When Michael Healey went to work as an actor during 1995’s Blyth Festival in rural Ontario, Canada, he got more than he bargained for. Because, by speaking to local farmers as well as veteran colleagues he was working with, he not only ended up writing one of the most heart-breaking contemporary plays to come out of his country. He also tapped into a piece of living history which, twenty-odd years before, caused a seismic shift in home-grown Canadian culture that still resonates today.
Healey’s play, The Drawer Boy, was inspired by The Farm Show, an early 1970s experiment in verbatim theatre created collectively by an idealistic group of young theatre-makers high on the spirit of the post-1960s counter-culture. The end result of Healey’s inquiries is that English speaking Canada now has not just one, but two modern classics to add to its increasingly confident canon. Yet The Drawer Boy is no simplistic homage to its inspiration. Rather, it’s gentle set-up of a young thesp who turns up on the doorstep of two fifty-something survivors of some implied emotional turmoil, is a complex study of how even the most intimate of mythologies are created to help us survive far worse pains.
“I was already writing a play about two people whose lives revolved around myth and ritual,” says Healey on the eve of The Drawer Boy’s Scottish premiere at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. “But I didn’t know what happened to them, or where things would go. Then I got talking to some people who in one way or another had some oblique connection to The Farm Show. The way they talked about it, it was as of it had just happened last year rather than having taken place twenty five years ago. I’d known some of the original actors from The Farm Show throughout my own career, and I knew the original director, Paul Thompson. Then going to meet some of the original participants was incredible. These were gentle, taciturn people, then when you got them on the subject of The Farm Show, you’d instantly get invited to dinner. These people wanted to talk.”
Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, who instigated The Farm Show, was founded in 1968. It was one of the first companies to break free of the twin colonial strangleholds from America and Britain which dominated mainstream Canadian theatre at the time.
“We had some indigenous theatre,” Healey recalls. “But not much. It was the early 1970s, and ideas of collectivism and documentary theatre were to the fore. It’s probably overstating things to call The Farm Show revolutionary, but it gave theatre in Canada a focus. It was an opening that consciously turned away from any notion of a tradition.”
There are very clear parallels with Theatre Passe Muraille’s working methods elsewhere at the time. In England, Max Stafford-Clark’s Joint Stock company was founding on ideas of collective creativity, while even closer to home, John McGrath’s original 7:84 theatre company explored their own notions of indigenous culture un a colonised country with The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil. Healey, though, is keen to emphasise the specific Canadian context of both the Drawer Boy and The Farm Show.
“Our country’s only just over a hundred years old,” he says. “So we were in effect creating our own tradition.”
It’s a tradition that has consistently found favour in this country, particularly at The Tron, where two plays by Canadian writer John Mighton have been produced. Mighton too has worked at Theatre Passe Muraille, and both Possible Worlds and Half life tapped into a rich vein of Canadian sensibility. Going further back, The Tron presented several Scots translations of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay, whose work was first seen in Scotland via The Tarragon Theatre, Toronto’s production of Tremblay’s Albertine In Five Times during the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The Farm Show’s collectivist ideals were clearly of their times. Such was the wheel-inventing earnestness of some of its era’s more fundamentalist leftist ideology, that today it can’t help but look naïve.
“A lot of things at that time were hugely important,” says Healey, “but some things were funny as well, like actors walking around pretending to be chickens, which I poke gentle fun at in The Drawer Boy. Miles, the actor in the play, is basically a version of me when I graduated from college. At that time I had this all consuming belief that I could play any part, and had quite specific ideas about what a good night at the theatre could be. What he does in my play is exactly what happened in making The Farm Show. You talk to the participants, and they describe this horrible feeling of being dropped off at night, and having to knock on some farmer’s door and introduce themselves and say what they wanted to do. I laugh today about describing myself as an autocrat, but some of those ideas have filtered through.”
With such legendary productions, however, comes a lot of baggage. The Farm Show is no exception, and The Drawer Boy has itself contributed to the play’s own mythology. As too has a documentary film on the show made by Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje.
“The Farm Show participants say they wish they had a story as theatrical as the one I use in my play,” says Healey, “but everyone has stories. I was invited to dinner three times, and every time my hosts reached for the VHS of Ondaatje’s film, and talked all the way through it. Then there’s the deserted farmhouse that the actors lived in while researching The Farm Show. Over the years, the more it’s talked about, the more it becomes increasingly dilapidated, until it just starts to sound ridiculous.”
Today, The Farm Show is an integral part of the Canadian repertoire, to the extent that its original director, Paul Thompson, occasionally turns up to see his original cast. In true hippy fashion, he’ll hand over wads of cash as royalties. The Drawer Boy too has tapped into something similarly popular. Following its UK premiere in 2002 by the East Midlands based New Perspectives company, and a production at The Peacock Theatre, Dublin, the same year, The Drawer Boy will also mark the dawn of Andy Arnold’s reign as artistic director of The Tron.
“There’s a weird alchemy about some plays,” says Healey, who’s looking forward to seeing the Toronto leg of the national Theatre of Scotland’s world tour of Black watch, another play in which a writer appears researching real life material. “Some work in workshop form but not in a full production, whereas other just catches fire. I don’t know why it is with my play, nut maybe the humour in it allows audiences a way in to its deeper elements. One of the things about my play is it really does feel like its part of a second generation of Canadian theatre. One of the things I wanted to do with The Drawer Boy is say that I’m only here because of the struggles of the 1970s. At that time there was a great resistance to the idea that we could tell our own stories. But people were doing The Farm Show on a shoestring for the love of it. We’re more confident about telling our stories now. Without the Farm Show, theatre in Canada would be in a very different place.”
The Drawer Boy, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 8-24
The Herald, April 29th 2008