‘New Friends Old Friends’ a labour of love: McGregor
By Denny Scott
Blyth’s Duncan McGregor has returned to an earlier play for this year’s Foundation for Education show at Blyth Memorial Hall.
Called New Friends Old Friends, the play, put on by the McGregor and Friends group and the foundation, includes three stories which McGregor, alongside directing, adapted from their original sources. The three stories include Tractor Dan, Fiona and Ralph and The Amazing Adventures of Emily.
The play, set for April 8-12 at Blyth Memorial Community Hall with shows at 10:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m., is an hour long and aimed at students in Grades JK-6. McGregor says it’s a labour of local love.
“The major thing is how we put these three stories together,” McGregor said. “The first part of the story is a harvest in Huron County.”
McGregor explained that, as part of the harvest, some of the youth in attendance will be welcomed on stage to help with the harvest including performing a special dance, while everyone will be invited to participate in the creation of a huge storm in the first of the three plays, Tractor Dan.
“Later on, the audience becomes a crucial party of a story in The Amazing Adventures of Emily,” he said. “They have to be, otherwise Huron County will become a desert.”
The play features a significant amount of locally-sourced props and technical know-how, McGregor said, which is always a priority for his shows.
“If I’m producing a show in Goderich, I try to work with people from Goderich,” he said. “With this play, I’ve sourced as much as I can from local people.”
In particular, Blyth residents are crucial to the play, he said, pointing to Jane Smyth, Cheryl Peach and Steve Cook, a regular McGregor contributor who recently moved away from Blyth.
“Steve is quite a performer,” he said. “It’s amazing how talented he is.”
Peach, a former principal, is in her second year participating in McGregor’s performances, and came to work with him through McGregor’s friendship with her late husband Geoff. She is the stage manager for the show.
McGregor explained he has a long history with the Peach family, having taught Geoff and Cheryl’s daughter Laura as well as coaching her sister Kathryn on stage.
Smyth is an essential part of the play, McGregor said, though she isn’t on stage. Aside from working the theatrical lights for the show, a daunting task in itself, Smyth is also organizing bus unloading, leading students into the building and making sure all the house lights are on for the audience coming in to the production space.
Local artisans are also prominent in the play, McGregor explained.
Dave Siebert, a carpenter by trade, has lent his expertise to help create props and scenery for McGregor’s productions for years, and this show will be no different.
Local business owner Irene Kellins of Stitches with a Twist is applying her needlework knowledge to craft some special costumes for the play. The costumes require crocheting, knitting and sewing and McGregor said he knew exactly who to talk to get the work done.
Artist Billie White, who creates through a process called “flow painting” is featured in the show, having crafted the backdrops for the show. While she may not be local to Blyth, hailing from Goderich, her works have been blown up from 12 inches tall to approximately eight feet tall thanks to the work of Blyth Printing.
“Ken [Whitmore] and Steve [Dawe] worked on them for a week,” he said of the three, double-sided backdrops which can be moved to help tell the stories in the play. “It wasn’t as simple as printing them larger, either. We had to look at how they would be used, consider how stage lighting would affect them and look at how to make them easily accessible.”
Dawe’s daughter Ava will also be on stage.
The original paintings the blown-up backdrops are based on are striking, McGregor said. White usually produces abstract art and, while McGregor appreciated it, he said that he didn’t know how it would translate to a younger audience. The flow technique of painting inspired him to ask White to produce impressionist art, which resulted in some amazing work, he said, that he thinks will be well received by the audience.
Other locals involved in the play include composer Arlene Darnbrough and musical performer Suzanne MacVicar, whose husband Wes and daughter Halle are also on-stage performers.
As far as the play as a whole goes, it was originally produced in 1996, at Memorial Hall, but for the Blyth Festival. McGregor said that, in those days, many community plays like these were produced as a means of supporting the Festival.
This is McGregor’s sixth performance for the Foundation for Education, which he explained is, within itself, a labour of love. As a former educator, he finds the work the foundation does, which includes bringing artists into local schools, absolutely essential to a well-rounded arts curriculum.
He said his love of the foundation is only paralleled by his love of creating the productions, and his cast and crew feel the same way.
“The adults take time off,” he said. “The younger stars get permission to miss school for the event and the schools are always so supportive.
“There is a lot of effort that goes into these plays,” he said. “We started rehearsals in January because you can’t predict Huron County weather.”
He said that, through the particularly challenging winter that Huron County has faced this season, there have been five cancelled rehearsals, but thanks to the availability of the June Hill rehearsal space, located above the
Blyth Festival offices, in
Memorial Hall, the play is still right on track.
On top of offering the rental of the space to the foundation, the generosity of the Festival is overwhelming, McGregor said, when it comes to offering props and costumes for the production, the Festival has been very accommodating.
The three tales told through the play are all based in Huron County, but tell very different stories, McGregor said.
Tractor Dan, for example, is a tale about a man trying to convince his community of the worthiness of a new tractor. McGregor explains that the play comes from a story-poem that was originally told in “the legendary The Farm Show.”
Fiona and Ralph tells the story of two unlikely old friends, a sheepdog named Ralph and a wild fox named Fiona. In an attempt to avoid an unsavoury fate, Fiona and Ralph cook up a plan to make Ralph seem like the hero of the farm. However, as with all schemes, there are consequences.
The Amazing Adventures of Emily is a tale about a young farmer named Emily who has to defend her home against an evil force bent on turning it into a desert. Along her heroic journey, she faces obstacles that divert her from her cause, testing her humanity and making her friends along her perilous journey.
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