Manitoba History: Review: Paper Wheat, The 25th Street House Players - Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
by Del Muise
Canadian history is fast becoming the darling of the theatre. The recent wave of interest in themes and topics drawn from the Canadian experience range all the way from the infamous Komagata Maru incident in British Columbia to the experiences of Newfoundland fishermen in the resettlement program of Joey Smallwood in Newfoundland. Small theatre companies all across the nation are exposing Canadian theatre-goersand many who seldom if ever went to the theatre beforeto a wide variety of approaches to the Canadian past.
Generally referred to as ‘People’s Theatre’ such companies frequently explore aspects of the living memory of their various communities. Oral tradition, seldom the stuff of traditional historians, is grist for their mills and the community-based experiences which are central to their interest are part of a major reawakening of interest in local and regional history. In effect, these small theatre companies, many of them initially spawned by the effervescence of our recent centennials and subsequent forms of government largesse from various levels, have drawn upon the vital historical experience of their immediate community and have returned the favour by giving the history back the people.
Paper Wheat is one of the few such creations that have captured a wider national audiencemost never escaped their intrinsic relationship to the communities from which they drew their life. A few years ago Saskatoon’s 25th Street House Players took on the experience of Prairie settlement as a central theme for development. Three years of performances in Saskatchewan finally resulted in a tightly woven treatment of aspects of the central theme of cooperation in the evolution of the Wheat Pools. The playand it is hardly recognizable as such by any of the standards we might apply from a high-school exposure to Shakespeareoffers a collage of vignettes and revue type approaches to epitomize three quarters of a century of Prairie history. This year it toured eastern Canada, selling out such palaces of culture as the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, as well as a wide variety of smaller centres, from Lennoxville, Quebec to Petrolia, Ontario.
The first of its two acts explores dimensions of the early settlement process through the time-worn archetypes of the ethnic communities, exploring its central themes of physical hardship, loneliness, ethnic tension and individually based forms of cooperation. The cast of six playerstwo women and four menslip effortlessly through a variety of characters and situations, each a tiny morality play reflecting some aspect of the settlement process. The initial arrival is followed by the long and painful process of breaking the soil and building houses etc., either as the testimony of individual pioneers or as a dialogue among various pioneer characters. It is a fast-paced romp which offers little that is new, but it encapsulates the experience of settlers and points the way towards the emergence of community-based cooperative spirit.
While there is no central plot, occasional continuity is provided by the reappearance of a few characters and a synoptic plot that develops the establishment of communities prior to W.W.I. The over-riding impressions are of the essential precariousness of wheat farming and the need for cooperation if farmers were to have any success in taming the prairie. More impressionistic than narrative, the total impact leaves one hoping that the various communities exposed will have the good fortune to survive. Its eclecticism is at once lightened and tightened by the impressive presence of Bill Propochuck, the champion fiddler and former farmer from Yorkton. Propochuck introduces the players and provides bridges for the various scene changes. Often he lightens the proceedings by changing the pacing or offering a musical counter-point that in these circumstances is more effective than a full orchestra could ever be.
Act two increases the tempo and tightens the performance by focusing first on the organizational efforts of E. A. Partridgeplayed most convincingly by Montrealer Lubomir Mykytiukto gain entry to the grain exchange and then on the long drawn out struggle to sign up enough farmers to make the Wheat Pools work. The organization and philosophy of the Pools become the central unifying theme; more familiar characters, like Louise Lucas, are introduced to make specific points about the relationship between cooperatives and politics and a number of other inter-relationships as well. The form of the play also changes; less personal testimony and more theatrical gimmicks are used. It makes for more amusing and less personalized theatre, but is no less pointed in its treatment of the play’s essential themethe relationship between cooperation and survival.
The conclusion of the playmore of an epilogue reallydrifts into a reflection of the 1970s. Positioned in relationship to the emergence of the large grain companies and the forces of agribusiness, the family farm appears threatened as it has not been since the dust bowl of the thirties. The Pools are once again prescribed as the cure-all against the tyranny of the market, though a spirited discussion of their relevance to the contemporary situation is offered in the context of a debate within a farm family. In a day when the worth of many prairie farmers is sometimes measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars, the concepts of cooperation and interdependence can easily be lost sight of. Finally, there is a poignant reflection by a few survivors of the whole process of prairie settlement, gathered round in a semi-circle on the dimly lit stage reminiscing about the past from the perspective of the omni-present “Golden Age” homes. Their accomplishment is reflected in a spirited recollection of the settlement experience and their agreement that they would give everything to be able to live it all over again.
There can be little question regarding the viewpoint of the play or the players, nor any confusion about the message of its story-line. Cooperation has always been the key instrument in prairie survival and it is still presented as the essential instrument in the wheat farmer’s defense against the vagaries of an international market and the faceless manderians in Ottawa on whose decisions farmer’s livelihoods depend. While the farmer’s current concerns seem far removed from the loneliness and hardship of the pioneers, his hard-won gains, the players tell us, are only as secure as his eternal vigilance against the inherent venality of government and business.
In fact, the second act threatens occasionally to devolve into one long morality lesson on the nature of the cooperative system. Theatrical gimmicks, from a Siamese tap-dance illustrating the importance of cooperation to a juggling act with a gradually disappearing dinner roll showing the miniscule portion of the store value of wheat which goes to the farmer, bridge the gap between the harder preaching of some of the story-line. Most are successful; all are at least entertaining. Throughout it all the music of the irrepressible Bill Propopchuck unifies the program, lightening the tone and bringing it to a memorable conclusion in a sing-song of old country songs.
The true mettle of performance such as these lie in their interaction with the communities that gave them life. Early tours in smaller communities in Saskatchewan, where performances of professional live theatre has been rare since the demise of the great Chautauquas of the early part of this century, resulted in a vital interchange with the survivors of the settlement process, improving the script and giving the players the courage to refine and distill the play, a process that is common to most small theatre companies that have attempted this sort of performance. Even in Ottawa’s prestigious National Arts Centre, where I saw them perform in August, there was a parade of displaced Prairie people down to the stage following the performance to share their reminiscences with the cast. In this kind of theatre the players come out into the audience following a performance and there is a genuine sense of sharing in an uncommonly powerful theatrical experience.
For Canadians the emergence of People’s Theatre has been a great revelation. Over the past ten years or so a host of groups have sprung into existence in all regions the country. National touring grants have permitted only few of them to get beyond their immediate area, but increasingly a few have emerged with national reputations. The more established of them, like the Theatre Pas Murraille Toronto and The Tarragon Theatre in Montreal have proven to be important training grounds for the various regional companies. A feature of the movement, as with all theater has been the amazing mobility of the performers. All but two of the performers in Paper Wheat’s touring company, instance, are from eastern Canada, transplanted to Saskatoon for this particular performance and perfectly capable, it would appear, of moving anywhere in the country to take similar parts. As historians, we should be thankful for their perspicacity and talent.
For those unfortunate enough not to have had access to one of the live performances, there is an alternative. The National Film Board, as part of its Challenge for Chat program, has made a one hour film dealing with the early tours of the production. It includes some of the most memorable sketches as well as interviews with the cast and some with the audiences as well. It is available through the normal NFB outlets and would make a very suitable film for use in courses dealing with the history of the Prairies. It should supplemented with a more scholarly approach, however, as there is a tendency to gloss over important distinctions in the cooperative movement. A recent pamphlet published by the Canadian Historical AssociationThe Cooperative Movement on the Prairies, 1900-1955, by Professor Ian MacPherson provides an excellent introduction to the whole history the movement and assesses some of its accomplishments in the light of political and social movements throughout the region.