Three premieres, '1837: The Farmers' Revolt' and 'Pigeon King' remount to highlight 2018 Blyth Festival season - Nov. 9, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
For his fourth season at the helm of the Blyth Festival, Artistic Director Gil Garratt is turning to relationships new and old to tell the community’s stories.
The 2018 Blyth Festival season will begin earlier than many previous seasons with a two-week remount of last year’s successful collective production of The Pigeon King.
The Pigeon King tells the story of Arlan Galbraith who defrauded local farmers out of millions and was then sent to jail. Garratt himself played Galbraith in a performance that was hailed as one of the best of his career.
The Pigeon King will begin preview performances on May 30, meaning that Garratt’s goal of expanding Festival productions into the shoulder seasons is taking another step forward.
Garratt, General Manager Rachael King and the Festival team took a step towards expansion last season, producing The Pigeon King well into late September in an attempt to attract those attending the International Plowing Match in Walton to the show. It was a move that paid off, Garratt says, with hundreds of match-goers attending the show.
Garratt has then turned to playwright Mark Crawford for the world premiere of The New Canadian Curling Club, which will officially open the repertory season.
Crawford has enjoyed success at the Festival in recent years with the production of Stag and Doe and The Birds and the Bees and will now tell the story of a group of Syrian refugees settling in a small, rural Ontario town.
The comedy will tell the story of a rural Ontario town “big enough to have a Tim Hortons and a hospital” that also finds itself home to a number of Syrian refugees. As part of the refugee resettlement program, a local volunteers to teach the new residents the time-honoured Canadian tradition of curling. However, the night before they’re set to begin, she slips on the ice and breaks her hip, leaving the program without a leader.
Garratt says it’s then that the arena’s Zamboni driver decides to take the program over. While a former curling star in his own right, he’s not very accepting of the town’s new residents.
Garratt says it’s a hilarious story that’s both very timely and very universal with refugee resettlement ongoing all over Ontario.
As far as bringing Crawford back to the Festival, Garratt says the relationship between Crawford and Blyth is one that has really grown in recent years. The Festival commissioned this show from Crawford, Garratt says.
Growing up on a beef farm in Glencoe was only the beginning of Crawford’s connection to the rural Ontario community, Garratt says. Crawford has also been attending the Festival as a patron for decades and knows what it’s like to be on the other side of a production in Memorial Hall, which Garratt says helps to connect him to what Festival audiences are looking for.
The next show is written by another familiar face to Blyth, Heather Davies, who spent three months in the village last year as part of an apprentice artistic director program. The show is called Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer and it’s loosely based on the 1978 novel Judith by Alberta native Anita van Herk.
The play tells the story of Judith who turns her back on the family pig farm, only to return to find it gone.
Garratt says that the production’s title character grows up on a rural Ontario pig farm and travels to the city in search of a better life, only to come up empty. She returns to her home community to find that her parents have died and the home farm has been sold. She then endeavours to start a new pig operation from scratch on her own.
“There’s some beautiful writing in [Judith],” says Garratt.
And while nothing has been confirmed, Garratt says there may or may not be a line item in the show’s budget to include live pigs on stage.
The season’s next production is one with a wealth of historical ties with Blyth, despite having never been produced on the Memorial Hall stage.
Some of the earliest work on 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt was done in Blyth. The play, which was written by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille (a company that, at the time, included names like Paul Thompson, David Fox, Miles Potter and others), was rehearsed in Memorial Hall when the building was in such poor shape that the actors had to sign waivers so they could enter the building.
While 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt represented some of the earliest theatre work done in Blyth, it would go on to be produced by Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto and at other theatres across the country, but has never been produced at the Blyth Festival.
The play was recently revived for a production earlier this year at the Shaw Festival, where it was directed by Philip Akin, who directed The Wilberforce Hotel in Blyth in 2015.
The show, which was produced collectively in the early 1970s, tells the story of the Upper Canada Rebellion and features well-known historical figures like William Lyon Mackenzie, Tiger Dunlop and Anthony Van Egmond.
Garratt says it’s “really special” to be able to produce the show in Blyth for the first time, considering its rich history with the community.
The final show of the season will be another collective creation involving Garratt entitled Wing Night at The Boot.
The Boot, of course, refers to the famous Blyth Inn (often referred to casually as The Rubber Boot) which sits directly across the street from Memorial Hall and itself has produced many worthwhile stories in its history, which spans over 140 years.
The bar, which has a history as old as Blyth itself, has been a central figure to many of Blyth’s stories and figures heavily into the Blyth Festival’s history as well, Garratt says.
Much like the genesis of The Pigeon King, Garratt said that Wing Night at The Boot began with a conversation about the characters and stories the Blyth Inn has given the community over the years and what it would be like to put those stories on stage.
Garratt says he hopes to have fun with the production and speak to locals, including local historians, about the establishment’s history back in the early days of Blyth up through the 1970s and the karaoke days of the 1990s up to the current day bar, which welcomes large groups every Thursday night for its wing night.
Research has already begun, Garratt says, as he and other artists have been making a point to head to the Blyth Inn for as many Thursdays as they can to collect information and connect with the regulars.
Who will be part of the collective creating the play, however, has yet to be determined and the play will likely begin to take shape next year.
While shows have yet to be finalized for the Phillips Studio next season, Garratt says he has some interesting and appealing shows in contention for the upcoming season.
For more information on the Festival or to buy passes, visit its website at blythfestival.com.