This summer marks the 30th anniversary of our local theatrical company.
Launched on the family farm by Creative Director and Founder Robert Winslow, the company relies on the creativity, hard work and dedication of a wide and growing number of supporters who, like the founder, chip in to make it work. From volunteering on and off stage to setting up bleachers and hosting visiting performers, there are many roles to fill to make the 4th Line succeed.
Since its launch in 1992, the organization has been true to its mission to preserve and promote out cultural heritage through the development and presentation of regionally-based, environmentally staged historical dramas. Through the development and presentation original theatrical works set in our recent past, their plays enlighten audiences about the struggles of our forebears, building respect and appreciation for those whose efforts are reflected in the tangible and hidden foundations upon which our community was built. The plays feature small towns like ours, in fact frequently it IS ours, telling stories that affect us all. In them we see ourselves, our neighbours and our ancestors in tales that are both original and familiar. They create a permanent record of who we were, and indications of who we might become.
The 4th Line Theatre is a not-for-profit, cultural and charitable organization that relies heavily on donations, ticket sales, government funding and private sponsorship. But don’t get the impression that it’s all take. Throughout its history, the theatre has actively engaged local artists, young and old, both in front of audiences is performances and in back-of-house production and support roles. The new Emerging Voices Youth Apprenticeship program provides workshops, vocal and dialect training, acting and movement coaching as well as mentoring in technical production. This year the theatre launched a new interdisciplinary residency program to nurture regional artists in theatre, musical theatre, dance and poetry with five positions.
The theatre is also a significant economic driver for the area, creating seasonal employment for actors, designers and technicians who work alongside community volunteers, providing unique experiences for all participants, and drawing visitors from across the region and beyond.
To commemorate this significant milestone, Robert Winslow reminisced about the theatre’s humble beginnings in an article in the 4th Line Theatre newsletter, Between the Lines, which is distributed to its members.
In 1991, Robert was working in Toronto and seeking a way to use his talents closer to home. In fact, he brought them directly home, as the 4th Line operates on the farm on which he grew up. The first production at the farm was called The Cavan Blazers. Its first reading occurred at the kitchen table at the farm that Christmas, when the decision to seek Ontario Arts Council funding to produce the play was taken. The completed application was hand-delivered the following month, and was approved a few weeks later. With $15,000 in hand, and the location set, there was plenty of work required. Among them was the transformation of the barnyard into a theatrical venue, setting auditions to develop a cast of 60 actors, both professional and amateur, implementing a marketing plan, and organizing the food. That year, country-style dinners of roast beef, corn on the cob and potatoes prepared by the Lions’ club was on the menu all cooked on the farm.
Like all 4th Line productions, this play is based on a true story. It follows the futile efforts by Justice Patrick Maguire to establish a Catholic parish in Cavan Township, whose efforts were thwarted by a local group of Protestant Orangemen. And yes, there was fire, as well as stage fights whose authenticity drew gasps from the audience as well as the fighters, who were throwing real punches in those days which preceded fight choreography.
Live music has always featured strongly in 4th Line productions, and Justin Hiscox has created original scores and performed as a musician and actor in most productions since that first play, along with his brother Mark.
Despite all the practical, tangible work required before the August 21st Opening Night, Winslow also addressed the administrative aspects of the new theatre company. Their first board meeting was held at the end of June, complete with a Board constitution and charitable status already in hand and a clear mandate established.
There were hiccups, of course, including wrong dates printed on the first Cavan Blazers poster advertising the event that was corrected with small labels, but the organization’s success was clearly foreshadowed in the popularity of its first production. Slated for a two week run, the show was extended twice, and finally closed on September 19th. It has been reprised five times, most recently in 2011, and was the subject of a CBC documentary produced by Mark Starowicz.
One of the keys to the success of this cultural jewel is its fidelity to its original mandate of “developing and presenting original Canadian works of artistic excellence that explore regional themes, history and heritage … in a politically responsible and culturally sensitive manner, seek(ing) to encourage innovation and experimentation resulting in productions that entertain and educate.” The range of topics broached in their plays is broad and some stories do not have happy endings. The plays never shrink away from the less attractive aspects of our past, from overt discrimination and abuse to small-minded attitudes. This honesty has contributed to the relevance and longevity of 4th Line productions.
We share the sentiment expressed at the conclusion of Winslow’s communication to the theatres most consistent supporters when he says, “Let’s all hope that our 30th season in 2022 says goodbye to COVID and hello to a fourth decade of new plays based on local history. The stories are like the stones in the barnyard. They keep coming to the surface.” Let’s hope so. KG