Blyth Festival to host five premieres, 'Farm Show' remount in 2024 for 50th anniversary season
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Next year’s 50th anniversary Blyth Festival season will feature six productions - four indoors at Memorial Hall and two outdoors on the Harvest Stage - including five premieres and one remount and reimagining of the Canadian play that started it all.
The season will also include an ambitious program that aims to host 50 complementary events through the Festival, one for each year in its illustrious history. As Artistic Director Gil Garratt said one of the Festival’s board members put it, “50 Ways to Leave a Legacy” as a play on Paul Simon’s seminal “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.
Garratt says that, as a nod to the very mandate of the Festival - to tell the stories of its home community, its home country and its people - all of the plays have their roots within 40 kilometres of Memorial Hall, resulting in a hyper-localized season of theatre from a company that has spent the last half century telling Canadian stories.
The season will begin outdoors with The Farm Show: Then and Now, an updated version of the foundational work that paved the way not just for the Festival, but for Canadian theatre as many know it today. Written in 1972 by a group of Canadian theatre icons - Paul Thompson, Ted Johns, Janet Amos, Miles Potter, Anne Anglin, Fina MacDonell and the late David Fox - the show began on farms in the former Goderich Township, but would go on to be produced all over the world and be universally accepted as one of the most influential Canadian plays ever written.
Garratt says he has spoken with all of the living creators of the play, who have all given their blessing for the show to go ahead. Not only will it serve as a tribute to Fox, whose impact on the Festival looms large, but Garratt says it will be a nod to the show that made people think that something like the Blyth Festival was even possible.
While Garratt plans to stay true to the written script, he said that the portraits of farmers, community members and the world of Huron County stopped in 1972 when the play was published. He hopes to update some of those stories in 2024, while remaining true to the play that means so much to Canadian theatre, Huron County and the Blyth Festival itself. However, it will not be an attempt to revisit the material and recreate the process with new stories, like what was done with director Severn Thompson and her cast when the Festival produced Beyond The Farm Show in 2013.
The Farm Show: Then and Now will run on the Harvest Stage from June 12 to Aug. 4.
The second show to be produced outdoors on the Harvest Stage will be Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz: The Farmerettes, a theatrical adaptation of Bonnie Sitter’s celebrated book that tells the story of Ontario’s Farmerettes, a group of young woman who supported the World War II effort by working on farms throughout the province.
The play has been written by Alison Lawrence and co-commissioned by the Festival and 4th Line Theatre near Peterborough, where it will be part of that company’s 2024 season as well.
Garratt says that, while Sitter’s book used the narrative of a number of former Farmerettes to tell her story, Lawrence will be telling the story through a handful of young women that audiences can follow throughout the play.
He feels it will be another great fit for the outdoor Harvest Stage and serve as a story that will speak to audiences within Huron County.
Onion Skins and Peach Fuzz will run on the Harvest Stage from Aug. 14 to Sept. 7.
In Memorial Hall, Garratt will open the season with a creation all his own in Saving Graceland.
Set in Clinton in 2019, Garratt says his play follows a pair of newly-retired grandparents and Elvis enthusiasts as they set out for
the Collingwood Elvis Festival, which marked its 25th and final year in 2019.
Their plans are interrupted, however, when their grandchild shows up at their home, unexpected. Without giving too much away, the protagonists change their plans to care for their grandchild, but Gord, the grandfather, will fulfill a life-long dream of being an Elvis impersonator over the course of the play.
Garratt said he has been working on the show for a number of years, but he was really inspired to write it with the concept of kinship-care in mind and the role it plays in the lives of so many local families.
Saving Graceland will run on the Memorial Hall stage from June 19 to Aug. 3.
The second show comes by way of celebrated Blyth Festival playwright Mark Crawford in the form of The Golden Anniversaries.
In it, Crawford tells the story of a couple marking their 50th wedding anniversary at a beloved cottage on Lake Huron that they used to rent, but now own.
The comedy follows the couple as they reflect back on the 50 years that have passed, discussing steamy romances and the not-so-glamorous aspects of what it means to love someone over the course of a half-century.
The Golden Anniversaries will be on the Memorial Hall stage from July 4 to Aug. 4.
The third show comes by way of Birgitte Solem, who was a member of the collective that created and performed The Pigeon King, and it’s a murder mystery and comedy called Resort to Murder.
In it, a young couple inherits a local mansion and they have different ideas of what they’d like to do with it. The wife wants to create a spa, while the husband wants to make it a murder mystery escape room.
After opting to incorporate an escape room into the plans, the couple and the staff they’ve hired try it out, for training purposes, only for the power to go out, the door to lock and, when the lights come back on, someone has been killed.
As a result, not only do they have to find a murderer in their midst, but they also have to get out of the very room they’re working to escape.
While a new production, Garratt says Resort to Murder is a hat-tip to both The Mousetrap, the famous Agatha Christie mystery that made way for the success of Mostly in Clover in the Festival’s very first season, as well as 1979’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, one of the most successful shows in the Festival’s history.
Resort to Murder will be on the Memorial Hall stage from July 24 to Aug. 31.
The final play will mark the return of celebrated playwright Beverley Cooper - the writer behind Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott, If Truth Be Told and more - with The Trials of Maggie Pollock, the true story of the last Canadian woman to be tried for witchcraft.
Garratt said the Festival commissioned Cooper to write the play several years ago and it will tell the true story of Pollock, who was born near Blyth and tried in Goderich in a case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court of Ontario.
He said local historian David Yates tipped him off to the story and he brought Cooper in because he thought she and the subject material were a match made in heaven.
The Trials of Maggie Pollock will be on the Memorial Hall stage from July 31 to Aug. 29.
Garratt says he’s proud of the season the Festival is putting forward and how local the stories and characters are. He says it also gives him a chance to reflect on all that has happened over the past five decades.
Being the artistic director of the Blyth Festival for such a monumental season is a tremendous responsibility, he said, but it provides a chance to both look back and honour the past while looking forward and growing the audience. Ensuring that all community members are represented and not overlooked, he said, in this day and age, is an important role of a theatre company like the Blyth Festival.
And, when considering that past, he said, it’s important to think about a time in which there weren’t always drawers full of Canadian plays ready to be produced. A season like next year’s in Blyth will be an opportunity to reflect on how far Canadian theatre has come and all that’s been accomplished at a theatre that, as Garratt points out, was founded before he was born.