'Fighting 61st' project begins to take shape
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Work is underway on the Blyth Festival project The Fighting 61st, but those involved with the play will tell you that they’ve just begun to scratch the surface.
The play, which was announced late last year, is a collective being directed by Member of the Order of Canada Paul Thompson. It has yet to find a home, says Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt, who is also acting in the play, but will likely be produced in Goderich. It is a partner project with the Huron Arts and Heritage Network (HAHN).
Acting in the production in addition to Garratt are Eli Ham, Cam Laurie, Daniel Roberts and Fiona Sauder. The group has been in the community on and off for a number of weeks throughout January, and will continue its work through February and March.
The production will tell the tale of the formation of the 161st (Huron) Battalion in the First World War, a unit in the Expenditionary Force. The unit began recruiting members in 1915, before sailing to England the next year.
The unit would later be absorbed into the 4th Reserve Battalion in February, 1918.
The entire cast, including Thompson, sat down with The Citizen Friday afternoon and discussed the research being conducted as part of the collective process and some of the more interesting stories they’ve uncovered.
When asked how much research they’ve done in comparison to how much information is out there about the Huron Battalion in the First World War, several of the actors held their thumb and forefinger so close together that light can barely shine through. Though they’ve been very busy in recent weeks, they’ve barely covered any group, when compared to what is out there, they said.
To say they have been overwhelmed by the rich trove of information they’re currently making their way through, they say, would be an understatement.
Roberts says that in his short time in Huron County researching for The Fighting 61st, he has already had a significant, almost supernatural brush with history.
While researching one of the characters he will play in the production, Roberts stumbled upon an important date in the young man’s life: Jan. 22, 1916 – the date he enlisted in the Armed Forces.
Roberts happened upon this fact on Jan. 22, 100 years to the day. And not only did these events happen exactly one century apart, but Roberts read it when he was in the rehearsal hall, above the offices of the Blyth Festival.
It was amazing, he said, to be able to read this information and look out the window towards the southeast corner of Queen and Dinsley Streets, across the street to where the man would have went to enlist.
Similarly, Laurie says he’s begun work on the real-life character of a printer and journalist who had been covering the war, but then enlisted.
Sauder will play many of the production’s female roles, but will also portray male soldier roles over the course of the play as well.
Much of her work will focus on what is ongoing on the homefront, she said, which will be just as important in the play as what was happening overseas.
Those roles are crucial to the telling of Huron County’s story, she said, as many of the roles normally filled by men in that era were being covered by women during the war years.
Some of the characters found themselves very involved in what was happening on the front lines.
One woman Sauder will portray drove ambulances in the First World War. Though not originally from Huron County, the woman will be made to be from Huron County for the production’s purposes, and Sauder said she found the woman’s story and heroics inspiring.
Much of the research the group has been undertaking has been done at local museums and libraries, where they have spent weeks poring through newspapers, letters and artifacts from the years of World War I.
Through this process, they have discovered characters, stories and relationships, all from which they plan to draw for work on The Fighting 61st.
One major source of information has been a book that was compiled by a man called Sandy McDonald.
While rich in information, Thompson essentially called the book a museum curator’s nightmare, as the volume contains pictures and items literally taped in place.
Material had been added to the book, the actors said, as late as the 1970s and 1980s, but it was then abandoned and made its way into the Huron County Museum system.
Though it’s the opinion of those involved with The Fighting 61st that the book was likely destined for publication once complete, the circumstances surrounding it are unclear at best.
In addition to official research conducted at places like libraries and museums, the group has also been out at coffee shops, restaurants, local Legion branches and people’s homes – anywhere a story may be hiding, they said.
It has been through this personal connection to the subject matter, whether it’s holding and reading someone’s handwritten letter or meeting a descendant of someone they’ve researched, that the actors all say they feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do these local stories justice.
Ham said that a recurring theme with the actors when they meet people connected to a character they wish to portray is that they pledge to do their best to tell that person’s story.
“That’s important for so many reasons,” Ham said, adding that it’s not only personally important to members of that family, but important to members of the Huron County community as well.
And while the process has been educational and inspiring at times, it has also been difficult, Ham said.
The process of collective theatre can be very frustrating he said, but it’s that frustration that sometimes bears the sweetest fruit.
While the research portion of the project has been largely prevalent in the early weeks, there have also been a number of dramatic exercises where there has been frustration, as well as breakthroughs.
The group agrees that its work is far from over, both in terms of research and drama, with plenty more for them to learn in both areas.
Garratt said that from a Blyth Festival perspective, he couldn’t be happier about what’s going on.
Historically a hotbed of activity in the summer months, he says it’s great to have brilliant, eager actors in Blyth for three months of a Huron County winter, when things are known to often slow down.
The group will continue shaping the production over the course of the next two months, ahead of hopeful production, though not yet finalized, this fall.