Good theatre with more than a foot in the door, has a way of springing up in unpredictable places. It's all a matter of getting the right people, in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. The Fourth Line Theatre is now in its 16th year. Situated on a family farm, with two barns, a house, and an outdoor grassy knoll for a stage, surrounded on 2 sides by bleachers, one with an overhead hang, and the other in the sun, Fourth Line is seminal to its locale: the outskirts of the historical village of Milbrook, Ontario, Canada. Although knee deep in the soil of its surroundings, the theatre has universal appeal. That's why I was there watching the play "School House", with audiences who know what it is to live in the area, those people from the cities who find the locale of the theatre alluring, others who visit the Fourth Line Theatre to discover how local history and theatre mesh, and people who simply want good entertainment. The Fourth Line Theatre is theatre at its roots.
I was reminded of the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930's, spearheaded by the tireless Hallie Flanagan, who brought theatre to the lives of depression era Americans, outside of that grand concourse of theatrical enterprise: Broadway and its imitators. Although that particular dream is long gone, the dream continues without the depression.
Fourth Line is strikingly Canadian, with home grown Canadian values, and backed by the Canadian and Ontario province arts councils, patrons, and ticket buyers; including international visitors who come to experience and witness its success. People like me who come to witness theatre with fresh eyes and find out how Robert Winslow, the founder and artistic director of Fourth Line Theatre, keeps it all together. "It's a big deal to find 300 people every night to support our efforts", he said, but he does just that. Seats are often sold out, both evenings and matinees. .
The theatre is located on the family farm, which Winslow inherited in 1990. He couldn't afford the farm, so he decided to do something else with it. He had done theatre previously as a professional performer, worked in outdoor theatre, and had written a play on the township, highlighting the feud between Protestant and Catholics that went on in the early 1800's.
Winslow mixes professional performers with local people, and not only directs and produces, but often acts in the plays himself. Winslow's mandate is to develop "work that is about the local community and its history.". "I thought at one point I'd get tired of that work", he said, "but it deepens: more playwrights are involved, more actors, more stories, you stretch the mandate".
School House focuses on a one room schoolhouse – the Jericho school, in a farming community near the village of Baker's Creek, Ontario. The play covers one calendar year: January to December, 1938. Shannon Taylor portrays the school house teacher, Miss Linton. Linton has been hired to teach grade one through grade eight: "one person for every subject and class". Her job is to get the students in shape to fly right and uphold local values, learn the A B C's, history, English, math, et cetera, and then go out and work on the farm or in town. Taylor reveals Linton's admirable teaching qualities without unnecessary flourishes. Her work is based on teachers who taught in the area. Taylor captures Miss Linton's character well; the teacher's wit, humor, and courage to meet what is expected of her. In short, Taylor brings home the bacon.
School House, researched and written by playwright Leanna Brodie and directed by Kim Blackwell, explores the effect "training school boys" had on local Canadian communities. "School House" started when Winslow looked into reminiscences regarding one room school houses and was searching for someone to work the material.. Leanna Brodie had an Artistic Residency with the Interior Arts Council and had done work about the "women's institute".
"Leanna grew up in the city", Winslow continued, "but she has lived in the country and was looking for something that could drive the story and be believable. In a rural community stories stay in the community for a long time. People tell their stories the same way over and over again – almost word for word. The boy in the play was a fictional story but was based on the fear in the community during the Second World War when 'training school boys' worked the farms. One teacher had a training school boy who came into her school one day and said 'I didn't do it, I just want to let you know, I didn't do it'. There was story in the paper about a murder and that incident with the boy help generate the scene in the play where it is assumed he is guilty and tells the teacher he didn't do it."
Ewart Rokosh (Will Lamond) arrives at the school house straight out of training school. Tall, lanky, awkward, he captures the attention of Miss Linton. She nurtures the boy slowly and patiently and quietly gives him the support he needs. When Rokosh rescues a school mate, a younger boy being taunted by bullies, he suffers a cut from a knife in the squabble. He is unfairly labeled a "cutter". He falls into silence, troubled by the twists and turns of insecurity and accusation. It is the poetic words he writes down for Miss Linton that lifts him above the ordinary. Words that inspire Miss Linton to nurture his budding literary talent. Words that lead him to finally leave the community and go out on his own.
School House also has some outrageously funny moments. When inspector Colonel Burnet, played by Robert Winslow with Gilbert and Sullivan flair, arrives at the school house to check up on Miss Linton's teaching, he lines up the boys and girls into military formation and issues commands to the children on how to straighten up and fly right. The youngsters, of course, haven't the slightest idea of what he is talking about and just do what they are told. Well, that's one way to leave no child behind.
I asked Winslow about how the people in the community felt about being connected to the material. "There is a real familiarity here," he said. "It sort of validates their culture and existence. People are saying their stories are important but also that there is a playwright here. A playwright that is not just doing antidotes but is actually creating a story with some hard hitting material in it. This "cutting" phenomenon is now a problem with teenagers. It has relevance today. Although we love our community, who do we exclude and who do we include? I never want to underestimate country people because we think their not going to get it", Winslow added.
School House started and ended with two large masked and costumed Ortolans breaking out from behind the barn. Two big fat Ortolans pecking away at each other to keep their proper order intact. A suggestive theatrical metaphor that was not fully explored, but the effect was arresting.
Winslow grew up in a high school that was "a gym, a library and a big room." "Like the kid in the play," he said, "what kind of opportunities do you have when you grow up in a place like this? How do you get out? What kind of artistic work can you do when you are young?".
The next play at the Fourth Line Theatre is about a murder that took place in Ontario told by a group of vaudeville performers, Beautiful Lady, Tell Me. Sixty music cues and songs of the period, along with Gilbert and Sullivan music, and original music written for the play. Winslow and his troupe explore the values of historical periods, without necessarily celebrating them. Fourth Line Theatre celebrates an event, and brings it to life, but, as Winslow comments, "it is always important to put it into a perspective". And that perspective apparently is growing.