Farming and theatre are, traditionally, family businesses, so it should be no surprise that creating plays about farming runs in the blood as well.
Back in 1972, Theatre Passe Muraille artistic director Paul Thompson headed out into Ontario’s Huron County with a group of actors that included his wife, actor Anne Anglin, to research what became The Farm Show.
Now, four decades later, give or take a year, Severn Thompson, actor offspring of Paul and Anne and a Shaw and Stratford Festival alumna, has returned to the area around Clinton, Ont., with a new crop of actors to create Beyond the Farm Show for the Blyth Festival. In a way, it’s actually Severn’s second time around – there’s a picture of her, babe in arms, with her parents and the original cast at the front of the published edition of The Farm Show.
Beyond the Farm Show, like the original, “kind of bounces along one way or another and then it stops.” There is, however, a recurring focus in the collection of scenes and monologues based on interviews with locals on how much farming has changed since the 1970s.
“People aren’t so fussy about letting a person into their barns these days,” explains Marion Day, channelling the jargon-spouting communications director of an egg farm in a very funny scene that opens the show. Before the actors are allowed to even see livestock in the year 2012, they have to sign waivers, don protective suits and dip their boots into antibacterial fluid.
From there, Thompson’s cast of five transforms into, and introduces us to, farmers who text and monitor stock prices on their smartphones while they ride tractors, one who gives ultrasounds to cows, and multiple proponents of genetically modified food and GPS-enhanced precision farming. There are others who have stayed true to or returned to basics, however, such as organic farmers and a group of Amish sisters who won’t even let a visiting actor use a tape recorder.
“Part of the appeal of The Farm Show was you’d had these eccentric people around who don’t exist any more,” says one Mercedes-owning, baby-boomer farmer interviewed for Beyond the Farm Show, who remembers the original show. Naturally, he then goes on to prove himself wrong, as do other colourful characters like a pair of bachelor brothers (Jamie Robinson and Tony Munch) who sing an ode to their tractor collection and a young single woman (Catherine Fitch) who explains why she’d rather raise goats on her own than marry a dairy farmer.
Comic moments abound in Beyond the Farm Show, but there are also touching scenes like the birth of a baby cow and a tentative encounter Fitch – playing herself – has with a young Mennonite woman played by Day. (The actor had her first child at the age of 39; the farmer’s wife has three children in her early 20s.)
Beneath the surface, anger bubbles among the locals about governments who, in their view, strangle rural areas with red tape and regulations that reflect urban values. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario has even cracked down on the parties young couples throw to raise money for their weddings. “We don’t have bars; we have buck and does,” says one young single woman, explaining the ways the AGCO has criminalized a way of life.
A farmer of Swiss background, played by Rylan Wilkie, even gets a fantasy sequence where he wrestles a series of government regulators to the ground. Judging by the cheers in the audience, many who live around Blyth, Ont., wish they could do the same. “Isn’t that the truth!,” a man next to me exclaimed to his wife, an audience comment that I think is worth 100 good reviews.
The Farm Show, which toured barns and then internationally, is the most influential work of English-Canadian theatre to emerge from the 1970s – inspiring everything from Michael Ondaatje’s 1974 documentary, The Clinton Special, to Michael Healey’s hit 1999 play, The Drawer Boy.
Indeed, the Blyth Festival was created to continue telling the stories in and around Clinton that The Farm Show started.
Hewing so closely to the original’s form, however, Beyond the Farm Show misses the opportunity to demonstrate how much technology has changed theatre as it has transformed farming. The collective creation – in which actors absorb stories and people, then channel them through their bodies and voices – is great at painting broadly, less so at making specific points. A town council meeting put on stage here is impenetrable to an outsider, while subjects such as wind turbines demand deeper investigation.
Montreal’s Porte Parole and Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre have already taken documentary theatre forward with its play Seeds, about the battle between Monsanto Inc. and Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. That high-tech production – touring the country next season – could have as easily been titled Beyond the Farm Show. Thompson’s new creation is warm-hearted and entertaining, but doesn’t go beyond.