On the night I attended Dan Needles’ The Team on the Hill, this past summer, the Blyth Festival’s audience was filled with familiar faces of people I’d come to know through years of work on this magazine.
Over the next couple of hours there were chuckles and belly-laughs from the audience of farmers as Needles and the cast showed them people like their family or their neighbours in a recognizably familiar predicament: the tense negotiation among three generations about who would guide the farm forward and what that future would look like. (In this case it was a 1970s conflict about whether the son, who wanted to grow new-fangled soybeans, would come home to the farm.)
As I listened to those around me, I was reminded again of how important it is for people to see stories about people like themselves – and for farm families, how rare that is. If farm stories are told on television or in movies, usually the storyteller is someone who didn’t enjoy farm or rural life so left for the city, or is someone who sees farming as a problem, such as animal rights’ activists.
It's perhaps fitting that The Team on the Hill is part of the Festival’s 45th season. Since the very first season when the stories of Harry J. Boyle were adapted for the stage in Mostly in Clover, the Festival has reflected its audience back to itself. Later the 1980s’ high interest crisis would be dealt with in Another Season’s Promise and the pigeon industry collapse in The Pigeon King among many plays over 45 seasons that put farm stories on stage to entertain or heal farm families.
The Festival’s rural storytelling roots go back earlier, to a Listowel native, director Paul Thompson, who brought a group of actors to a Clinton-area farm in the summer of 1972 to talk to local farmers and create The Farm Show. That play was a surprise hit back in Toronto, toured the country off and on for years, and even went to England. It became so legendary that Michael Healey, a playwright from a younger generation wrote The Drawer Boy about a young actor researching for The Farm Show who meets two bachelors and persuades them to tell their story. That award-winning play was picked up by U.S. theatres for productions there.
It was Paul Thompson who made the crucial connections that brought James Roy, a young graduate of York University’s theatre program, back to Blyth, where he’d started out on an area farm before his family moved to Lambton County for much of his youth. It was Roy who made the inspired choice to adopt Boyle’s books for the Festival’s first production, and plotted the Festival’s course of telling rural stories to rural people.
Recently when a young University of Guelph theatre student was in Blyth doing research on the Festival, I told her that, though I can’t prove it, I suspected that a higher percentage of the mid-western Ontario population regularly attended theatre than anywhere else in Canada. It’s hardly an urbanite’s perception of farm country but area residents have made it a habit of going to Blyth Memorial Hall to see farm and rural stories on stage. That’s the Festival’s dependable audience. Tourists and people from nearby cities have discovered this theatre at various times over four decades, then moved on to find something more trendy.
After 45 seasons the little rural theatre festival has become an institution in Canadian theatre. Whether it will have another 45 seasons will depend on coming generations. Most of the Festival core audience these days discovered theatre in the days of The Farm Show and Mostly In Clover, when they were in the 20s and 30s. Only if young people today take up the theatre habit will farm stories continue to have a place on stage.◊