Garratt, Thompson, Fox to direct Festival shows this season - March 28, 2019
BY DENNY SCOTT
The Blyth Festival’s brochures have been mailed and the directors, as well as some of the cast, have been unveiled for the plays, revealing that some familiar faces will be returning to Blyth this season.
The Blyth Festival season starts with Jumbo, one of the biggest tales in southwestern Ontario history.
The play tells the story of Jumbo, an elephant in P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth”, as it toured southwestern Ontario. It is penned by Sean Dixon, who Festival-goers may remember from works like The Wilberforce Hotel and Lost Heir.
The show is unique, and as such, requires unique leadership which will be provided by Artistic Director Gil Garratt and “Circus Master” Manon Beaudoin.
“We’re trying something completely brand new,” Garratt said. “I am going to split some of the directing between myself and Manon.”
Garratt explained that, while he had committed to directing the show while working on the script with Dixon, the play required some specialized skills and knowledge that Beaudoin provides.
“Act one is truly all a circus,” Garratt said. “It’s Jumbo’s final performance and it features jugglers, unicycles and trapeze artists.”
Garratt said that putting something like that on stage requires someone who could recreate a circus in Blyth Memorial Hall.
“Manon jumped to mind,” he said.
Beaudoin has never been to Blyth before, Garratt said, but has had a long association with the Caravan Farm Theatre in British Columbia, which he called “a sister company of” the Blyth Festival.
Having worked with Cirque du Soleil, with experience as a clown performer, and being married to an acrobat, Beaudoin fit the bill perfectly.
“She’s going to be brilliant,” Garratt said.
Finding the right leadership for the play is just the first step, Garratt said, as a “certain caliber” of actors will be needed, alongside performers capable of enacting the circus acts.
“We’re officially calling Beaudoin the ‘Circus Master’,” but she is going to be responsible, throughout act one, of telling the story of the circus and deciding how to put those acts on stage. My focus will be on the script and act two.”
Jumbo opens June 12 and runs through Aug. 10 and is the feature show at the Blyth Festival’s opening night gala on Friday, June 14.
Cakewalk is set to return to the Blyth Festival stage after premiering there in 1984 before going on to international acclaim.
The play is penned by Colleen Curran and will be directed by Kelli Fox who made her directorial debut taking the helm of Kitchen Radio in Blyth in 2014.
“She’s a phenomenal artist,” Garratt said.
Fox has worked with the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, as well as spending time in Blyth, and Garratt has been trying to line her up as a director since he was named artistic director several years ago.
Fox’s first professional theatre experience, when she was 19 years old, was a Colleen Curran play, so Garratt says Fox is excited to see that relationship come full circle.
“She’s a lot of fun and really knows the Blyth audience,” Garratt said.
While there are a lot of spaces to fill as far as actors are concerned, Cakewalk was announced with a complement of actresses looking to bring it to life including Rebecca Auerbach, Catherine Fitch, Caroline Gillis, Lucy Hill and Rachel Jones.
Cakewalk, which opens June 26 and runs through Aug. 10, has been scheduled to honour the Festival’s 45th anniversary, as it is one of the most requested revivals in the theatre’s history.
The Team on the Hill will be directed by one of Garratt’s most trusted leaders: Blyth Festival Associate Artistic Director Severn Thompson.
“As your readers will know, Severn Thompson has been my right hand,” he said. “She has been a trusted advisor, friend and loyal co-creator for a few years. I trust her enormously. She knows the community and knows the Blyth Festival audience incredibly well.”
Recent works for Thompson include The Pigeon King and Wing Night at the Boot and, as Garratt explains with a laugh, The Team on the Hill represents a promise he made to her during the creative process of Wing Night at the Boot.
“I promised her the next play she is involved in will start from a script,” he said. “I said it wouldn’t be a collective and she was excited about that.”
The play originally premiered at Theatre Orangeville in 2013 and is penned by Dan Needles, who is best known for his Wingfield series, which is a staple at Blyth Memorial Hall and across Canada.
Thompson has been working with Needles on The Team on the Hill, Garratt said, continuing to develop the play that will open July 31 and run through Sept. 5.
Garratt has chosen to get hands-on with the world premiere of In the Wake of Wettlaufer because he anticipates the show will be a production accompanied by discussion and critical evaluations.
The play is being created by Kelly McIntosh and Garratt and Garratt will direct the show as well.
“It’s an incredibly sensitive story and I really do feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, both in terms of programming it and being one of the co-creators,” he said. “I’ll be taking that responsibility all the way to directing it.”
The play revolves around a family considering moving their father to a long-term care facility in the era of the Elizabeth Wettlaufer murders, in which Wettlaufer, whom some describe as an “angel of mercy”, killed residents of such facilities.
Garratt and McIntosh first met working at the Blyth Festival during Death of the Hired Man, which represented the first production in Blyth for both artists.
The two worked on the show, a Paul Thompson collective, and did some writing as a result of it. They have also toured nationally, and, several years ago, McIntosh acted as an assistant director in Blyth during Eric Coates’ tenure as artistic director.
“We stayed in touch all that time,” Garratt said. “She came to me with a whole bunch of projects she wanted to do recently.”
Garratt said that when he is approached by a creator with several different options, he looks to which story the artist is most passionate about.
“I ask which story they have to write,” he said. “Playwriting can be a thankless task, and it’s hard to stay in it if you don’t have that burning need and, when Kelly pitched the Wettlaufer piece, I could see instantly that this was a story she felt incredibly connected to for deep personal reasons, and she had a sense of responsibility that she needed to write the story. That ignited the play for me.”
The father being placed in a home will be played by Robert King, a name that Garratt said will be remembered by many long-time theatre attendees.
“Robert is a brilliant actor,” he said. “There was a point in time where he was in so many shows in Blyth that, when he would walk out on stage, he would have to take a pause while the audience clapped. He had that kind of connection with the audience and they loved him.”
King will be no stranger to charged stories, having most recently come back to Blyth several years ago for the Steven Truscott play, Innocence Lost. He’s been at the Stratford Festival for many seasons and Garratt said he is a “true blue-collar actor”.
In the Wake of Wettlaufer opens Aug. 7 and will run to Sept. 6.
To round out the season, familiar playwright Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast is coming to the Blyth Festival stage.
Crawford, who has had three other fan favourite plays premiere at the Blyth Festival (Stag and Doe in 2014, The Birds and the Bees in 2016 and The New Canadian Curling Club last year), penned Bed and Breakfast several years ago before it premiered at the Thousand Island Playhouse where Garratt took in the production.
Crawford’s play will be directed by Ashlie Corcoran who was the artistic director of Thousand Island Playhouse when the play was premiered.
“She developed this show with Mark and was the original director,” he said. “I thought she did a beautiful job.”
Bed and Breakfast will open Sept. 11 and run through Sept. 28.
Over in the Phillips Studio, two performances are scheduled: Sink or Swim from Aug. 20 to 24 and Rocko and Nakota from Aug. 27 to 31.
Sink or Swim is A HappyGoodThings production, written and performed by Beverly Elliott and directed by Lynna Goldhar Smith.
“Bev is an amazing performer,” Garratt said, explaining that she was in Blyth when he was working with the Young Company. “She grew up in Atwood, and went to high school in Listowel. She is from the community and has a huge following here.”
The play has had an amazing trajectory, Garratt said, starting at a Fringe Festival in Vancouver and going on to win prestigious awards both sides in Canada and the United States.
“Lynna, I only really know from her work through this piece,” Garratt said. “Bev and her get on like a house on fire,” he said. “It should be an amazing show.”
Garratt said he is very excited to bring Rocko and Nakota to the Phillips Studio because it’s written and performed by Josh Languedoc.
“He’s a young Indigenous writer doing exciting work based in Edmonton,” Garratt said. “The way we first connected is that he’s writing another play right now that is an adaptation of a memoir written by his father called Incorrigible.”
What made both stories of immediate interest to Garratt is the fact that Languedoc is an artist from the Saugeen First Nations.
“The Saugeen First Nations was one of the signatories on Treaty 29 and Treaty 29 represents the land where the [Blyth Festival] is,” he said. “To welcome artists from that traditional territory is exciting, and I’m looking forward to bringing that to the stage.”
For more information on any of the above plays, visit the Blyth Festival online at blythfestival.com.