'Clinton Special' discussed at Ondaatje event - June 8, 2017
BY KEITH ROULSTON
The worlds of literature, film and theatre crossed paths Friday night at Blyth Memorial Hall when the Alive Munro Festival of the Short Story presented a viewing of author and filmmaker Michael Ondaajte’s The Clinton Special.
The film, shown on Memorial Hall’s new video projection system, was made by Ondaajte in 1973 after Theatre Passe Muraille’s play The Farm Show had become a hit in Toronto. Ondaajte returned with director Paul Thompson to the Clinton-area farm neighbourhood where the actors had visited, interviewed and bonded with families before creating the play though collective improvisation.
Through filming bits of performances in auction barns and interviews with subjects of the play and cast members, Ondaajte captured the special alchemy that changed Canadian theatre.
Prior to the showing, Ondaajte recalled his earlier connections to both the Blyth Festival and Alice Munro who has allowed her name to be used for the short story festival. In 1982 he attended a performance of Down North, in which an actress had taken sick so Janet Amos, the artistic director at the time and an actor in The Farm Show, had stepped in to fill the role and Alice Munro had appeared on stage to play a character who had been talked about throughout the play but only appears late to deliver one line.
Following the viewing, Brian D. Johnston, Maclean’s magazine film critic, moderated a discussion with Ondaajte and Thompson.
Ondaajte said that making the film and seeing the stories of the farm families told on stage was a huge influence on his own career. He had been thinking about telling to story of his own family roots back in Sri Lanka and the film was the impetus to go ahead, which resulted in the book Running in the Family.
He spoke of the power of the stories captured by the actors and how, while filming Janet Amos as she delivered a monologue as a farm wife living with the results of a farm accident “I forgot we were filming.”
Just as the actors were nervous about whether they had been honest in their portrayal of their subjects, which resulted in the first performance of the play in Ray Bird’s barn in 1972, so too Ondaajte worried that he’d gotten his film right. The first public viewing was back in Clinton, projected onto the refrigerator in the kitchen of Alison Lobb, one of the “gobs and gobs of Lobbs” who were subjects in the play.
Johnston turned his questioning to Thompson about the collective process through which he and the actors created the play. He quoted actor Miles Potter (who was in the audience with his wife Seana McKenna, the Stratford Festival actress) who had said that Thompson wanted the actors to do “this amazing thing but he didn’t know what this amazing thing was”.
At the suggestion that he was a bit of a dictator, Thompson replied “I’d say I was stubborn”, insisting actors keep working until something amazing did happen. But the final proof comes only with the audience, he said. “In a collective you don’t know what you have until the dialogue with the audience begins.”
Asked by Johnston how The Farm Show and The Clinton Special affected their careers, Ondaajte joked: “Well, I gave up filmmaking” before getting serious and saying that he used the layering technique of The Farm Show to build up his own family story in Running in the Family.
Thompson chose to talk about the effect on Canadian theatre rather than his own life. For eight years or so after The Farm Show became a phenomenon, creators in theatre became fascinated in looking for the stories that were all around them, he said. Here in Huron County that resulted in the creation of the Blyth Festival and the discovery of area residents that they liked to get together and tell stories of people like themselves.