On April 1st, 2020, for the first time in 46 years, we suspended The Blyth Festival summer season. At the time we made that decision it was already clear to us that whatever unfolded in the coming weeks, we would not be able to continue with the summer as planned. We couldn’t yet know what was coming, but we knew we had to act. We heard the call from public health officials like the tireless Dr.Theresa Tam and Dr. David Williams, and knew we had a duty to support their message. Sadly, one of the clearest ways for us to amplify their call was to lock our front door, and turn out the lights.
In the weeks since, we have learned the stark truth that The Blyth Festival will likely be one of the very last places in our community to reopen. We know now that the theatre will not reconvene until well after the scourge of COVID-19 is under control, until well after the curve has flattened, after community spread has been minimized, and once a reliable treatment has been found.
At this point, we have had to cancel the contracts of all the actors, directors, designers, technical personnel, stage managers, summer box office employees, concessions and bartenders. We’ve stopped short all of the drawings for sets and costumes, the sourcing of coloured gels for the lights, turned off the speakers, and there are no actors at home right now learning their lines. We’ve unplugged the refrigerators, turned down the thermostats, and shut off the pilots on the stove.
This is the reality for today. None of us can change it.
So we are trying to focus on tomorrow. Trying to focus on Another Season’s Promise.
We continue to do what we can to support our frontline health care workers. Our carpenters, painters, and props makers had a supply of N95 masks in our shop, and we donated them all to the hospital in Clinton. We offered up some of our now surplus artist housing as accommodations for medical personnel who need to be living separate from their families while they care for the afflicted.
And incredibly, in the midst of all of this, so many of you are caring for us.
The outpouring of support since we made the decision to suspend has been staggering. Our recent appeal for donations to help us sustain through this unprecedented time has been a constant miracle. Some of our amazing sponsors have guaranteed their unflinching support in spite of the terrible situation, and our individual donors keep stepping up every day. We are receiving surprise donations with short emails, or tiny cards (so many of you have such great stationary!) with much needed gifts to the theatre, as well as your personal stories, memories, and hugely welcome words of encouragement. You’ve been writing us these beautiful accounts of how much meaning the theatre has brought to your lives, and how essential it is for you that the Festival still be standing when your grandchildren, and great grandchildren, are ready to sit in the dark, surrounded by community, and laugh, and listen, and think, and dream about our shared life as Canadians. The staff of the theatre have actually taken to reading many of these little notes to each other as we come upon them. I cannot possibly express to you how deeply we are touched, or how poignantly we feel the call of that responsibility, our very mission: to continue to give voice to the region and the country.
Our MPP, Lisa Thompson, called me personally last week to let me know that we could count on the support of the province through the Celebrate Ontario program. She made it clear, even if we can’t bring a season of plays to the stage this year, her government’s support for Blyth Festival is unwavering. So too did our federal funders at the Canada Council for the Arts; they stated emphatically that they are committed to Blyth for the long term. I don’t know how many villages in Canada can count on that kind of provincial and national support for their local arts centre, how many see a nation wide surge in donations to save their small town’s theatre Festival, but I think it’s pretty unique.
I think it speaks to the singularity of what our storytellers bring to our stage: plays as deeply rooted in the community as the building itself. These playwrights who come to town and come to know the folks here, and try to tell our stories as we have lived them: I think of The Pigeon King collective, Christopher Morris’ Our Beautiful Sons: Remembering Matthew Dinning, Kelly McIntosh and my play In the Wake of Wettlaufer (a play now unsettlingly prescient given the state of our Longterm Care system); I think about the hilarity of Mark Crawford’s New Canadian Curling Club or The Birds and the Bees; Marie Beath Badian’s runaway hit Prairie Nurse; Dan Needles’ The Team on the Hill last summer; I think too about epic works that dig deep into our history like The Outdoor Donnellys, or Beverley Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott; Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land, or the dynastic family dramas like Anne wrote with Keith Roulston, Another Season’s Promise and Another Season’s Harvest; the irrepressible Ted Johns’ He Won’t Come in from the Barn and Barnboozled. I think of Paul Ciufo’s Reverend Jonah, former Seaforth Mayor David Scott’s The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom; I think of this past year’s inaugural Christmas hit A Huron County Christmas Carol with John Powers’ incredible songs.
And most especially today I think of these 2020 plays left waiting in the wings: Beth Kates, Kelly McIntosh, Emma Marcy and myself with Airborne: The Life and Legacy of Lorna Bray, Sophia Fabiilli’s relentlessly thigh slapping Liars at a Funeral, Dan Needles’ wit soaked sequel Fair Play, the tragic and triumphant Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story, and the revival of our own Alice Munro premiere How I Met My Husband.
I know now, with whatever resembles certainty in these uncertain times, that we will not have a 2020 summer season in Blyth. It simply isn’t possible. And while it breaks my heart to share that with you, I also do so knowing that there is no other community like this, no deep grassroots arts festival that is lifted by so many hands, and that together we will show a dazzling kind of resilience. I know when the chance to reopen and rebuild arrives, that we will be able to count on you, and you will be able to count on us, and together we will reignite this extraordinary theatre.
I can’t say when, but it’s safe to say, we won’t be back for awhile. So please leave the porch light on for us. We are on our way home.