By Flick Harrison | November 11, 2003

In 1972, a group of theatre folk from the Big Smoke of Toronto got it into their heads to head out into farm country of Southern Ontario to create a play about what they found there. Michael Ondaatje, Can-Lit god and Booker-Prize-Winning author of The English Patient, documented the play and made this film, “The Clinton Special,” which is, like the play itself, both a documentary and a performance. Amazingly, I can’t find any coverage or reviews of this recent release on the web; that’s too bad, because it’s really worth checking out. 70’s activist theatre is where it’s at.
It’s not hard to tell at any moment whether you’re seeing actors in performance, farmers in interview, or plain documentary footage. The farmers’ faces are weathered, their manner subdued, voices quiet, speech confident. The players are quite the opposite: loud, projective, exaggerated, they shout lines to the back of the hall. Armed with the confidence that we, the viewers, are capable of distinguishing these two, Ondaatje plunges in and combines live footage from the stage production of the Farm Show, re-enactments of scenes from the play, reactions of the Farm Folk themselves to the show and its production, and interviews with the actors about their experiences. Though politics as such never comes up, the slow accumulation of anecdotes about hard work, accidents, and eked subsistence add up to a powerful and useful map of southern Ontario’s socio-political situation.
This approach serves to highlight something that could be considered either a problem or a benefit of the whole process: the actors, in their social-democratic inclusively, seem to have become obliged to make the farmers happy, and seem desperate throughout to have the farmers “like” the show. The actors discuss the play they create as if it is documentary, and, in many ways, it is: they hung out, worked on the farm, asked a lot of questions, and went so far as to imitate mannerisms and accents quite slavishly. On the other hand, they were constrained by their unspoken promise to the farmers: this is a play not just about you, but for you.
It would be hard to imagine, had their experiences proved opposite, that the actors could have honestly gotten up on stage and said, “Jeez, you call this work!? I’d love to get a grain subsidy and work only half the year…” The impossibility of being negative was built into the activist conception of the Farm Show: go to the country and make a play about farmers. Only sympathetic leftists would ever do such a thing, and this point overpowers the minor disappointments of their softball product. This logic spills into Ondaatje’s production itself: the actors flip between hosting “The Clinton Special” and being its subjects. The dramatic scenes, taken from the play but re-staged for this movie on farm locations, were obviously shot in cooperation between the doc-maker and his subjects. Ondaatje is promoting the show, not questioning it.
The only Farm Show scene that appears in this film entirely uncut, and live on stage, concerns one of the actors describing his first day working the farm. He tells about nearly dying of exhaustion while throwing hay bales around, miming his clumsy shenanigans and causing gales of laughter in the crowd. This serves to humble the actors in the face of hard, “real people” labor, and the farmers seem to appreciate it. Placed near the beginning of the film, it says: these actors are laying themselves at the farmers’ feet, acknowledging the farmers’ superiority in some grand social schema that includes the nobility of labor, the romance of working the land, the decay and degeneracy of the city. If this scene had been re-staged for the film, like most of the others, without an audience, it would have drawn attention to the actors’ conceit. Instead, the farmers’ enjoyment seems to legitimize the whole enterprise.
But simultaneously, the actors are blithely arrogant to concoct this notion that their professional-artist reflection of the community is of some kind of benefit, or announces some universalizing force, that the farm isn’t real until the city “taps in.” Why don’t the farmers come out to make a “City Show?” Because the City is where actors are, and farmers, this film says, are subjects, not actors (there’s no suggestion that the farmers care what happens in the city). This clear dividing line between “urban” and “rural” is taken for granted, and reduced to “farmer” versus “artist.” But Ondaatje’s clever decision to use this particular scene, with the farmer’s joyous reaction, suggests that they were open to this whole notion.
The Farm Show started from this vague liberal feeling, a benevolent charity in which the actors would “go to the people” and “tell their stories,” and the “The Clinton Special” is more an extension of the premise than a separate doc about it. The farmers, it appears, gave it their full cooperation, and later, the film shows us, gave standing ovations and happy feedback. But, more significantly, the process didn’t seem to include any kind of farmer’s choice in the matter. Sure, a documentary about an important subject cannot be created only with permission of the players involved. And as each individual was approached and interviewed, they no doubt had full knowledge that they could refuse to participate, thus being left out of the final production. This one-way creator-spectator and creator-subject process leaves a little something to be desired in terms of participation.
The good news is that The Farm Show was only the beginning. I mentioned this film to David Diamond, director of Headlines Theatre, who does something called “Theatre of the Oppressed” in Vancouver. (He’s adopted the term “Theatre for Living” to dismiss some of the animosity and victimism, but the former term originates with Augusto Boal in late 60’s Brazil and it is from Boal that Headlines springs). This type of theatre involves creative workshops with certain communities – whether it be farmers, teenagers, squeegee kids, first nations, or anything else. During these workshops, ideas and concepts emerge around a theme, chosen because of its importance and currency. Participants write a play based on these ideas, then perform it. During the play, people in the audience can jump in at any moment to take over one of the roles, offering an alternate solution to a problem which the characters are having. After playing this attempt out, the original actors rewind a little and continue the play, until some other audience member jumps in. Diamond says that at the time of The Farm Show he was doing that same type of thing, until he later became dedicated to Boal’s forms. Many troupes around the world and across Canada are doing interactive theatre, inspired by the Farm Show itself or by other ideas like Boal’s.
But interactivity is as fleeting as theatre gets. Watching a tape of Theatre for Living collapses the interactivity and turns into regular old spectatorship, and so in this vicarious theatre-on-video form, the Farm Show doc is not so different. The show traveled around Canada, has been remounted by others, and with this recent DVD release, it looks like it will have future life as well. Most haunting about my viewing was a rising sense of panic that much of this “rural” lifestyle, if current news hype is true, is disappearing, and that the 30 years between now and 1972 has done more erasing than all the 500 years that these communities existed. If so, the Farm Show is one of the few images of that society that has made it in front of my eyeballs, and for that, it’s a historically valuable document.
The top-down control of the actors, coupled with their cozy relationship with the farmers, does distort reality in a tangible way. But in the doc, one of the actors raises another issue: he worries that their parachuting into the community for only six weeks isn’t enough time to really get below the surface. Ondaatje could have investigated this further, done his own research and compared the play with his own information, if he really was interested in interrogating the Farm Show; instead, this actor’s statement is the only hint that the process might be flawed, and Ondaatje is essentially a creative collaborator in the Farm Show’s national celebration. Ondaatje’s interviews with the farmers hardly scratch a surface. Again, it would be unlikely for anyone but a supporter to jump the hurdles of making a doc about the Farm Show, so this isn’t all that surprising. But a critical approach could have set the stage for others to build on the Farm Show and improve on the idea, instead of simply producing a propaganda piece. That would have been truer to the play’s stated objectives: examining the reality of farm life itself, rather than celebrating a bunch of city kids for being so noble as to bother about farmers. I am reminded of the 19th century Russian nihilists, who condescendingly went about in shabby garb to mix with the rural peasants, often being chased out of town by suspicious locals.
That being said, the emotion I felt after watching “The Clinton Special” was amazement. As much as I can critique the film and the play, the Farm Show is certainly more innovative and progressive than almost anything gracing the mainstream stage or screen today, and as a snapshot of a historical moment when theatre was breaking its conventions and reaching out for ways to be socially relevant and politically useful, this doc should be required viewing in theatre and film classes everywhere.

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