jerseys and had a hockey stick outside. We forwarded them to the Broncos organization.”
The stick was placed beside the permanent wreath at Memorial Hall – an appropriate place for it, McGregor said.
“All of the children in the morning were a little older, Grade 1 to Grade 6 and most of the children had hockey sweaters on,” he said. “When I introduced the fact that we would be wearing jerseys, everyone was completely ready to take it in. It was a beautiful moment up there.”