Five-show Blyth Festival season to run August to October
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The Blyth Festival is moving ahead with a five-show season, beginning in August and ending in October, comprised entirely of one-person shows on what is now being called the Blyth Festival Harvest Stage.
Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt detailed the five shows in an interview with The Citizen. The shows will run in two-week blocks with a schedule that lends itself to change and adaptability depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. Shows will run from the second week of August until the first weekend of October.
The season will begin with The Downs by Sheryl Scott, a play that has had two successful runs in the Festival’s Phillips Studio, followed by Café Daughter by Kenneth T. Williams, Chase the Ace by Mark Crawford, Assassinating Thompson by Bruce Horak and Jewel by Joan MacLeod.
Garratt said that work on an outdoor stage and season really began last September. At that time, he and others began working with Jason Morgan of Allan Avis Architects on the feasibility of an outdoor stage, followed by discussions with North Huron Council and staff as to where it could feasibly be located.
Work has now been ongoing at the natural amphitheatre at the Blyth Campground for several weeks with significant progress being made.
Garratt said that one early proposal had the Festival essentially making “theatre deliveries” around Huron County in the back of a truck, but the logistics of the proposal proved to be too difficult to pull off in a pandemic and that concept was shelved. An outdoor stage, however, incorporating two recycled shipping containers, proved intriguing for those involved and that has remained as the final design for the stage, allowing the Festival to house technical elements of the stage, as well as dressing rooms, while also providing various levels that can be utilized during performances.
The design, coupled with sustained enthusiasm from audiences for popular outdoor Festival productions like The Outdoor Donnellys and Many Hands, led to the Harvest Stage, which Garratt hopes to make part of the Festival season going forward, even once the pandemic has subsided.
The first show of the modified season will be The Downs, which sold out two runs at the Festival’s Phillips Studio in 2017 and 2018.
Born out of a 10-minute scene at a playwright’s cabaret, The Downs was a hit at the London Fringe Festival, which led to its time at the Phillips Studio in Blyth. It tells the story of Millie Johnson, a mother, wife and homemaker in rural New Brunswick in the 1950s.
Garratt said it made sense to begin the season with a play that already has a history with the Blyth Festival. In addition to the humour and heart in the play, audiences have already proven that they love the production, he said.
Café Daughter by Kenneth T. Williams is also set in the 1950s and it tells the story of a young Chinese-Cree girl growing up in rural Saskatchewan. Williams based his play on the real-life story of Chinese/Canadian-Cree Senator and noted neurosurgeon Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, who was a trailblazer in many ways in Canadian politics and has been a major figure in the Indigenous truth and reconciliation movement.
Garratt said he’s been aware of Williams’ work for a number of years and he feels Café Daughter is very relevant right now with all that’s going on in the country. Not only does it tackle some very serious conversations about race and being Indigenous in Canada, but it comes with an innocence in that it’s told from the viewpoint of a child, Garratt said.
Chase the Ace is the latest offering from Mark Crawford, a playwright and actor well known to Festival audiences. The Festival has produced many of Crawford’s plays in recent years, including Stag and Doe, The Birds and the Bees, The New Canadian Curling Club and Bed and Breakfast. He has also performed in several Festival plays as well.
Crawford will act in Chase the Ace as well, embodying a city-raised radio producer and disc jockey who moved to a small town to work at its local radio station. Between his work of running the station, exploring municipal corruption and facilitating the town’s Chase the Ace draw, the COVID-19 pandemic strikes, leaving him with a whole new set of challenges.
Crawford’s well-known humour, the contemporary nature of the story and the rural setting should all equate to the perfect play for the Blyth Festival coming out of a pandemic, Garratt said, when everyone is in good need of a laugh.
It will be directed by Miles Potter, who is no stranger to the Blyth Festival, having directed many of its most memorable productions of the last 20 years, including Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott, If Truth Be Told, The New Canadian Curling Club and more.
Assassinating Thomson is the brainchild of Bruce Horak, a visually-impaired playwright, performer, musician and visual artist, who has performed this show all over the country. Horak weaves his own life story throughout the story of famed Canadian artist Tom Thomson and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death in the show, all while painting the audience live, on stage every single night.
Garratt said that, as a piece of theatre, there really isn’t anything else like it and he feels it will really connect with the Blyth Festival audiences.
Jewel, written by Joan MacLeod, is the final play of the season. Penned by one of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, the production will also represent a pair of firsts for two artists well known to Festival audiences.
Rebecca Auerbach, who has been acting at the Festival for years, will perform in her first-ever one-person show, while J.D. Nicholsen, who has been acting in Festival productions since the late 1990s, will be directing for the first time.
The play tells the story of a woman at home on the farm in Alberta while her husband is working on an oil rig off the shores of Newfoundland. There is a disaster on the rig, Garratt said, and the story is told as Auerbach’s character waits by the phone for her husband to call, all while recounting the story of their love and relationship.
As for the season itself, Garratt said that while entertainment has been available in abundance during the pandemic, whether it be streaming services or television, what has been truly missing has been the human connection of theatre. For obvious reasons, that hasn’t been able to happen, but with the outdoor stage design, he’s hoping that the Festival can create that intimacy in storytelling, all in a safe environment, while incorporating Huron County’s natural elements like its beautiful sunsets and night sky.
Visit the Blyth Festival online at blythfestival.com for more information.