Millbrook’s renowned outdoor theatre company 4th Line Theatre, which had to postpone its summer season for the first time ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recently announced their return to live theatre this fall with the Halloween-themed production Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales.
As a theatre nerd, it has been impossible for me to experience this pandemic without thinking of William Shakespeare. This is due, in part, to that pesky meme in circulation that scorns my incompetence with the incessant reminder that: “When Shakespeare was in quarantine because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” No pressure, right?
It’s also because, since March, my macabre morning ritual is to check the Johns Hopkins global data on COVID-19; those digital death knells often make me wonder what it must’ve been like for Shakespeare, living across from a church on Silver Street, as the tolling of the bells marked each plague death. How on earth did he get any writing done?
I had the opportunity to speak with two powerhouse women who managed to pull a Shakespeare insofar as they co-wrote a play during a pandemic.
4th Line Theatre’s general manager, Lindy Finlan, and managing artistic director, Kim Blackwell, who will also direct the show, told me what it was like to write the script for Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales during a global health crisis. The outdoor production runs at Winslow Farm in Millbrook for 10 performances from October 20th to 30th.
As early as last November, the pair knew they’d be co-writing the script inspired by the things that scare children in the night — the stuff of nightmares. So many of 4th Line’s productions start with reminiscences: community workshops that seek to gather first-hand accounts from people with knowledge on certain topics.
In the case of Bedtime Stories, the experts were grade five and six students from Millbrook Public School, who Kim and Lindy consulted during pre-pandemic times.
“We were so lucky that we had this great afternoon with these really open young people who shared their stories about the things that scare them and what the dark is like for them,” Kim Blackwell says. “It was one of the final creative things we did before the world shut down.”
“The shutdown and the craziness of March was so nuts and emotional, not only on a personal level for everybody, but also for the theatre,” adds Lindy Finlan.
Admittedly, perhaps due to my own pandemic-inflicted misery, I expected to hear Lindy and Kim share stories of the unexpected nightmares that surely came with juggling the challenging administrative duties of running a theatre company in a pandemic, pivoting instantly to offer innovative programming such as 4th Line @ Home, while also trying to create an original script. Much to my surprise, both women spoke of the process fondly.
“Our admin work required so much questioning,” says Lindy. “Could we put on our season? How would we do it? What would it look like? Would it be safe? Writing allowed us to ask very different questions of ourselves. What does this character look like? Where do we go with this? It was refreshing but also necessary to give ourselves permission to just play and escape into this imaginary world that we were creating. It was one of the bright lights of that time.”
“This writing, for me, was a real saviour in early March and April,” Kim recalls. “In a way, the great pause from March 19th onward allowed for me to have the time to write this. There were days and weeks when there was just nothing to do and nowhere to go. We had to stay inside. So that abyss of time was great; it allowed me to just sit and write.”
Though the act of writing provided much solace for the creative duo, it was the act of collaboration — a gesture of friendship — that the two so fondly spoke of. They are indeed a complementary pair.
Lindy, a seasoned playwright who has created numerous works including The Fool of Cavan: A Christmas Caper (2019) and Ruse of the Romantic (2015), admits to her reticence when it comes to collaborative work.
“I was actually, to be honest, surprised with how much I enjoyed the experience of collaborating,” she observes. “With Kim, I felt safe to do it. It was so exciting to open the Google Doc up and see that Kim had written another scene. She was so fast! She got us started. Because of everything that was going on in the world, I don’t think that I would’ve been so inspired to begin. Getting started is always the hardest part of writing, but Kim had done it.”
Despite the fact that Kim has over 25 years’ experience with 4th Line and elsewhere, fulfilling an array of roles in the theatre industry including administration, management, marketing, publicity, and, of course, her longstanding creative work as a director, Bedtime Stories is her debut script as a writer.
“I’m a very seasoned artistic leader, I’m a seasoned director, but I’m a baby playwright and I admit that freely,” says Kim. “I could not have asked for a better writing partner. Lindy is a very experienced writer. Her writing is very sophisticated and it elevates my writing. Working with Lindy on this play has given me a lot of confidence — a voice that I didn’t know I had.”
Kim has certainly found her voice and has since completed a second full script, with a third on the way.
That collaborative experience and, indeed, the context of the writing process during the pandemic inspired much of the script.
“The pandemic and the whole experience, of course, inevitably influenced our writing in the sense that we have included some elements of past pandemics, but also the fears,” Lindy says. “We were afraid — we were writing something to scare people and that’s certainly a factor. Though the script includes many tropes that everybody finds scary, it also explores hate because that’s one of the scariest things there is.”
“The piece explores so many of the things we’re experiencing as a society now,” Kim adds. “It investigates the seeds of bigotry, of xenophobia, the seeds of fear. It tries to understand how it is that we come to fear the other. But we also took real stories, from real Millbrook kids, and we’ve created a grandiose, almost operatic sort of take on their stories to scare adults with them.”
Just how scary is Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales? When I asked the writers to rate the show’s scariness on a scale of one to never-sleep-again, the two committed to a solid eight. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that parental discretion is advised — 4th Line has given the show a PG rating.
“There are frightening scenes,” says Lindy. “It’s for mature audiences. So if there’s a kid who likes horror movies, they’ll be fine. It’s going to be completely different than anything that we’ve ever done before, especially at the farm.”
“We’re doing our darnedest to scare the crap out of people,” Kim adds. “By October, everybody’s going to need the catharsis of being scared to death, outside, in the dark.”
While the show promises some much-needed catharsis in the form of a good scare, audiences need not fear the omnipresent threat of COVID-19. Situated on 100 acres, the Winslow Farm offers ample space for distanced audiences to spread out and enjoy the promenading performance of a boy’s journey into the dark.
4th Line, an industry leader when it comes to safety, has written their own re-opening strategy, which includes enhanced safety measures such as encouraging regular staff testing, distanced staging, and inter-company bubbling to allow for actors to safely perform more intimate scenes. They’ve gone above and beyond the provincial guidelines when it comes to ensuring the safety of staff and audiences alike.
For many reasons, the two writers are so excited to mount this production but nothing excites them more than the prospect of sharing their work with a live audience.
“A show comes to life, in a way, with the actors and, of course, the director making it happen, but it doesn’t really come to life until there’s an audience to see it and experience it,” Lindy says.
“There is a relationship between art and audience in our medium of live performance, specifically theatre,” Kim explains. “Being there together and hearing your audience being alive and reacting — that’s our jam. We don’t do it for any other reason.”
This is where you come in, dear readers. A performance comes into being in the presence of its audience; it is experienced in a state of becoming. Theatre is one of the most collaborative art forms there is, which necessarily includes a reciprocal exchange — a collaboration — between artists and audiences.
I am so pleased, after five long months, to implore each of you to partake in the ecstatic fellowship of the theatre. The return of live audiences is an historical moment, not only for 4th Line, but also for the theatre industry writ large. This is a win for all of us.
As my old pal Shakespeare once wrote: “The miserable have no other medicine. But only hope.” The return of live theatre is precisely the hope I’ve needed after five months of misery. Just as they did after the plagues in Shakespeare’s times, I know that audiences will return to our beloved theatres. The theatre has survived many pandemics.
My compelling conversation with Lindy Finlan and Kim Blackwell reveals exactly what that pesky Shakespeare meme leaves out. According to scholar James Shapiro, Shakespeare was so productive during quarantine because “his days were free, for the first time since the early 1590s, to collaborate with other playwrights.” (The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, 2016).
And there you have it, the myth of the lone genius is just that: a myth. Collaboration is key. My takeaway? Perhaps some other British bards will better express it: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
There will be 10 performances of Bedtime Stories and Other Horrifying Tales running from Tuesday, October 20th to Friday, October 30th. Tickets are $25 each, and are limited for each performance.
Tickets and gift certificates for 4th Line Theatre productions can be purchased by phone at 705-932-4445 (toll free at 1-800-814-0055), online at 4thlinetheatre.on.ca, or at 4th Line Theatre’s box office at 4 Tupper Street in Millbrook.