'Drawer Boy' film discussed at Munro Festival event - June 8, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
The Drawer Boy, the modern film adaptation of a play inspired by a film about a play, was the topic of a special on-stage discussion at Blyth Memorial Hall over the weekend.
The discussion was part of the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story held in North Huron over the weekend.
The film, which was created by Director Arturo Pérez Torres and Producer Aviva Armour-Ostroff, brings Michael Healey’s play of the same name to the silver screen, though the story of the play is one of “begets” according to panelist Brian Johnston.
Johnston, who took to the stage with Armour-Ostroff and Pérez Torres as well as Blyth Festival familiar face Miles Potter, whose fictional counterpart is featured in the story, said the story follows a long tradition of inspiration.
“The Farm Show begat The Clinton Special which begat The Drawer Boy which begat the film,” Johnston said at the beginning of the panel, then joked that he had just met a young playwright who wanted to pen a story about the entire experience.
The Farm Show was a collective creation in 1972 that premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille. Two years after that, Michael Ondaatje created a film called The Clinton Special which followed the creation of the play including scenes from the play.
The Farm Show is a play about life on the farm, inspired by members of its creative collective visiting Huron County farms and living the farm life in order to pen the show, which has been pointed to as the start of Canadian theatre.
Michael Healey, according to Potter, came to the Blyth Festival and was in a play Potter directed.
“While he was here, he saw The Clinton Special,” Potter explained. “Who was staying with people who were involved with the film.”
The tale goes that Healey, who was writing a play for the Blyth Festival about a meteor landing on a farm, immediately ditched the meteor and replaced him with a fictional version of Potter and the rest of the collective responsible for The Farm Show.
The play and film follows Potter as he learns what life is like on the farm by studying the daily activities of farmers Morgan and Angus in Huron County.
Current Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt, who was featured in a remount of The Drawer Boy as Potter, explained that the play was commisioned by The Blyth Festival, but was premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille after the Festival passed on it, becoming one of the 10 most-produced plays in Canada.
Armour-Ostroff said it was an honour to come and discuss her creation with the community that helped create not only The Drawer Boy play and film, as it was shot locally, but also the community that spawned The Farm Show.
She also said the film owed a debt to the area, not just from the community, but to people like Ted Johns and Janet Amos who provided filming space and the Blyth Festival, which allowed the film crew to use its store of props and costumes.
“It was important to do this here,” she said.
The creation of the film, which was shot to look like a period piece matching the play’s setting of the early 1970s, owed itself to some very modern themes, Pérez Torres and Armour-Ostroff said.
“I saw it in 1999 and loved it,” she said. “At some point, I said to Arturo that we should make something together besides a child so we asked Facebook what play they would like to see made into a film.”
Pérez Torres explained that there were three or four options that were widely suggested, and the two chose The Drawer Boy.
Johnston asked the two why they thought it had taken so long for a movie to be made out of such an acclaimed play, and Armour-Ostroff explained that another playhouse had the rights to it and it might have been a significantly different movie had it been made in the past, but the chance was there for them to start the project so she said they pursued it as quickly as they could.
Johnston also asked Potter what he thought of the film, having seen an early cut of the work and, after explaining the genesis of the play, he said the film “added to the play and completed the circle.”
“It is an extraordinary film and does the play justice, but it’s also an extraordinary play in its own right,” Potter said.
The next question was how true to the script the play was and both Armour-Ostroff and Pérez Torres said they tried to stay as close as they could.
Armour-Ostroff explained that, while the movie was not completely taken from the script, it stayed fairly close to it.
“We added some dialogue from The Farm Show to create some rehearsal scenes, but aside from that we stayed true to the play,” she said.
Pérez Torres said, from the cinematic point-of-view, he wanted the film to look like it could have been made in the 1970s, and all the special effects and video choices were made to emulate film in that time period.
Taking the play and turning it into a film, however, did allow for some changes to be made that couldn’t be made on stage, Pérez Torres said.
“We allowed the story to expand outside the three rooms that were on stage,” he said. “From a filming standpoint, the idea of limiting everything to a small space had a claustrophobic feeling.”
Johnston next steered the discussion towards the hot-button issue of cultural appropriation, which is a theme in the film and, according to Potter, an issue that members of The Farm Show collective struggled with.
“It’s an important discussion,” he said. “We asked ourselves if we had a right to tell these stories.”
The last question that Johnston put to Potter, Pérez Torres and Armour-Ostroff before audience members could ask questions, was how it felt to work with a subject matter that wasn’t just a play, but a cultural mythos.
Armour-Ostroff said it was something that she knew had to be lived up to, but working with something historical was made more interesting by having people involved in it available.
“It is a gift to do a historical play with people still alive who were a part of the history,” she said, pointing to Bob Nasmith and Paul Thompson who were involved in The Farm Show and were involved with the film.