Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the farm show

The Farm Show: Then & Now At The Blyth Festival

The Blyth Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary season by going back to its origins with The Farm Show: Then & Now, a lively bit of meta theatre directed by artistic director Gil Garratt, with additional dialog by members of the cast. The show is being presented at the Festival’s magical outdoor Harvest Stage.

The Farm Show is a legendary work of Canadian theatre. It was created in 1972 by a group of actors guided by Paul Thompson from Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, who journeyed to Clinton, Ontario, just down the road from Blyth, to immerse themselves in farm life and, it was hoped, create a work of theatre from the experience.

The play was created through a process that came to be known as “collective creation” or “devised theatre.” Actors interviewed local farmers, often gaining access by volunteering to help out at the farm. They then gathered to compare notes and through improvisation translate what they had heard and experienced into scenes that eventually coalesced into a play.

The Farm Show had its first performance in a barn just outside Clinton. It was a hit there and in Toronto and toured widely in Canada and the UK. Remarkably, The Farm Show had been delighting audiences for two years before its script was committed to paper. (The published script is credited to Ted Johns.) It is so highly regarded that the script is now studied in Canadian theatre schools.

The Farm Show did not originate at Blyth, which wasn’t founded until a few years later, but its spirit infuses everything that Blyth has done over the past half century.

For the community that welcomed those young actors with a mixture of puzzlement, amusement, and generosity, seeing their lived experienced validated and valued on stage was a transformative experience. They and others like them have been ardent supporters of the Blyth Festival ever since.

For some actors, working on The Farm Show and at Blyth has been equally transformative. Coming out of theatre schools in urban centers, most of them with no experience of rural life, they have dedicated their careers to serving the communities of Huron County.

From what I’ve seen, these are not the dregs of drama schools who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. These are gifted artists who could enjoy more lucrative careers elsewhere and indeed some have.

One young Blyth actor, Michael Healey, was so inspired by what he saw that he wrote a play based on the experience of one of the actors involved with the creation of The Farm Show. That play, The Drawer Boy, which went on to international acclaim, is considered by some to be the best Canadian play ever written.

The Drawer Boy was based on the experience of Miles Potter, who went on to a distinguished career as a director at the Stratford Festival and elsewhere.

The Farm Show has never been produced at the Blyth Festival – until now – which is where the “Then & Now” part of the title comes in.

Garrett has framed this recreation of The Farm Show with a prologue in which the actors remind us that “we are actors, playing actors, playing farmers.” They tell us how the original Farm Show was cobbled together and put their own careers in perspective. Yes, some of them studied The Farm Show in theatre school.

So what to make of Blyth’s recreation of The Farm Show? I was struck by the “warts and all” nature of its depiction of life down on the farm. Farm life is not glamorized or glorified, but neither is it lampooned or ridiculed. A genuine sense of affection is palpable in every scene.

The play is described in the prologue as “a collage” and that is an apt comparison. Scenes follow one upon another in no perceivable logical order, yet there is a discernible rhythm provided by the shifts in tone, ranging from comic to tragic, with frequent excursions into song. By play’s end you feel that you have come to know – and admire – an entire community.

The cast – Geoffrey Armour, Landon Doak, Jamie Mac, Fiona Mongillo, and Hallie Seline – are uniformly excellent. Mac, a Stratford veteran making his Blyth debut, and Mongillo, artistic director of Stratford’s Here For Now Theatre, are especially notable for their uncanny ability to take on a wide range of characters and nail every one of them. They, along with other members of the cast, are pretty good at playing barnyard animals and creating massive pieces of farm equipment, too! Director Garratt makes a few uncredited cameo appearances to lead a raucous song or read a touching personal reminiscence of a now dead collaborator on the original play.

The Farm Show: Then & Now reminds us that the techniques used to create the original The Farm Show, both in terms of the development of the script and in the stripped down style of the performance, still inform the majority of the plays that Blyth presents, many of them world premieres. Wing Night At The Boot and In The Wake of Wettlaufer show how those artistic tools can be put to both comic and serious use.

Other plays of recent vintage, like Nick Green’s Casey and Diana and Michael Healey’s brilliant The Master Plan, which are not the products of creative collaboration, nonetheless owe a debt to the dramaturgical techniques pioneered in The Farm Show and kept alive by the Blyth Festival.

As a visitor from the vast and troubled land south of the Poutine Curtain I was struck by something else. There’s a great deal of hand wringing in the United States about the “crisis” in theatre. The proposed solution – more money so we can keep on doing the same sort of stuff audiences apparently don’t want to see – is typically American.

Blyth offers a different solution: Go out into the community, talk to people, and translate their lived experience into art. Maybe, just maybe there’s a chance audiences will respond the way the folks in Huron County have responded to Blyth, with a life-long commitment to theatre that knows who they are and speaks their language.

The Farm Show: Then & Now continues at the Blyth Festival through August 4, 2024, at the outdoor Harvest Stage. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Blyth Festival website.

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