Barn Dance 23: Festival's 'Barndance Live!' rejuvenated interest in the Barn Dance
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
In 1996, Canadian theatre legend Paul Thompson gathered a cast for a collective creation that would become Barndance Live! at the Blyth Festival, based on the Barn Dance programs of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, that would go on to be remounted as part of the 1997 season as well.
The show opened the 1996 season to much acclaim. When it returned in 1997, it joined a remount of Anne Chislett’s Governor General’s Award-winning Quiet in the Land and another Thompson production, Booze Days in a Dry County.
The cast would include a number of faces that would become familiar to Festival audiences for years to come, such as J.D. Nicholsen, Raoul Bhaneja and Eric Coates, who would go on to become the artistic director of the Blyth Festival. (Among others, Coates played Larry Mercey, who had performed at many Barn Dance shows over the years and will play at this year’s event, the last in its 25-year history.) However, the show was truly woven into the fabric of the community. It featured a number of local performers, like Betty (Beer) Jinks, Jenna Ujiye, Betty-Anne Bray and Cappy, Zoey and Teague Onn.
Furthermore, as part of the 1996 season, there were six special performances of Barndance Live! that were followed by public dances at which the cast, still in costume, would perform, in addition to appearances by either Circle of Friends or The Chuckwagon Gang.
In a conversation captured by long-time Festival actor Severn Thompson with her father Paul, the director and creator of Barndance Live!, Paul said the show was a natural fit for the Blyth Festival and a story worth telling.
“Blyth is only 10 miles from Wingham. Wingham’s the centre of the Barn Dance, so it fit right in to the Blyth mandate of telling local stories,” Paul said. “Even people who didn’t go to the Barn Dance knew about it. It was something that was talked about.”
Paul said he remembered some of the Barn Dance performances when he was in his teens and even attended one in Listowel, though he admitted that he “wandered in” likely near the end to go to the dance, despite being “too shy” to dance there.
When assembling the cast, Paul said he struck gold by bringing on so many established, talented musicians, as that was the path to learning more about the characters.
“By understanding the music, we understood the story better,” Paul said.
One of the biggest factors to make the show feel authentic was incorporating pedal steel guitar, which is integral to the Barn Dance sound. Paul said that luckily, actor J.D. Nicholsen was able to learn it in short order, which made everyone’s lives easier.
He said the audiences at the Blyth Festival were eager for the story and fully embraced it, to the point that it would return the following year as part of the 1997 season.
“From the first reminiscence to the final note, the Blyth Festival Theatre’s production of Barndance Live!, is a comedic, musical trip down memory lane,” wrote Janice Becker in The Citizen. “Whether of the generation which actually remembers the 21-year run of CKNX Radio’s Barn Dance from 1942 to 1963, or a few years younger and can recall the country tunes emitting from the television, the music and stories are sure to strike a chord.”
It also served to connect the actors with the local musical leaders they were portraying. Bhaneja, for example, grew to have a relationship of mutual respect with local legend Ernie King, whom he portrayed in the show. Paul remembers that Bhaneja even bought a guitar from King that he had either built himself or repaired along the way.
In fact, when work was just beginning on the show, Paul said, Bhaneja was in Scrimgeour’s Food Market in Blyth when he began talking to one of the patrons about the show. The person immediately assumed Bhaneja was playing King because of their physical similarities.
After the success of the show, the Barn Dance Campout and Jamboree was born in Blyth and the rest is history. Paul says he felt the show might have had a hand in rejuvenating interest in the Barn Dance, which would then turn into an annual event in the village.
In fact, the Barn Dance Historical Society honoured Paul with a Builder Award and the cast of the show with a Pioneer Award on July 27, 2002 at a show held in Mitchell.
Barndance Live! was the first time that Nicholsen performed at the Blyth Festival on the Memorial Hall stage and he said it served as both a gateway to the area and theatre and as a reminder of his childhood in Calgary.
Nicholsen had made a living as a musician for a number of years as a member of the Juno Award-winning Leslie Split Treeo, but, at the time of Barndance Live!, he says he had pretty much left his life in music behind, working in sound design and other areas before being brought on as part of the cast. He said he knew how Paul worked with collective creations, but he was amazed at how immersive the experience was.
He says he really remembers driving up and down the gravel roads of Huron County and interviewing many legends of Canadian country music and being fascinated by their stories.
Knowing nothing about the Barn Dance history, Nicholsen said it awoke something in him that had been dormant since he was a kid and that led him to form the Cameron Family Singers, a band that would perform its own brand of country music regularly at Toronto’s Cameron House for over a decade - his own personal Barn Dance, he said.
However, before he could go forward, he went back, as he was tapped as the cast member who was best suited to learn the lap steel guitar, which is what his father played. It felt alien to him at first, Nicholsen said, having listened to his father practise with headphones on in Alberta. But, when he began playing himself and he developed a feel for the instrument, he began to really connect with it.
Nicholsen says he had no idea how closely the show would connect with the community because of his own lack of history with the Barn Dance lore. That was a welcome lesson, he said, that he’s kept with him ever since.
Nicholsen has since gone on to perform in many seasons of the Blyth Festival, often taking parts in musicals that bring him back to those country music roots, like Dear Johnny Deere, The Pigeon King and more.