Cornies: Blyth celebrates 50 years of storytelling, needed more than ever

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Gil Garratt, artistic director of the Blyth Festival, is a bit run off his feet these days.

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Gil Garratt, artistic director of the Blyth Festival, is a bit run off his feet these days.

As the festival prepares to open its 50th season, he finds himself directing one play, making final revisions as playwright to another, and trying not to look too much like a helicopter dad as he chaperones the stage debut of his daughter Goldie, who’s just finishing Grade 2.

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But he wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he sees himself as being “in service” to the people of Huron County, so tight is the relationship between the festival and its supporters. In his 10th season, he is Blyth’s longest serving artistic director.

Garratt recalls his earlier acting career fondly: “I loved being an artist who had my suitcases at the ready, flying all over the place to do big shows in big houses. But to be here, living in this community, and feeling that I have this vital relationship with the audience for whom this work is being created, there’s nothing that compares to it.”

Gil Garratt
Gil Garratt is Blyth Festival’s longest-serving artistic director. (File photo)

Neither is there another theatre in Canada that compares closely with Blyth. Born in 1975 from the imaginations of Clinton-born director James Roy, playwright Anne Chislett and town newspaper editor Keith Roulston, the festival has stuck resolutely to its mandate “to enrich the lives of our audience by giving voice to the region and the country.”

During five decades, the festival has built a reputation for telling Canadian stories, producing more than 200 plays, with more than three quarters of them developed in Blyth. Its board members range from former politicians to homemakers to farmers. And beyond the boardroom, it relies on a fleet of 160 volunteers to come off their farms, homesteads and businesses to help make it all work.

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Not that there haven’t been existential crises along the way. The first arrived in 1993, when the festival had to deal with an operating deficit of $229,000, huge at the time. It survived through the outpouring of support from county residents and some tough administrative medicine doled out by artistic director Janet Amos.

The second? As with every other arts institution in the country, it was the pandemic. While Blyth’s 2019 season saw attendance eclipse 30,000, the festival was shuttered due to COVID-19 in 2020. In response, theatre supporters built the outdoor harvest stage in 2021, gaining back 4,000 patrons. That grew to 4,900 in 2022, then 18,000 last year. Getting back to 30,000 is the goal.

Garratt believes the festival will get there by doing what it’s always done, telling local Canadian stories in ways that resonate with rural audiences.

Take the show Saving Graceland as an example. Garratt’s play, set to open June 21, portrays newly retired Clinton, Ont., residents Gord and Orillia, Elvis fans since they were teens, readying for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Graceland. “But when they can’t find their daughter, and their only grandchild arrives on the doorstep, everyone’s future plans are upended in ways no one dreamed,” say the program notes.

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“I had watched a bunch of friends go through this thing where they were having to step up and adopt their own grandkids…. It’s a sign of the times,” Garratt says.

Or take The Trials of Maggie Pollock, by Beverley Cooper, set to open in August. It tells the story of a Huron County woman, born in Blyth, charged in 1919 with practising witchcraft, the last Canadian to face such a charge.

“To me, uncovering a story like that, after 50 years of producing local stories…. We just continue to excavate. As artistic director, that’s one of the things that gives me so much drive,” Garratt says.

The telling of local stories about real people and real issues continues to sit at the core of the current and future Blyth Festival. There are 10 artists working on projects for upcoming seasons at the moment, with conversations pending with several others.

Deep, introspective storytelling, whether in a novel, on screen or on stage, is the antidote to the overarching influence of social media platforms and the propagation of false images and manipulative algorithms, Garratt says.

“The vast bulk of our culture, all over the world now, is coming out of one area code –, Silicon Valley. There’s a bunch of people riding around on their mopeds in San Francisco telling the rest of the world what to think about, what to care about, what to love. There’s a really serious reckoning that needs to happen around that.

“But what happens at Blyth is not driven by that. The work that is on this stage is about this community. There is fertile soil here. It’s a gift.”

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.

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