Updating a Piece of Rural History
To fully appreciate Beyond the Farm Show, one must know the history of the original Farm Show. In the early seventies, a troupe of Toronto actors came to rural Huron County to research and write about farm life. They volunteered to work on farms to learn more about it. They collected the stories which evolved into a series of vignettes and comedy sketches, and then presented it back to those they had interviewed.
What a challenge! How could you point out the foibles and make fun of the people who welcomed you, hosted you, fed you? Yet, they pulled it off, creating some laughs, touching some hearts, and having fun, not at the expense of farmers, but with them. By the end of the project, both the farmers and the actors gained respect for each other’s livelihoods.
The Farm Show even spawned other theatre – Michael Healey’s play The Drawer Boy, one of my favourites, was a spin-off of this project. The Farm Show went on to tour across Canada and then round the world, becoming renowned for filling the urban-rural gap. It is famous for being written by a “collective”. The project pre-dated the Blyth Festival, and no doubt contributed to its birth.
Considering The Farm Show was first presented in 1972, it was time for an update 40 years later. A new “Collective” put together the 2013 version, called Beyond the Farm Show. Professional actors visited farms, interviewed farmers, and polished the material, evolving and using improv, just as the original troupe did 40 years before. Again, it’s a series of sketches, loosely woven together as the actors and farmers get to know each other.
Beyond the Farm Show is now on stage at the Blyth Festival, in the heart of Huron County. The play opens with a photo of the cast of the early 1970s troupe projected on the wall. Director Paul Thompson’s baby daughter Severn appears in the photo. Forty one years later, Severn Thompson is directing Beyond the Farm Show. Like the original Farm Show, the audience is given the same warning: “This show kinda bounces along one way or another, and then it stops.”
New techniques and technology used in farming is evident. To visit a poultry barn, everyone is zipped into hooded coveralls to keep things clean for the chickens. Fingernails are scrubbed and boots are dipped in disinfectants. We hear about computers tracking outputs, GPS on tractors, and genetically modified crops. But then we’re reminded of the old ways with visits to Amish farms. Laughter ripples across the theatre when the visitors ask the Amish how things have changed over the years.
Some of the battles haven’t changed in 40 years – a common theme is “too much government regulation”. Even the popular “buck and doe” parties for those about to get married are under government scrutiny, and that’s the only entertainment available, says one young female character. Rules for the GTA are being inflicted on rural dwellers. The conflict between those for and against wind turbines is evident in a township council meeting. “Too true to be funny” was the reaction of an audience member.
But just when those frustrations mount, the audience is brought back to farm roots with a live baby goat on stage or a newcomer’s look at the miracle of a calf being born.
Cast members morph and change for each different sketch. It is easy to forget that only five actors create all the different characters in so many diverse scenarios. The talented actors provide comedy one minute and touching stories the next.
It’s a delight seeing Beyond the Farm Show with a Huron County audience. There are hoots of recognition, and gales of knowing laughter. When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we have the most fun.
Beyond the Farm Show continues at the Blyth Festival in repertoire until August 16. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Beyond the Farm Show
By The Collective
Performed by Marion Day, Catherine Fitch, Tony Munch, Jamie Robinson, Rylan Wilkie
Blyth Festival, Blyth
June 28 to August 16, 2013
Reviewed by Mary Alderson