By Keith Roulston
This August marks the 50th anniversary of one of the foundational moments in Canadian theatre – and it all took place in a barn west of Clinton.
Paul Thompson, son of a veterinarian who had practiced in Atwood, decided he wanted to do a play about farm life – which became known as The Farm Show. Alison Lobb, today a municipal councillor in Central Huron and very active in the community, remembers that Thompson arrived at her farm with Ted Johns, a teacher from between Clinton and Seaforth who would later become foundational in area professional theatre himself. They wanted a home for Thompson’s acting company for a few weeks while they went out and learned about the farmers of the community.
Lobb remembers thinking “We’ll just show them around” and taking them along the Maitland and 16th Line area. Ray Bird’s vacant house was suggested as a home base for the company. (Bird, later living near Brussels, died in May of this year.)
It must be remembered that this was a time, early in the 1970s, when theatre was still an infant on the Canadian cultural scene. However, it had been given new stimulus by the Canadian Centennial celebrations in 1967. Until that point, theatre was something borrowed from beyond the borders, whether British at the Stratford Festival or Shaw Festival, or American in large theatres in Toronto that imported touring shows or at a few summer theatres in places like Muskoka that reproduced Broadway hits.
Thompson wanted to tell Canadians stories about people you’d recognize. A graduate of University of Western Ontario in London, he’d received a Masters degree from University of Toronto, then studied theatre in France with radical director Roger Planchon who imparted on him an interest in actors creating their own plays.
But Thompson wanted to create a Canadian theatre, so he came home and joined Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille (theatre without walls). He arrived in Huron County as a representative of the artists of the era: with a dusty, immense beard, blue jeans and sandals.
The company he brought with him included three women and three men, none of them with any farm background. His wife, Anne Anglin, was perhaps the most experienced, having spent time with the Stratford Festival. She brought along the couple’s young daughter, Severn.
Joining her was Janet Amos, who had studied academic subjects but inherited the acting bug from her mother, Beth, and brought her son Christopher (by fellow actor Allan Royal). The third actress was Fina MacDonnell.
The male actors included David Fox, coming from a settled life as a school teacher and Miles Potter, both of whom became among the biggest names in Canadian theatre. The other man, Alan Jones, didn’t stay with the production long-term.
Potter, who now lives near Stratford, remembers that unusual summer. “The first (memory) was having never left downtown Toronto for a couple of years after arriving there from the U.S. I literally had no idea where I was going when we set out from Toronto to drive to Huron County, or what to expect. I wasn’t a farm kid so I didn’t know what the countryside or the structures or anything would look like; I was a blank slate. I was, of course, charmed and delighted by the area; I may have thought it was going to look more like west Texas; what did I know?”
The actors shared the house on the Bird farm. “The communal living, the bathing in the river and the rehearsals in a barn were all delightful to me,” Potter recalls. “The rats in the house not so much, but we borrowed a cat. I wasn’t as fond of the research trips we needed to do; like most people, actors are basically shy, and in a funny way, many of the people we interviewed were happier to talk to us than we were to knock on their doors.”
In ones and twos the actors went out and introduced themselves to their neighbours. They would talk to them or work side by side with them, then come back to the farm and work together to improvise scenes based on their activities.
So Fox, for instance, visited Les Jervis who had established a wildlife sanctuary near Holmesville after seeing something similar on a trip to Germany. Later Fox recreated that visit and gives us a sense of that experience.
Anglin created a song, after speaking with Jean and Mervyn Lobb, about the “Gobs and Gobs of Lobbs” who lived in the area.
Amos recreated the busy life of a farm wife of the era who still stayed home on the farm, trying to do the laundry with an old wringer washing machine between interruptions from children and deliverymen and eventually becoming part of the process, churning like the washing machine.
Potter’s inexperience with farming led to one of the longest, and most hilarious scenes in the play. Absolutely ignorant of the realities of farm life, he and an unnamed cast-mate are sent to help in putting away the hay in the era when most farmers used small square bales. He wore shorts!
His first job is working outside, taking bales from someone else who is unloading a wagon. His job is simply to put the bales on the elevator carrying the bales upward to the hay mow in the barn. He quickly learns putting the bale on the elevator in a way that keeps it from tumbling back down is harder than it seems at first. And the bales just keep coming at him!
He’s relieved when, after a load, he’s offered a job in the hay mow. Here the bales also keep coming in an apparently unending torrent. It’s also hot beyond his belief. And, wearily, he tries to help lift the bales using his unclothed leg. He also discovers the holes between the stacked bales.
Eventually the bales stop coming and he goes to the mow opening and luxuriates in the cooler air. He also discovers the Freshie in the workers’ coolers. Then he looks down and sees another wagon full of bales has pulled into place and the elevator is switched on again and sending another endless stream of bales upward. He goes back to work for the rest of his stay but he wonders aloud why anyone would put themselves through such hell year after year.
There are many other scenes, both touching and funny, built on the rural life the actors experienced.
Thompson wanted members of the community to see what the actors had taken from their visits and arranged a performance in the Bird barn.
“Some of the cast came to coffee,” recalls Alison Lobb. “They were nervous about performing for the neighbours. Originally they thought there would be about 50 people there.”
Later, Lobb recalled there were 300 people present. The actors also fretted if the community would welcome how they had portrayed their neighbours. Fox, for instance, worried that his portrayal of an old neighbour with a facial tick would be seen as too shallow.
They needn’t have worried. The audience loved what they saw – laughing and crying and applauding.
Jim Fitzgerald, now a resident of Sebringville, was editor of the nearby Clinton News-Record. He remembered, recently, that he had been called by Millie Lobb, his correspondent for the area, and told about the actors rehearsing the show. He went out and did a story that appeared in his newspaper prior to the Sunday afternoon public performance and took photos that later were reproduced over and over.
He remembers he found the show so refreshing. “They were actually doing something about us,” he says. “Most theatre at the time was reproducing English or American stories”.
Thompson had intended to rework the material for a Toronto audience but was urged to play it just as it was.
For the most part, when the show opened in Toronto in late September, it was the same play that had been seen in the Bird barn.
And the urban audience loved it during a month-long run. Urjo Kareda, the Toronto Star’s often-difficult critic led the praise: “Thompson and his actors have helped us to know, understand and love a community of people beyond our sphere of familiarity. As artists they can have no higher ambition.”
In the spring of 1973 Thompson and the cast (which by this point included Johns) brought the show back to its western Ontario roots, in a tour which included everything from auction barns in Clinton, Orangeville and Listowel to an old fall fair building in Brussels to the basement of Blyth’s Memorial Hall (the upstairs theatre couldn’t be used until a new roof was installed). The tour ended at Stratford’s Festival Theatre. Later The Farm Show played for an extended run at Ottawa’s new National Arts Centre. The show would also tour New England and travel to Britain for a theatre festival.
During the western Ontario tour, Michael Ondaatje, a friend of Thompson’s (and more famous for his later novel The English Patient and other creations) made a film surrounding the play: The Clinton Special.
Beyond the show itself, The Farm Show had a permanent impact on the Huron County theatre scene. James Roy, the local native who was the founding artistic director of the Blyth Festival, was in the audience that day.
So was I, with my wife Jill and daughter Christina (who played with Severn Thompson and Chris Royal in the hay mow during the performance). I worked to try to bring Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille to Blyth as a summer base for two years before Thompson became convinced the renovations necessary to Blyth Memorial Hall would never be completed and accepted an invitation to make a summer home in Petrolia’s Victoria Playhouse.
Later, after giving Roy a bit of money to put on a show as Passe Muraille in Toronto, Thompson would tell Roy about the interest in Blyth and Roy, who had been in the basement of the Hall to get vaccinated but didn’t know about the theatre, would visit, and in 1975, after the theatre had been renovated, started the Blyth Festival.
When he left five years later, Amos became the second artistic director. Fox, who died earlier this year, would become one of the young Festival’s biggest stars as would both Anglin and Amos. Thompson and Potter became directors of some of the most popular shows at the Festival. Ted Johns, who had been part of the touring edition of The Farm Show, became one of the Festival’s most popular playwrights and performers.
Perhaps Potter sums up the impact of the show that started in a Clinton-area barn 50 years ago when he recalled recently: “My favourite Farm Show story is one that happened years later. I was directing a show at Canadian Stage in Toronto and David Fox and Janet Amos were all in it. There was a very young actor in the show, who, when we took some time around the table to talk about ourselves, said that he, Nick, had been inspired to be in the theatre by seeing a movie about a show about farming. It was The Clinton Special. And we also realized that Nick didn’t know that three people at that table were in the original. He actually thought we were dead. He was (I hope) happily surprised.” ◊