In 1973, playwright and theatre director Paul Thompson convinced six actors from the city to spend their summer living in a crumbling farmhouse near Clinton, Ontario as they developed new improvisational work based on the surrounding community.
The actors were encouraged to get out and meet people. Over eight weeks, they would collect their stories, their mannerisms, their inflections. They were reassured that a narrative would emerge and by the end of the summer, they would put on a show that would reflect the community back to itself, through the medium of theatre.
The play became “The Farm Show,” an avant-garde piece of theatre that, for what seemed like the first time, showed Canadians that their stories were worth telling. Until then, most theatres and festivals focused on British and American scripts. What little Canadian theatre there was was done in the British and American style. This wasn’t any of those things: it was a musical number about the ever-expanding farming dynasty of the Lobb family; it was a send-up of the visitor trying to help store hay bales; it was the tragedy of a farming accident. It was hyper-local Canadian.
And it was a hit.
The endeavour was captured in a documentary film called “The Clinton Special,” directed and edited by Michael Ondaatje, who is better known as the Booker-prize winning author of titles like English Patient, In the Skin of a Lion and The Cat’s Table.
On Friday night, I watched the film at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story, with Thompson and Ondaatje, as well as two actors, Miles Potter and David Fox, in attendance.
The documentary has a rather sly sense of humour – something I associate with Ondaatje. After one actor explains that his piece about putting up hay brings down the house in laughter, Ondaatje turns to an image of turkeys, their c jerking in perfect time with the overlay of deep laughter. At another point, the actors practice a piece on the dangers of driving a tractor. One actor rides atop another actor’s shoulders and two women act as the tractor’s wheels, slowing windmilling their arms while emitting the most ridiculous noises that work in perfect opposition to the seriousness of the story.
After dazzling us with the actors’ ability to mimic, we watch two of the actors tell a heart-breaking story of a farm accident, and the way in which the community came together in the wake of it.
In both the theatre show and the documentary, what shines through is a sense of community – a simple image of a woman being helped to her seat says so much about Clinton and its residents. It’s clear that the actors have a deep respect for their subjects, who are also their audience. As one observer says, it’s clear as the date of the show comes closer just how nervous the actors are that they will do them justice.
The Farm Show is as meta as it gets: improv becomes theatre, which becomes a documentary. The story behind the production becomes a live stage show, The Drawer Boy, which in turn becomes a feature film.
Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that the writing and creating doesn’t happen in a bubble. Sometimes it’s not about what can be drawn from your imagination, it’s what is triggered by every day life, how that story can be honed, crafted and retold in a narrative designed to bring out an emotional response.
It’s also nice to be reminded that the writing life is limitless. It struck me like a revelation that this level of creative collaboration could come from something so ordinary.
I love the idea that someone as naturally suited to writing as Ondaatje seems to be took at turn at visually storytelling and did so wonderfully. In the Q&A session, he talked about how much he was influenced by seeing the way the story of The Farm Show, how it gave him an idea for writing about his own family. Running in the Family is the result.
I love the idea of getting out or getting away from the desk; finding unlikely collaborators; stretching one’s limits and boundaries; scaring yourself; living to serve the craft, to trying something different, not knowing whether it would fail or succeed but trying with laser-like intensity to make it the best it could be.
I left feeling incredibly inspired – just what a great documentary about innovative theatre should do!