Continuing thoughts of the past - Keith Roulston editorial
Living in the past, as I did in last week’s column where I recalled the early success of the late actor David Fox, has its addictions, including memories of the early years of the Blyth Festival.
I recently stirred those memories via a Zoom call with Blyth Festival founder James Roy and early Festival supporter Jim Swan (we couldn’t even have imagined what Zoom was back in 1975 when the Festival began).
Last week I spoke of the early attempts at putting Blyth Memorial Hall back in use in 1972 and the ongoing debate about the building’s viability, as problems with the fire escape, electrical service and, finally, a design flaw in the roof, delayed the use of the upstairs theatre year after year. Finally, it was the Blyth Legion Branch which spoke of the importance of the hall, which led to village council installing a new roof on the building in the fall of 1974.
Late winter 1974-1975 led to two professional performances in the old theatre with comedians Dave Broadfoot and Carol Robinson performing their review Take a Beaver to Lunch and teacher-turned-actor Ted Johns, who had joined Theatre Passe Muraille after seeing The Farm Show, performing Naked on the North Shore, about his experiences teaching in Quebec.
It was about then that I received a short letter from James Roy, born on a farm just outside Blyth but who had never seen the theatre in Memorial Hall. A graduate of the theatre program at York University, he had talked to Paul Thompson, visionary director/producer, of The Farm Show back in Clinton in 1972. By now, having given up on Blyth’s theatre ever being ready, Thompson had set up in Petrolia, but when he heard the theatre was back in business, he mentioned it to Roy, who contacted me.
Having spoken to James by phone and hearing what I suspected was a middle-aged CBC actor, I was amazed to have a young university graduate exit the car the first time we met. He brought with him a colleague, Jeffery Cohen, and I took his photo with James as they sat in the seats of Memorial Hall, imagining for the first time producing theatre there. Cropped out of some versions of my photo is Anne Chislett, James’s wife at the time, who sat in the back row and played
a huge role in the Festival long after James
Not only did James decide he was going to produce professional theatre in Blyth, but he was going to do it that summer. He went to work finding financing and actors. I approached local officials about setting up a summer theatre in the hall and proposed names for a board of directors, including no less than two ministers, Helen Gowing, president of the Board of Trade, and Cennetta Bainton, who ended up being one of the biggest donors to the Festival during her time. Everyone I approached came on board.
As for programming, James mentioned the books written by Harry J. Boyle, originally from St. Augustine, who at one time was involved in CKNX radio, later a director and writer with CBC radio and at the time vice-chair of the Canadian Radio Television Commission. I was thrilled that James wanted to include a local writer and I was familiar with the books Mostly In Clover, Homebrew and Patches and With a Pinch of Sin, so I was thrilled for this local content, though ignorant of the work it would take to make them into live theatre. As a safety net, James also scheduled a foolproof classic The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, the only non-Canadian play ever produced by the Blyth Festival.
Thanks to Blyth Village Clerk Larry Walsh, who turned opening night into a rededication of Memorial Hall, the opening night was a smash success. Jim Swan showed up to capture the opening night excitement and produced a radio show. He sent along a recording of the show after we spoke by phone.
James Roy went on to produce the first five seasons at the Festival, including such treasures as Peter Colley’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, which became the Festival’s first big hit.
Out front that first season, raising money by visiting local residents and through taking tickets, was Anne Chislett, who would later fill the seats of Memorial Hall as author of the adaptation of Boyle’s A Summer Burning, her own The Tomorrow Box and Quiet in the Land under Janet Amos’s leadership, and two plays she allowed me to co-write Another Season’s Promise and the sequel Another Season’s Harvest. She later served as Festival Artistic Director.
Ted Johns wrote and performed in many Festival productions from He Won’t Come In From the Barn, to The School Show to Garrison’s Garage. His wife Janet Amos served two terms as artistic director.
The pandemic has pinched the Festival, cancelling the 2020 season and turning it into an outdoor theatre with a new stage in 2021. We wait, impatiently, for Artistic Director Gil Garratt’s plans for 2022 in these uncertain times.