Festival season comes to emotional close for Garratt
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Blyth Festival’s 2021 season on its outdoor Harvest Stage has come to an end and its success has left Artistic Director Gil Garratt emotional.
The season was due to conclude on Sunday with a matinee performance of Joan MacLeod’s Jewel, but it was one of the few performances that was cancelled due to inclement weather. Because it was due to be the last day of the season, there was not an opportunity to reschedule the performance.
In speaking with General Manager Rachael King over the weekend, Garratt said the pair had the opportunity to reflect on the entire season. Despite the Festival planning for the worst, anticipating everything from another provincial shutdown to weather-related cancellations to potential virus exposure, the season reached its natural conclusion with about 90 per cent of the scheduled shows going ahead.
Garratt said it’s not unusual for him to be emotional at this time of year in a normal year, after he’s sent artists home for the winter after a Festival season, but this year it was even more pronounced.
He said his prevailing feeling was one of gratitude. The Festival was lucky to have the support, he said, of North Huron Township, the provincial government, Community Futures Huron and local sponsors like Watson’s Home Hardware. However, he said the support that came from community members and patrons was also off the charts. In his nightly address to audiences, Garratt said that Blyth Festival membership has doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a great indicator of the support shown to the Festival over the last year and a half.
Garratt also said that the support from employees this season was excellent, as they were asked to do more as a result of the pandemic. Whether it was contact tracing, sanitizing chairs between performances or any of the other new tasks introduced as a result of COVID-19, he said the staff supported the season tremendously and it wouldn’t have been the success it was if they hadn’t gone above and beyond the call of duty.
The vast majority of shows this season were sold out, Garratt said, which was also very encouraging.
While Garratt says he and his team badly need naps after the past few months, he’s very satisfied that the season was about to reach a natural conclusion and go ahead as planned, despite existing in such an unstable, unpredictable environment. With Ontario poised to enter the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say appears to have levelled out for the time being, Garratt said anything could have happened with the season. And, because of the way it was structured, the Festival was prepared to drop shows and truncate the season if public health guidelines deemed it necessary.
However, things went smoothly, shows went ahead and the entire season was able to be produced, beginning with The Downs, followed by Café Daughter, Chase the Ace, Assassinating Thomson and Jewel. Each show had a two-week run, though the Chase the Ace production had several shows added due to high demand.
One of the major factors that allowed the season to go ahead, Garratt said, was the patience and understanding of audience members, sitting in distanced seating, outdoors and wearing masks. Garratt said there were no major issues with non-compliance over the course of the season, which was refreshing.
All five of the shows found a home with the Festival audiences, he said. The Downs, which had been produced twice before at the Festival’s Phillips Studio, made for the perfect first show of the season, whereas Café Daughter was a show, Garratt said, that he felt audiences were ready for, with all that is going on in the world. Tackling themes of Indigenous culture and anti-Asian sentiment, the play connected with audiences in Blyth in a very deep and meaningful way, he said.
Chase the Ace provided much-needed laughs for an audience that has proven to love playwright and star Mark Crawford’s work, while the heart-wrenching story of Jewel brought the talented Rebecca Auerbach back to the village.
Bruce Horak’s Assassinating Thomson, Garratt said, was a special show for him. Not only did Horak’s nightly audience portraits raise over $4,500 for the Almost Famous Players, a local performance group, but Horak’s story proved to be one about persevering and being resilient through art, which is what Garratt felt the whole season was about.
Looking ahead, Garratt said it’s impossible to know what next summer holds, but he and his team hope to be able to offer a full season of plays on the Memorial Hall stage, complemented by productions on the Harvest Stage. Time will tell, however.
With the success of the first season on the Harvest Stage, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Garratt said it was comforting to know that, if the situation doesn’t improve, the Festival is capable of hosting another successful season entirely outdoors and in compliance with public health regulations.