James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University, March 14-18

Actor and director David Ferry is a Guest Artist at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and he sends this good news about his work with the students of Bishop′s Drama Department:

Here′s a photo [from a scene in Act I] for your website — this is the first time we all got the Jacob′s ladders together in rehearsal!

March 2013: Rehearsals for Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University. From Act II, Marionette for Lady Head: “I’m not just idly curious, Edmund. I wish to see her.”


March 2013: Set for Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

James Reaney′s Sticks and Stones will be presented from March 14-18 at Bishop’s University. Our best wishes to the director, cast, and crew for a successful production!

Update March 17, 2013: David Ferry had this to say about the play’s opening night:

—Well it was a smash opening… gotta say the students so embraced the piece.

And ironically… we lost an actor day before opening, so guess who went on as Pat Farl and Donavan and others?

It was so weird saying those lines, dancing that fight (all off book by the way) in that play 40 years later, which I had also directed.

At the end of the third act dream sequence, after Mrs Donnelly says “Jennie, your father and I will never leave Biddulph.” we freeze frame on that snap shot and then from the gods two dead oak leaves float to the ground…”dead leaf, float light”

It is a special moment.

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University
March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University: No water for Blackfeet!
March 14, 2013: Sticks and Stones at Bishop’s University

Here are David Ferry’s program notes from Sticks and Stones:

James Reaney’s famous “Donnelly Trilogy” is arguably the greatest piece of English Canadian dramatic writing to have ever been produced in our professional theatre. Along with Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles-soeurs” it became one of the few truly breakthrough pieces in our Canadian theatrical his/herstory. Certainly it was the crowning achievement in Reaney’s storied career.

A three time Governor General Award winning writer (winning for both poetry and drama) Reaney was really, like George Ryga, of the post Second World War generation of playwrights  that cleared the land for the younger generation of playwrights that followed.

When “Sticks and Stones, The Donnellys, Part One” first opened at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in 1973, its effect on the theatrical life of the city and country was profound. As the Toronto Star opined, it was “just plain overwhelming.” Its success led to the production of the next two parts of the trilogy the following season at Tarragon, “St. Nicholas Hotel” and “Handcuffs”, and then all three plays toured from sea to sea.

As a young actor in that original “Sticks and Stones” forty years ago, I was in so many ways formed as an artist by that experience, and I still self-identify as a Reaney-ite. Doing the Donnelly plays certainly confirmed me in my nationalism. A close look at the plays will reveal what a breathtaking view Reaney had of his country. He doesn’t merely write about an infamous event in our past… the slaughter of the Donnellys by vigilantes in 1880s South Western Ontario… he writes about the creation of a new world and how the tendrils of the old world wrapped around its ankles and tried to pull, pull it down. Back into the past.

In “Sticks and Stones” Reaney  champions a family led by an extraordinary woman (Judith Donnelly) of vision and spirit. The play becomes in no small part a champion of this proto-feminist heroine.

While many of the Donnellys’ neighbours came with them from Ireland to settle in Biddulph County (around the town of Lucan,) few of them had the courage, nobility and determination of the Donnellys to create a new life that turned its back on the sectarian violence and prejudice of the Old Sod. Judith and James Donnelly were determined to start a new life that rejected the rules of the old world.

They chose their friends not by political allegiance or faith but by the strength of that person’s integrity and spirit. They set out to build a farm and a family that could grow without limitations. They taught their children to hold their heads up high. And the children did.

The Donnelly story, in Reaney’s hands, tells us of the evolution of a nation… starting with the agrarian society of those early farmer immigrants from Ireland, moving through the development of early commercialism and industry, to a political culture where the Church and political parties divided and conquered to form a modern Canada.

Reaney’s stage craft in telling HIS story is every bit as startling as his analysis of the evolution of Southwesto society.

As early as 1964 Reaney called for a National theatre that should be created in big wooden-floored rooms across the country; likely Orangemen halls or Masonic temples or Fisherman Union halls on non-meeting nights. He discussed in his 1960s journal “Alphabet” an approach ‘towards a poor theatre’ (before Grotowski) as well as an ’empty space’ and ‘Holy Theatre’ (before Brook). His plays broke through the fourth wall of Naturalism very early on in Canadian theatre, and his plays such as “Listen to the Wind” and ” Colours in the Dark” (Stratford Festival) are the antithesis of the kitchen sink naturalism of David French and others.

His Theatre is one influenced by three ring circuses, Beijing opera, Walt Disney films, puppet plays and children’s tickle trunks and magical make believe.

His stage is filled with the iconography of ladders, wheels, spinning tops, cats cradles, sticks and stones.

It may be challenging for you, the Audience, to make sense of Reaney’s story in a linear way.

It is, perhaps, best to sit back and allow the images and poetry to wash over you and overwhelm you.

Reaney once wrote that the writer’s objective should be to scratch though the bark of “local” in order to arrive at the “universal.”

With “Sticks and Stones” I believe Reaney arrived. In spades.

David Ferry was one of the original cast members of James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part I, Sticks and Stones, which was first performed at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Ontario on November 24, 1973.

Recently David edited a collection of plays by James Reaney for Playwrights Canada Press: Reaney Days in the West Room: Plays of James Reaney. Seven of James Reaney’s plays are in the book, including The Killdeer, Names and Nicknames, Listen to the Wind, The St. Nicholas Hotel, Gyroscope, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, and Zamorna!



James Reaney’s The Killdeer on January 27th in Stratford

Martha Henry, long-time performer and associate of the Stratford Festival, has written to James Stewart Reaney with news of this special event:

I thought you might like to know that the Birmingham Conservatory, which is the training program at the Stratford Festival that I’m in charge of at the moment, is doing a reading on Sunday night, January 27th, of The Killdeer. We do these readings throughout the five months the Conservatory is in situ, from mid-September to mid-February every year. I give the actors the category (Jacobean, German, Restoration, American, etc. etc.) and they do everything else. They read plays of the period, they choose the play they want to do, they cast, rehearse and produce it themselves and then read it in the Lobby of the Festival Theatre at 7:30 in the evening.

Your Dad’s play comes from the (no kidding!) “Canadian Classic” category, which – although the other categories change from year to year – we always end with. I’m thrilled that they’ve picked The Killdeer and Ann Stuart, the Conservatory Coordinator, suggested you might like to know – or even might like to come! We would be thrilled if you could, needless to say. Even if this isn’t convenient, I wanted you to know it was happening. They are as excited as if they’d discovered the play themselves……which, in a fashion, they have!

These readings are open to the public and we have a lot of loyal patrons who are grateful for some winter activity – especially those who have retired to Stratford because of the Festival – and consistently come to see what their young favourites are doing.

Please join us if you can. If that’s not possible, we will think of you on the evening of the 27th.

Martha Henry appeared in the first production of James Reaney’s Names and Nicknames in 1963 at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and also the first production of Colours in the Dark at the Stratford Festival in July 1967. Both plays were directed by John Hirsch (1930-1989).

The Killdeer was first performed on January 13, 1960, by the University College Alumnae Society at the Coach House Theatre in Toronto.  The Alumnae Theatre will present a new production of The Killdeer, April 12-27, 2013 in Toronto.

January 27, 2013: Update from Susan Wallace: “We’ve just come back from Stratford where we saw the most amazing rehearsed reading of Jamie’s The Killdeer in the lobby of the Festival Theatre.

Ruby Joy, niece of our friend Robin McGrath, was Madam Fay, and she was outstanding. She also co-directed the production. No sets, they just sat on chairs and used lecterns when they stood to read their parts, but what a story they told. It was more alive than any other production I’ve ever seen of the play, and what great jokes, told with perfect timing!

We talked at length to Ruby and the other actors, who are part of the Birmingham Conservatory. Martha Henry was there as the boss lady and she got us arranged into a photo. She was full of praise for her trainees and for Jamie and his play.”

Thank you again, Martha Henry and the performers of the Birmingham Conservatory!
All the best for your work in the future.

For more about this performance of The Killdeer, see JBNBlog.

Taptoo! in Toronto and John Beckwith’s new memoir

Thank you and congratulations to all the fine musicians and singers who performed Taptoo! so splendidly last month at the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.  Your spirited performances brought the characters to life.

We especially liked young Daniel Bedrossian as Seth Jr. and Teddy Perdikoulias as Ebenezer Jr., and Lise Maher as Mrs. Jarvis and Allison Angelo as Atahentsic were wonderful in Act II. We loved Todd Delaney as Major John Graves Simcoe and Robert Longo as Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne.

Thank you, Larry Beckwith, for conducting and directing the orchestra and singers so well. And thank you, Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Toronto Operetta Theatre, for making the premiere of John Beckwith and James Reaney’s work possible. We wish you every success in the future.

John Beckwith, composer, and his son Larry Beckwith, Conductor and Chorus Director at Taptoo!, February 25, 2012.
The Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto, February 25, 2012

James Reaney and John Beckwith developed Taptoo! in 1994, when it had a workshop reading at Historic Fort York. Before this professional production (February 24-26, 2012), there were two presentations of Taptoo! by the students of McGill University (1999) and by the opera division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music (2003).

In his new memoir, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer John Beckwith recalls his life as a composer, including his collaborations with James Reaney. The book is available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney

Bravo for “Crazy to Kill”

Congratulations to the singers and musicians who performed James Reaney and John Beckwith’s opera “Crazy to Kill” last weekend in Toronto, November 11-12, a Toronto Masque Theatre production. Here’s a rave review from some members of your enthusiastic audience:

We thought the production was fantastic! The opera singers can truly add “puppeteers” to their CV’s.

Loved the way everyone moved about the stage — when Agatha slowly drifted past us, it made us part of the story.  A great set, with many levels (“rings”).

Loved the opening sewing scene when Agatha mimed the old treadle — and the sound effect, a great idea! Also loved her expressive face peering through the bed pillow — another great idea.
The two musicians, Greg Oh (piano) and Ed Reifel (percussion), sounded like a full orchestra. We loved how they were in costume and part of the story!

You must all be exhausted, but also pleased that it was such a success. Jamie would have been delighted.

Thank you again,
Susan, James, and Elizabeth

Two of the puppets from “Crazy to Kill.” The original puppets were designed and made by Anna Wagner Ott in 1989, and  were refurbished by Ann and David Powell in 2011.
Crazy to Kill: Miss Scarth
Tim O’Connor, the red-haired asylum guard, was operated by Brendan Wall. Mezzo soprano Kimberly Barber, who played Agatha, operated Miss Scarth.
Costume designer Sue LePage chats with John Beckwith after the show, November 12, 2011
Pre-show talk with James Stewart Reaney, Larry Beckwith, and John Beckwith

Port Dover students triumph in Sticks and Stones

Congratulations to Mrs. Val Smith and her Theatre Partnership class at the Port Dover Composite School on their very successful performance of Sticks and Stones in Port Dover on January 13th and 14th. Val Smith encouraged the cast by pointing out that this was “the most beautiful and most difficult text they had ever dealt with or would ever deal with in high school.”

Val Smith and the cast of Sticks and Stones, Lighthouse Festival Theatre, Port Dover

The students succeeded in both mastering the text and conveying the story to others. “This has been an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives,” says their teacher.

Program designed by Theatre Partnership students.

Riding Hood pulled no strings in ‘65

As a side note to Leith Peterson’s “Jamie and Jay’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration”, here is more about James Reaney’s adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, one of three marionette plays commissioned by Jay Peterson for the Western Fair in September 1965.  Greg Curnoe created the Red Riding Hood marionettes and they are now part of the collection at Museum London. Jack Chambers made a film of the play (Little Red Riding Hood (1965)), which is available from the London Public Library.

Riding Hood pulled no strings in ‘65

By James Stewart Reaney © 2003

(Note: This article originally appeared in The London Free Press, Sunday September 7, 2003, page T6.)

Western Fair in 2003 has goat milking, cooking demos, racing pigs, a world-class Neil Diamond impersonator and much more.

For all that, this year’s fall classic has nothing as subversive as Little Red Riding Hood. In 1965, the fair’s lures included a marionette version of the children’s folk tale – a subversive version.

Subversive? Little Red Riding Hood? Yes, Red, on film, still looks unconventional. Back in the 1960s, a big, bad wolf with U.S. flags for ears and a little H-bomb for company stirred the pot a little. Still does.

The fair’s Little Red Riding Hood was avant enough to boast marionettes and sets devised by Greg Curnoe, the late London artist. It was Curnoe’s concept to cast the Wolf as a U.S. imperialist predator and use the Vietnam-charged imagery of the day. Red, the wolf and the other marionettes are being donated to Museum London by Curnoe’s wife Shelia.  They will be a terrific addition to the collection.

After its run at the fair, Red Riding Hood was filmed by another London artist, the late Jack Chambers. A copy of Chambers film is available on video from the London Public Library. A viewing of Chambers’ simple, direct and beautiful version last week brought back Western Fair memories and showed off Red’s arty side.

The plot is familiar. On her way to grandma’s house, Little Red Riding Hood is lured off the path into the forest. The evil wolf beats Red to granny’s, swallows up the old woman and then devours Red, too. Granny and Red are saved by a valiant huntsman who slays the wolf. Red – and the children in the audience – learn a valuable lesson about sticking to the straight and narrow.

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, Red Riding Hood and her mother.

Red was one of three marionette plays developed by my father and others for the 1965 fair. He’s the James Reaney credited as the “story adapter” in the Chambers film.

London writer and archivist Leith Peterson has mentioned the role played by her mother, Jessie (Jay) Peterson, in commissioning Red and other marionette works for the fair.

“Mom saw these shows as not just entertainment for children, but for adults as well. Red Riding Hood caused quite a bit of controversy because of its anti-Vietnam War message,” Peterson has written. Then a Western Fair board member, Jay Peterson was involved in helping create marionettes for other shows.

At the fair, it seemed dad and the others in the Red troupe were battling expectations that marionettes were the glossy creations seen on prime-time TV. Glossy is not the word for the stars of Red. They were really for prime Chambers, not TV.

The Free Press of September 1965 said Red “is another idiom again” – contrasting it with the other marionette plays at the fair. It calls Curnoe “a strong exponent of pop art” and says his “puppets have all been created out of ordinary kitchen utensils.”

As it says in the library catalogue, these Curnoe creations were “unusual marionettes… Red Riding Hood herself is a block of (brightly painted) wood with a red plastic sandpail for a hood and a (plastic) sieve fastened in front for a basket.”

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.

Other characters were assembled from bits and pieces Curnoe had on hand. Granny was “just a teapot” with a teapot lid for a cap because she drank a lot of tea. The kids loved the teapot granny, even if adults saw her as “just a teapot.”

The Chambers film catches Red’s crazy humour. Courtesy of Curnoe, the huntsman had one of those toy guns  that make a great rrrrrrr sound when fired. In the film, the huntsman is ready to shoot the buttons off anybody.

In the film’s first five minutes, he fires at a marionette of a hired-man, a character from another of the plays on the bill [Victor Nipchopper from Apple Butter]. The hired man is only there to set the scene and introduce Red’s cast.

Later, the huntsman fires at Red after asking her to put the cake intended for her grandma on her head.  The gun-crazy huntsman wonders if she has ever heard of “Wilhelm Tell.” Bang, bang, bang. Rrr, rrr, rrr.

Red is terrified. There is a hole in her hood, she gasps.

“I guess your mother made it oversize,” the huntsman blandly says before pursuing the wolf.

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, the Huntsman and Red Riding Hood.

Seeing Red and company at the fair was magical. The young UWO [Western University] types and others pulling the strings were all friendly. John and Gillian Ferns, Chris Faulkner, Jill Bradnock, Ellen Richardson and Alvin Waggener are listed in the film credits. Hearing John’s booming voice and listening to granny singing a Welsh hymn –possibly the voice of his wife, Gillian – recalls an era when town and gown were smaller and closer.

They all worked hard. Red and the other shows were not just a matter of pulling a few strings. Some days, there were four marionette presentations at the Labbatt theatre. Most days, it was hot and noisy. It was never dull on either side of the stage.

Through all that, the collaboration of Curnoe, Chambers and many others endures.

Almost 40 years later, this made-in-London gem is still the best way to see Red.

September 1965 performance of Red Riding Hood at London’s Western Fair. Photo by Arnim Walter.

Marionette Plays

In 1965 James Reaney created three marionette plays: Apple Butter, an original work, and two adaptations, Red Riding Hood and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Leith Peterson describes how her mother, Jay Peterson, came to commission the plays and help create the marionettes. The plays were performed by James Reaney and friends at the Western Fair in September 1965 in London, Ontario.

Jamie and Jay Peterson’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration

Presentation by Leith Peterson for “Remembering Jamie,” July 7, 2008, Aeolian Hall. Prepared July 6, 2008 © Leith Peterson, 2003-2008

My mother, Jay Peterson, and Jamie [James Reaney] had a lot in common.  Both were highly creative people who were good at getting projects not only off the ground, but also seeing them through to fruition.  Mom, Jamie and Colleen teamed up on a number of adventures over the years, but the focus of this presentation will be Jamie and my mother’s 1965 Apple Butter collaboration.

In his 1990 Theatrum article entitled “Stories on a String,” Jamie said “…Jay Peterson was a cultural pillar of the town and she persuaded the Fair board to commission a marionette show from me…They actually gave me some money – one third of which went towards a tent, but the rest I salvaged to pay artists and manipulators for designs, puppets, theatre facades, as well as hours of gruelling work rehearsing, learning, and finally for ten days in mid-September, performing from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the fairgrounds…Most of the manipulators were my graduate students.  We still talk about those very happy, very busy days in the fall of 1965.”

From 1963 to 1970, my mother was a director of the Western Fair, so this is the fair Jamie is referring to.  Apple Butter was one of three marionette productions commissioned for the 1965 fair.  Greg Curnoe’s anti-Vietnam war piece called Red, and Jamie’s Aladdin rounded out the trio.  My mother saw these shows as not just entertainment for children, but for adults as well.

Jamie described his Apple Butter effort as a “new venture.  What I wanted to do in this fairy tale – where an orphan boy triumphs over the cruelties of his guardian – was to create a puppet hero for Southwestern Ontario similar to Russia’s Petrouchka and France’s Guignol.”

Hester Pinch, Solomon Spoilrod, and Apple Butter. (Inspired by the original set designed by James Anderson.)
Victor Nipchopper from Applebutter makes an appearance in the prologue to Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood says: “You’re not in my story, Victor Nipchopper!” (The Red Riding Hood marionettes and set were designed by Greg Curnoe.)

The Apple Butter marionettes were made at my grandfather’s old print shop at Leith, Ontario.  In his diary entry for August 23, 1965, Jamie chronicles my mother driving the Reaney family up to stay at the Peterson cottage, which was close to the print shop.  Then on August 29, Jamie pens that his sister Wilma picked up the Reaneys and took them back to London.  There is a wonderful photo of the Reaney family, including John and Wilma, on the front steps of the Peterson cottage.  Jamie is holding Apple Butter.

The Reaneys with Apple Butter, August 1965. Photo by Jay Peterson.

I was at camp at the time the Reaneys were at Leith.  However, Colleen, James, and Susan have provided details.  In addition, I have asked my brothers, Stuart and Donald, for their input.  Stuart remembers the Reaneys being at Leith and hanging out with James and John, but his only clear recollection is of James trying to convince him that the Dave Clark Five were better than the Beatles.

My brother Donald was just six at the time, but he enjoys reminiscing about “the making of Apple Butter and Moo Cow and how amazingly creative an effort it was.”  He recalls all the Reaney children being there, including Susan, who was closest in age to him.  What really stuck in his mind was Apple Butter and company hanging on the clothesline to dry.  He described the whole experience as “pretty amazing.”

Jamie created Apple Butter, Treewuzzle and Rawbone.  My mother made the heads as well as the papier-mache hands for the adult characters.  Mom also designed Moo Cow — an impressive-looking bovine, with the map of Canada on one side, built into the Holstein’s black and white markings.

Leith Peterson shows off Moo Cow, August 2008. Photo by Susan Wallace.

Jamie said that at the Apple Butter production in the Western Fair tent, “babies who cried for everything else shut up for Moo Cow, while backstage visitors enquired after Rawbone with a great deal of respect.”

Apple Butter went on to further acclaim in other locations.  After the Woodstock production, Jamie enthused that “children practically accompanied Apple Butter right to the station.”  In his 1968 biography of Jamie, Alvin Lee noted that Apple Butter was an adaptation from a simple folklore story “with a built-in appeal to the young, as the enthusiastic responses of hundreds of children have shown.” And there was also a built-in appeal for adults, including my mother and Jamie, who had so much fun bringing it all together.

James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, adds this news of Apple Butter and friends:

January 15, 2009

Apple Butter and Friends are on their way to the Canadian Museum of Civilization

I’m happy to know other people love Apple Butter, one of the marionettes created by my father in 1965, as much as I do. Apple Butter and several other marionettes from the 1965 play by dad were collected today & are en route to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. One of the marionettes, Moo Cow, was created by the late Jay Peterson, who helped clear the way for these remarkable characters to play the 1965 edition of the fair. The marionettes, including Apple Butter himself, have undergone some modifications since they first put their strings in front of the public. But it’s a real honour to see such interest & I know dad would be proud.

My only regret is that Jim Anderson’s magnificent set for Apple Butter disappeared somewhere over the years. It was a classic look at a Souwesto home.

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

One-Man Masque at Nuit Blanche tonight in Toronto

If you’re in Toronto tonight, there will be a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque as part of the Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church. Larry Beckwith, Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre, sends this update:

I am writing with an update of information about my involvement in Saturday night’s Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church as part of the “Pillars of Fire” exhibit.

A number of artists and performers are showcasing their work from 6:57 pm on Saturday to sunrise the following morning. Muscians and TMT friends involved include Alison Melville’s “Bird Project” the Windermere String Quartet, Brass Conspiracy, Ashiq Aziz’ “Classical Music Consort”, the Larkin Singers and the Sonore Percussion Trio.

I will be giving a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque at approximately 12:30 am. (This performance has been moved up from the previously-announced 2:00 am slot!).

I hope to see you there!

Pillars of Fire

Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church

383 Huron Street

scotiabank nuit blanche

Oct 2, 2010: 6:57 pm to sunrise

Zone A Independent Project – Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

Light emerges from darkness, as the mesmerizing beauty of fire allows us to transcend the night. See video, installation, performance and interactive artworks inspired by the transient and eternal nature of fire. Come celebrate your creative fire!