There's a common theory about theatre that in certain tightly knit communities with shared values
and beliefs playwrights and audiences together can create exceptional dramatic experiences. Ancient Athens and Elizabethan England are the usual examples, but Huron County in rural southwestern Ontario could also qualify. Prosperous, rich in tradition and fiercely conservative, it achieved notoriety recently because its board of education objected to blasphemous language in Margaret Laurence’s novel The Diviners, yet this same concern with moral standards, whether justified in this case or not, by its very existence demonstrates just such a shared value system.
It’s perhaps no coincidence then that one of Canada’s few rural theatres presenting not just summer stock for vacationing urbanites but original plays that speak to local audiences as well, can be found in Blyth, an eyeblink of a town in the heart of Huron County. Under new artistic director Janet Amos, the Blyth Summer Festival will continue its unofficial policy of introducing only Canadian plays into its repertoire, which already includes several works by Amos’ husband, Ted Johns, a Huron County native.
Both Amos and Johns bring many years’ theatrical expertise in acting, directing and playwriting to Blyth. Johns’s first role was a spear-carrier part in Theatre Passe Muraille’s The
Farm Show, a collective production created in Huron County in 1972. Soon afterward he was fired from his job teaching English at Brock University for “lacking a mature attitude to his discipline,” but by then he had already worked on other Passe Muraille shows and had written his first one-man play, Naked on the North Shore, based on his 1967-68 stint as a one-room schoolhouse teacher in a remote Quebec fishing village.
Johns’s physical appearance gives no hint of his cosmopolitan experiences, which also include nursing in an English mental hospital and several summers living in the dissident artistic community in post-1968 Czechoslovakia. “I’ve eaten the corn and potatoes, I have this round face and I talk just like the farmers,” he grins. His plays, like their author, combine a brilliant comic sense with intense questioning of social issues such as the 1978 Huron County teachers’ strike in his one-man play The School Show, but their countrified airs have fooled urban critics. “I always feel like a lumberjack when I go to Toronto,” Johns observes ruefully. “The theatre establishment sees Blyth as just a training ground for proper, respectable theatre—they don’t look for the intellect behind the plays.”
The cities’ loss is the country’s gain— an astonishing 50 to 60 per cent of Blyth’s audience live within a radius of 60 km, an area without a single town of 5,000 souls, and Johns’s work clearly speaks to and for them. Says publicschool principal Paul Carroll: “The teachers’ strike was a very emotional time—Ted’s play allowed people to come in, sit down and work it out.” Johns’s contribution to the festival this year is St. Sam of the Nuke Pile, which examines the pros and cons of nuclear power by focusing on the lives of the employees at the giant Ontario Hydro nuclear plant near Kincardine, just north of Huron County. As in The School Show, Johns avoids anti-establishment polemics and presents the issues in human terms (“Nuclear is a game for consenting adults,” comments the plant manager). There are no answers here, no conclusions, only the observation that “all knowledge begins as heresy and ends as superstition”; in the nuclear debate, rational science has yielded to blind faith.
St. Sam is a factual tour de force in the tradition of Shaw and Brecht that teaches the audience more about nuclear reactors in two hours than they will learn in a lifetime, yet it manages to thoroughly entertain at the same time. “I think it’s normal for people to get passionate about ideas, not just about sex,” says Johns. “I try to get them interested in something they know about, what they see around them. In the end you’re only trying to hold the mirror up to nature and hoping you get enough in it.” Huron County— and Canada—could ask for no more.
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