For the past 24 years, Robert Winslow has had a plan, and boy, is it working! Never interested in performing off-the shelf summer theatre productions, since the 4th Line Theatre`s inception its creator has used it as a vehicle to educate and entertain, by developing and presenting original Canadian works of artistic excellence that explore regional themes, history and heritageand are presented in an environmentally and culturally appropriate setting. Keeping this mandate at the forefront of its projects has allowed the companyto build its brand and grow its audiences each year.
With a sold out production of The Bad Luck Bank Robbers reaching a total audience of roughly 9000 now complete, the theatre company moves on to the second show of the season. Entitled “Gimme that Prime Time Religion” this production was one of the first plays Winslow wrote and first performed 35 years ago, at a time when televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Ernest Angley and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were at their peak. Their offers of physical and emotional healing through their theatrical televised ministries sparked frustration in Winslow who was working with deaf children in Peterborough at the time. Despite his natural skepticism, Robert does not completely discard the evangelist claims, acknowledging that something in these preachers’ messages reverberates with members of their audience, providing some solace and hope if not physical relief.
The forthcoming play takes the form of a Protestant camp meeting, a tradition which began in Britain but came to the area in 1820, organized by Methodist and Presbyterian groups often working together. These meetings provided religious services in frontier areas where people not served by a regular preacher could avail themselves of the services of travelling ministers with compelling oratory skills who would regale their audiences with stories of paths to salvation and damnation, accompanied by prayer and hymn singing. Events that began with solemn sermons often turned sensational as the meetings progressed over the course of several days, ending with tearful conversions and cries of repentance which provided fodder for the satire at the foundation of thisplay. These meetings were conducted in tents pitched in farmers’ fields, venues echoed by the 4th Line Theatre’s own location.
Whatever the spiritual or religious philosophy of today’s audience, the play sits firmly in the centre of the company’s mandate by providing a glimpse at the role of religious evangelism in the settlement of the area.
Winslow`s sure hand is ever present in all 4th Line productions as he easily moves between the roles of writer, director and sometimes actor in the plays. The upcoming role of Reverend Bobby Angel is a particularly physically and emotionally demanding one, and Winslow is at centre stage for the entire play. Designed to be interactive, the experience is enhanced when the audience buys in and participates, which also helps drive the energy that makes this play unique.
It is difficult to appreciate the effort required to produce original theatre year after year, but there are no shortcuts taken at 4th Line Theatre. Each play takes about 5 years to developfrom seed to production. Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, and these days Winslow receives suggestions from unanticipated sources, as well-wishers approach him with historical information and documentation. This year he handed over the day to day responsibilities of Artistic Director to Kim Blackwell and assumed the role of Creative Director in order to focus on creating new work for the theatre. With 3 projects at various stages of development, including one entitled `The History of Drinking in Cavan`, he is committed to building a portfolio of original, authentic works that tell the stories of the history of the region. His new role will allow him to concentrate his efforts on the creative side, and he looks forward to spending many more years gathering local stories and transforming them into the entertainingand enlightening summer events that are the hallmark of this much loved local gem. `Gimme That Prime Time Religion` begins next week, with previews Monday and Tuesday, and runs until August 29th. For more information, visit www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca.