Blyth Festival looks to outdoor shows for 2021
BY DENNY SCOTT
Following up on what he calls the “Baker’s Dozen Season” at the Blyth Festival will be difficult according to Artistic Director Gil Garratt, however the company has plans to make 2021 successful.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Festival was among the first locations to close, Garratt said during North Huron Council’s Monday night meeting, and will likely be among the last to open.
Garratt said that, even if the Festival started putting on shows now, the highest number of audience members that could safely fit in Memorial Hall would be 13, leading to the “Baker’s Dozen” moniker for the season. He said, beyond that, the hall’s amenities don’t lend themselves to pandemic restrictions, pointing to the elevator as an example, as it requires two people to be in very close proximity to each other.
However, for next year, he hopes to lead the Festival in a return to a kind of show they haven’t tackled for years: an outdoor performance.
Garratt said the organization is looking at outdoor shows as the “most viable way” of getting back to performing prior to a vaccine being made widely available. To that end, he asked council if the Festival could use the natural amphitheatre at the Blyth Campground as the site for a new outdoor theatre.
The former soccer field would make a great home for the installation, he said, especially with a new fencing system that would combine traditional fencing and trees installed around the site.
Garratt said he had broached the idea with Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans and Director of Recreation and Community Facilities Vicky Luttenberger, as well as North Huron’s Dave Cook, who manages the campgrounds and the arena. The trio walked the Festival through the challenges and opportunities the site could offer.
The stage could allow, according to his report, up to 100 people under current public health guidelines.
“The arrangement of the audience will be flexible enough to increase or decrease distance, or to expand to 200 or more if public health guidelines permit,” the Festival’s report to council said.
Garratt said the stage wouldn’t just be for the Festival, and could help groups like the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association and the Barn Dance Historical Society have smaller events if their large-scale events can’t take place next year.
“There was a lot of excitement at that possibility,” he told council.
He pointed to the weekend that would have held the association’s reunion, Sept. 11-13, and how the beautiful weather would have been good for outdoor musical performances in such a space.
Garratt said the goal for the organization is to have live performances in the spring, adding it would be great if council could help with the fencing and tree-planting projects. He added that the plan wasn’t completely finalized, with details left to figure out, like trying to run shows later in the day in the summer to avoid problems caused by the heat.
Reeve Bernie Bailey said he was excited to work with the Festival, saying the plan would see additional use of the campground.
Councillor Chris Palmer said he was behind the project, but had questions about the specifics of using the site, including whether the site is effectively drained.
Garratt said he was aware that there is one problem area with drainage, but it’s actually up the hill from the former soccer field, not on the pitch itself.
Palmer then asked if people would be to sit on the grass, and Garratt said guests would be encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs, which is probably a good plan during COVID-19.
Garratt added that if it was successful, he hoped the outdoor stage would become part of Festival seasons moving forward.
“I would love to do that,” he said. “If we could come out of the other side [of the pandemic] with an outdoor stage and an indoor stage working… it would be fantastic to have all those pieces there.”
Councillor Kevin Falconer lauded the plan, saying the amphitheatre has been used to great effect for musical performances with little to no impact on neighbours because of the location and the natural acoustic qualities of the space.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip said he was in favour of the project as the financial spinoff from the Festival was irreplaceable in Blyth. Bailey added that this would give people who have been isolating at home something to look forward to in the coming months.
Council passed a motion supporting the Festival’s project.