Memories recall how theatre began - Keith Roulston editorial
Ah yes, memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even when you think you remember things clearly, you can be tripped up by written proof.
Recently my own memories were undermined by written historical proof when I met via a Zoom call with Blyth Festival co-founder James Roy and early Festival supporter Jim Swan. We were brought together by the death of early Festival actor David Fox, who first took the “stage” in Theatre Passe Muraille’s production of The Farm Show in Ray Bird’s old barn in August 1972.
James, a resident of Clinton who was studying theatre at York University, was in the audience for that Sunday afternoon, as was I.
I had met Paul Thompson, the native of Atwood, at a street fair in Clinton which I attended before going to a meeting of the Huron County Federation of Agriculture one night in August. I met Paul through Jim Fitzgerald, who replaced me as editor of The Clinton News-Record after I’d left Clinton to publish The Standard in Blyth.
On being introduced to Paul that night, and being familiar with his work and that of the actors in his company from an article Jim had published in The News-Record, I got myself invited to the early August performance. There, as my wife Jill and I watched the performance along with many of the people from the rural Clinton-area neighbourhood, and I took pictures, my two-year-old daughter Christina played in the haymow with Paul’s daughter Severn Thompson and Chris Royal, son of company actress Janet Amos and her first husband Alan Royal.
Like the rest of the audience, we were knocked out by the performance. Thompson had intended that Sunday afternoon performance to be mainly a bit of a preview of some of the things they had been working on, but many in the audience convinced him that the company, featuring Fox, Amos and Miles Potter, among others, had done such a good job of capturing the community that this was a show that should be seen by Toronto audiences.
For the most part, it was. The show was a hit in Toronto and the actors became stars. Amos got a featured part on the CBC show A Gift to Last.
Where my memory failed me was in trying to back up memories of the performance with documented evidence of the show from The Blyth Standard in the archives of old newspapers published on the Huron County Library website (the real newspapers are in the archives at The Citizen’s office in Blyth). I was sure I could go back to the written evidence of the afternoon in The Standard but when I went back to the old papers, it wasn’t there. It seems that I wasn’t nearly as conscientious about keeping the old papers back when I was in the second year of publishing the paper as I remembered. At the age of 25, I wasn’t as worried about keeping the modern history of my community as I should have been, especially for someone who years later would become president of the Huron County Historical Society.
Early the next spring, I also began publishing the monthly magazine The Village Squire which included, in the first April issue, a story of The Farm Show’s triumphant tour back into the area where it was first performed, including the auction barns at Listowel and Clinton, an exhibition barn in Brussels, and the basement of Memorial Hall in Blyth, because the upstairs theatre still wasn’t fit for a live audience. I hadn’t kept a copy of that issue either, but luckily A.Y. (Andy) McLean, to whom I eventually sold all my publications (The Standard, The Village Squire and The Rural Voice) was older and wiser. I have copies of all the issues of The Village Squire that he preserved although some are simply photocopies.
That tour ended with a spring production at the Festival Theatre in Stratford before a run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
By then, I had lassoed Paul Thompson with the idea of making Blyth a summer home for Theatre Passe Muraille, but summer after summer the theatre wasn’t available because of needed changes.
At the same time The Farm Show cast was visiting farmers and rehearsing near Clinton, a group of energetic Blyth residents, led by Blyth Board of Trade Chair Helen Gowing and Evalina Webster (aunt of eventual Blyth Festival star, Ted Johns) were leading a campaign to clean up the hall and put it into use. It hosted one event, the Queen of the Fair contest for the old Blyth Fall Fair, before the need for a fire escape, suspicions about the wiring and finally, an investigation showing the entire roof needed to be replaced, kept getting in the way of reopening. Eventually the entire roof would need to be replaced before the first Blyth Festival could be held in 1975 – but that’s a story for next time.