By Keith Roulston
(Reprinted from The Village Squire, August 1975.)
I’ve never been allowed to, or had the inclination to be in the delivery room for the birth of any of my children but those who have, say it’s an exhilarating experience. You see something at the very beginning of its life and can wonder and try to imagine just what the future holds.
The past couple of months I’ve been conscious of the same sort of feelings as I took part, along with a couple of dozen other midwives, in the birth of a new summer theatre. The birth was like many from the time the seed first started growing it seemed like a long time to birth, but the last short while things happened mighty quickly. And happily the bouncing baby is well and looking forward to a tremendous future.
The idea for a summer theatre in Blyth first started growing three years ago when a group of volunteers first began to renovate the unused theatre in Memorial Hall on main street. Little did they know what lay ahead as one problem after another popped up with the building. Finally after three years and complete removal and replacement of a faulty roof, the theatre first opened last February.
It was still no beauty with only the basic structure present. And the idea for a summer theatre was still just that, an idea though some spade work had been done with theatre people from Toronto toward eventually establishing a summer season in the hall.
But suddenly in March things began to happen. Some of the spadework began to pay off. James Roy, who was born only a couple of miles from the theatre and went to school in his early years in Blyth, was looking for a place to hang his hat for the summer. He’d graduated from York University the year before and been involved in the Toronto theatre scene over the winter after previous experience in summer theatre in Quebec and Orillia. Now he wanted an operation of his own. Though he was a native of the area, he’d never seen the old theatre and it was from Toronto director Paul Thompson who used the theatre before that he heard about the building and the desire in the community for the summer theatre.
Now March is not the time to plan for a summer theatre. Most summer theatres start planning for one season the minute the last one is over. It takes time to get government grants. It takes time to interest the local people and raise funds through donation. It takes time to set up ticket promotion. And it takes time to select the works you plan to do for the season.
And it’s also crazy for a director without any money to hook up with a group of interested people without any money and try to get a theatre started when theatre these days is a very expensive proposition.
But fools rush in.
And so the decision was made to go ahead with the Blyth Summer Festival. A local board of directors was rounded up (not your usual high income bracket people but housewives and local small businessmen) and James Roy and wife Anne went to work.
Surprisingly with such a late start, they still managed to convince the Ontario Arts Council to provide some money and came up with a grant of $2,000. Another program payed for the salary of an apprentice.
They went ahead and hired four professional actors from Toronto and a writer-director, Stephen Thorne and went to work making the rounds of local businesses in the village of about 900 souls. Surprisingly the response was strong. The village council pitched in some money, the Lions Club gave some money and soon the total of donations reached nearly $3,000. Moreover, the local Legion and Ladies Auxiliary announced they would provide money for a new main stage curtain because the theatre had been without one since renovation.
It was the first sign that this new venture seemed destined to miss all the potholes on the road to success that have wrecked many another ambitious dream.
But James Roy wasn’t steering any cautious course. He stuck his neck out and decided he wanted to do something original, something integrally related to the local area.
He remembered reading the books of Harry J. Boyle who wrote warmly of his remembrances of growing up on a farm near St. Augustine about 10 miles northwest of Blyth. He dug out Mostly in Clover, Homebrew and Patches and With A Pinch of Sin and re-read them and decided they provided excellent material for the stage. So he wrote Mr. Boyle and got permission to adapt the stories in the books (for a fee of course).
So not only was the theatre starting without much time or planning, it was taking on one of the most difficult undertakings there is, a new Canadian play...and one that didn’t even have a script no less.
The Roys, Thorne and the actors arrived in town for the season early in June and immediately began work on adapting the books into a play. They’d read the books and improvised scenes from them. With the guidance of director Roy and writer Thorne they’d weed out the bad scenes, and polish the good and add a few more from the pen of Thorne.
It was the kind of work that drains an actor and they’d be at it from 10 in the morning to six at night. As if that wasn’t enough, they’d be back in the theatre again after supper for several more hours of rehearsal with Thorne directing this time in Agatha Christie’s, The Mousetrap. The mystery thriller required a large cast and the budget couldn’t afford one, so local amateurs were called in to fill the gap. It meant an extra burden for Thorne who already was loaded down with writing one show while trying to direct the other.
Meanwhile, after some initial hesitation, the people of the village (well most of them anyway) were welcoming the actors with open hearts as only small towns do. By the time the plays were finally open the actors were joking that they’d never eaten so much pie in their lives because the local people were always dropping off pies or other goodies at the theatre for the actors.
Things were sailing smoothly along, but of course nothing mattered until the plays were actually put before the audience and judged by it and since the people likely to be in the first night audience were local natives, many of them who knew Harry Boyle, the chance to offend someone seemed rather high.
I personally began to get a little nervous. I’d had the chance to sit in on rehearsals for a snipit here and a snipit there and with a critical hometown audience always in mind, I wasn’t sure the show would go over well. Other things were going so well, however, that I didn’t have time to worry about it.
Technical director Ron Ferguson meanwhile had the job of turning a 1920’s theatre into a modern one...and with no money yet. He made it by sponging off everyone in theatre he’d ever met, and a few he hadn’t. From Stratford Little Theatre came the flats for the scenery. From various high schools came lighting equipment. What he couldn’t borrow he had to buy. What he couldn’t afford to buy, he invented. When scouring around the countryside for a spare lighting control panel failed to turn up the necessary equipment, he rigged up some makeshift equipment from home houselight dimmer switches.
The set he had to design for Mostly In Clover was rather simple and inexpensive, but the Mousetrap was an elaborate set and with his wizardry, learned in college and with Theatre London, he made it an impressive one.
Opening day was, of course, hectic. The decorators arrived just after breakfast to put up the stage curtains. There were final run throughs of Mostly In Clover and there was co-ordinating to be done with village officials who had planned a re-opening and dedication of the Hall for the dead of the two wars as part of the opening night ceremonies.
It was a hot, hot day at the end of a hot, hot spell of weather. The theatre was steamy and got steamier as the crowd filled in a good long time before the scheduled opening and the empty seats began to disappear. By the time the opening ceremonies began there were only a handful of empty seats in the hall which seats over 400 in the portion that can be used (the upstairs balcony is presently unusable but holds another hundred seats). The ceremonies dragged on and the heat grew....and so did my nervousness. But I wasn’t as nervous as I’d expected to be because I’d sat in on part of the dress rehearsal the day before and knew that the show was indeed good.
When the show actually started the heat didn’t seem quite so bad and when it ended in a standing ovation for the cast, I for one didn’t even notice the heat anymore. A reception afterward brought compliment after compliment even from those who’d thought the idea of a summer theatre was a pipe dream. The cast was sky high by the reception they’d got.
The next night was a return engagement of Mostly In Clover with a good attendance of over 100 but still something of a let down for the cast after such a big opening night house.
The next night, Friday, saw the opening of The Mousetrap and again the praise was lavish from the audience, though again it was a smaller audience that opening night.
It all seemed too good to be true. The audiences were way above average for a new summer theatre and the actors were wondering how long it could keep up in a town of only 900. But instead of getting worse, it got better. After a momentary lag at the beginning of the second week, the attendance picked up stronger, with Mostly In Clover, in particular. By the third week the box office was booming at a clip those involved in the planning just hadn’t had the nerve to hope for. The only performance of Mostly In Clover that week had only a few empty seats and the three performances of The Mousetrap had larger audiences than had been drawn previously. As this magazine goes to press the final week is underway and the audiences are getting bigger yet. The Mousetrap drew its biggest audience yet in its first performance of the week and Clover had another near sellout despite a heat wave that had the theatre resembling a giant oven.
James Roy envisioned more than just a summer theatre, however. He wanted it to be a full festival and even in a shaky first season set out on that goal. There was a small art display in the theatre with some talented local people. There was a puppet theatre brought in from Toronto which also drew a large audience of children and parents.
But besides the high points, there were also some low ones. The actors worked up a comedy revue which they took on invitation to Goderich to play in the courtyard of the old jail for two nights. Audiences were disappointing. They brought the show home to Memorial Hall for one night, however, and were given a rousing welcome by over 100.
Heat, of course, proved to be the big problem. Luckily the heat wave of the opening night broke and cool weather set in for the next couple of nights. It took until the final week for the heat to build up again. Next year, the organizers vow, there will be some changes made and already a local merchant has volunteered to loan air conditioners for the building for next season.
There was another sticky problem: literally. Some of the seats were damaged by water when the roof was off last fall and were refinished with varnish that was not the best. The result was that in the hot damp weather of the summer of ’75, the seats stuck to the backs of the shirts of some unlucky patrons. Even if some in the audience hadn’t liked the shows, it’s doubtful if they could have gotten up and walked out without leaving their shirts behind.
But in general, the whole affair exceeded anyone’s wildest dreams. There has even been interest by C.B.C. in obtaining a script for Mostly In Clover.
Why did the whole project just take off? It’s hard to say. Certainly it wouldn’t have succeeded without the actors and the productions being topnotch. Certainly it wouldn’t have done as well without the enthusiastic support of someone like Jim Swan of C.K.N.X. radio who provided ample publicity (the area daily newspapers were another story as those interested in the theatre nearly tore their hair out at the seeming wilful snub by local critics).
And certainly one must consider the whole-hearted support given by the people of the Blyth community. They provided a large part of the audience, particularly in the early performances, and they pitched in in so many ways to help make the success.
But in the long run it’s hard to point to the reason for the success. In a way it’s just magic, like the magic of a good theatre performance.