'Wing Night at the Boot' research, writing process continues - April 26, 2018
BY DENNY SCOTT
The collective group of playwrights behind this year’s world Blyth Festival premiere Wing Night at the Boot, recently finished their second week of research into the production and are finding plenty of inspiration for the play.
Consisting of Blyth Festival regulars, some relatively new faces and a few brand-new-to-Blyth professionals, the company has a wide range of experiences with Blyth.
Experience ranges from Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt, Severn Thompson, Tony Munch and Marion Day, whom have deep experience with collective projects in Blyth, to Daniel Roberts who was involved in the creation of The Fighting 61st to newcomers Graham Cuthbertson and Georgina Beaty who both have experience with collective play generation, but none specific to Blyth.
The collective is interviewing locals to gather a comprehensive history of The Blyth Inn (“The Boot”) to start writing the play and in nearly every interview, locals serve to know more about the location than they think they do.
“The one thing that stood out for me is that people go for a long time and say nothing really happened,” Day said. “But then they remember something and they start talking about it and you hear a change in their voice. It signifies something vivid is coming back to them and I really enjoy hearing that. I know they’re seeing something.”
Garratt agreed, saying that watching people relive their lives and remember stories is a unique and amazing experience.
“It’s fascinating, and wonderful to watch, how every interview, consistently, to a person, starts with someone coming in here to talk to us has sat here and opened by saying, ‘I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t really have any stories that would be useful to you,’ and then they start to talk and then, two hours later, we’re still talking,” Garratt said. “We’ve watched people vividly remember things they haven’t thought about for 30, 40 or 50 years in some cases.
“It’s really exciting to watch that happen, how it evokes their memories,” he continued. “Once they start to immerse themselves, the stories start to fall out on top of each other. Everyone who comes in here claims they have nothing to offer.”
Thompson said as much as the group is learning about Blyth, its history and its people, they are also learning a lot about memory and how not everyone remembers the same way, or how some people remember the same situations, but much differently.
She said that some of the most vibrant stories are those of the 1960s and 1970s, and that, watching people remember those times, has been interesting.
While it might seem that, in trying to tell a story about a location, conflicting memories may be a problem, Garratt said the opposite was true, that those disagreements show how people can experience the same event in different ways. They also allow different aspects of the bar and the activities there to be filled in, as Beaty explained.
“At this point, we’re having different layers of transparencies where people’s stories start to overlap,” she said. “[On April 19] we had a story where one person said, ‘And then they played the piano,’ and that was the first time we had heard of a piano. We are starting to understand what we don’t know about The Boot and these stories.”
The nature of memories and just how ethereal they can be was proven by the memories of the group itself bubbling up during their interview with The Citizen. Munch, for example, realized that one of his earliest brushes with Blyth involved a shuffleboard table at The Boot that he had completely forgotten about until he started interviewing sources for the play.
Munch explained that, after the first week of research in March, he was back in Toronto when he realized that the shuffleboard people had talked about at The Boot was something of which he had first-hand experience. That memory, in turn, opened the door to other members of the collective’s memories of the Festival.
“I was interviewing David Fox in the city, when I realized I played on that shuffleboard,” Munch said. “When I was in school, in theatre school, we would go there and play shuffleboard.”
Munch went on to say that he first ran into the late Jerry Franken, a 12-season veteran of the Blyth Festival, during a theatre school trip that included the bar.
“I remembered, the first time I walked in there, Jerry was there,” Munch said. “He was just in the The Cookie War, the play I had just seen,” Munch said.
Thompson laughed, saying she was in that play, and Day also recalled the trip.
“Jerry was in there when I walked in after the show, he said, ‘Come on in’, and I didn’t realize how iconic an image that would become in my mind for Jerry,” Munch said.
Garratt was part of that same tradition of actors and cast and crew spending time with theatre-goers there after shows, and he said it was something special that will likely be visited during the play.
“I had the great fortune, when I started in Blyth, to do that,” he said. “It was a fantastic part of the experience. It was inspiring, if you did a good job you got an extra round of applause.”
Garratt also said he learned to identify a Huron County compliment, which was something you had to listen for, as he explained it.
“It’s not your easiest cryptography,” he said. “One time, I ran into one audience member who said, ‘I didn’t see too much wrong with that,’ and I learned that was high praise.”
Munch agreed, saying some of the highest praise was people saying they only noticed a mistake or two in a performance.
Much like Munch and Day recalled Franken’s presence at the bar, those the collective have interviewed have pointed to several other “famous faces” at the bar over the years.
“I’m starting to enjoy the names that are coming up. We get to ask, have you heard anyone mention so-and-so, and then we get to hear another story about that person,” Day said. “The story goes along with what we’ve heard, and, if we’re lucky, there’s something new there.”
Through hearing those stories, and learning about the “legendary characters” at The Boot, as Garratt calls them, the group is getting a very colourful view of what the bar has meant over the years.
“The stories are getting deeper and more rich now that we know the questions to ask,” Roberts said.
Cuthbertson said that became apparent with one of his favourite stories about one of the bar’s owners who made it his business to try and “enrich” the town by telling customers how they should be behaving.
“We heard how [a new owner] bought the bar,” Cuthbertson said. “He got an indication of what some of the people were like in the community and he called upon the village to have people come in and be interviewed by him so that he could tell them what behaviour he expected from them before he would serve them.”
Cuthbertson said he couldn’t believe that people actually did show up, sat through the meeting and, when they left, came face-to-face with other community members awaiting their turn.
“From what we’ve heard, that went about as well as you would expect,” Day said.
Cuthbertson said the story usually ends with the community members telling the new owner what they thought of his ideas, and it wasn’t a positive message.
“He sounds like a real card,” Cuthbertson said. “It sounded like the owner’s attitude to want to clean up the bar and the community caused the patrons to be more wild.”
Garratt said people becoming more rowdy at the bar in the face of someone telling them what to do fit another narrative theme the group was hearing.
“There seems to be an ebb and flow,” he said, saying for every person who remembers the bar as a family-friendly place, there was someone else who remembered people intentionally “stoking the wildness” of the bar.
The collective wants to know how The Boot was laid out in the past. They welcome anyone to contribute photos or, if available, amateur videos of the bar so they can look at recreating the establishment of yesterday faithfully.
“People aren’t agreeing on where things were,” Roberts said with a laugh. “One person says, ‘I remember this door there,’ and the other says, ‘I don’t remember there being a door anywhere.’ If we could find photos that would be great.”
Garratt said that, through the interviews and the memories, the resilience of Blyth and the surrounding communities has become apparent.
“One of the things we’re learning about is all the workarounds, back to when Huron County was a dry county,” Garratt said. “Right through, there has always been workarounds.”
As far as the collective itself is concerned, writing the play has been a bit different than any of the collaborative writing experiences they have been part of in the past.
Garratt pointed out everyone has experience working in a collective, but each was a unique process.
Roberts, for example, last worked on The Fighting 61st, a play about Huron County’s 161st Battalion in World War I.
“Because of the time period it was set, we had no living people to actually speak to,” he said. “It was a lot of archive work, a lot of work through letters. This is a very different approach because we were able to create these characters in our imagination but now we’re actually able to talk to some of the characters and get a much more living feel for things.”
He said he found the process more proactive and stories are being laid out for them instead of something they have to construct.
Garratt said many names will change before the play is finalized, as they want to protect “the innocent, and the guilty”.
“As we’ve met people, we’ve seen that, whether they are aware of it or not, The Boot is a huge part of their lives in a positive way, despite some controversy,” Cuthbertson said.