Artistic Director Spotlight: Marion de Vries

The Blyth Festival is the birthplace of many great Canadian plays – about 120 of them over the festival’s 40 years. We caught up with Artistic Director Marion de Vries to find out more about the festival’s rich heritage, as well as what’s in store for the season.

Q: With the Blyth Festival celebrating 40 years, how has it grown to what it is today?

A: I think there are a couple of main reasons – one being that the Blyth Festival is a community-based professional theatre company.  I also think our mandate to create and produce Canadian plays that reflect the culture, life, history and the stories of our local, regional area of Midwestern and Southwestern Ontario has helped it grow. The reason our mandate is that way is because this area really wanted to see its own stories on the stage. We’re where we are today because we have such a core loyal audience in this area.

We also have a base of volunteers. We couldn’t be here without the volunteers, without our audience and without our board. There’s a real involvement and real belonging to the community of this theatre.

Q: What can we expect to see in this year’s festival?

A: The theme for this season is “where the heart is” so the plays that you’ll see deal with loyalty, love and home. I had a short list of about eight plays.

There’s St. Anne’s Reel that’s written by Gil Garrett that is about a prodigal son returning home after his mother’s untimely death and dealing with his cantankerous father who once played the fiddle with the Ranch Boys on Circle 8. Stag and Doe is this great comedy about stag and does and it’s about engagements, wedding and love that I thought fit well with this year’s theme. Kitchen Radio is a play of mine that I had written when I was in residence a few years ago. It’s about this young lonely wife of a bank manager who moves around a lot and whose friends are the female country music stars she listens to on her country radio.

With 2014-2018 marking the 100th anniversary of WWI, I wanted to do one play each year that would explore scenes of war and peace and honour those who have fallen that fought for our freedom. This year, it’s Billy Bishop Goes To War, based on the WWI flying ace who was from Owen Sound.

Q: What’s your role as an Artistic Director and what is the thought process involved in selecting plays for the festival?

A: My role is to fulfill the artistic mandate of the festival – create plays that reflect the cultures and communities of this region. For this year and the next five years, I want to renew the vows of our original vision and mandate by choosing the plays that will be produced. I also want to work with the playwrights to develop plays that are inspired by issues that reflect the local community.

Q: As a director and playwright with your own work like Kitchen Radio featured at the festival, how do you balance your different roles?

A: A lot of Artistic Directors are directors and I will direct at least one play each year. I’ve been working on Kitchen Radio on and off for 9 years. When I first came on board as the Artistic Director for the festival, that play was the one that was most ready to go to stage. I had to sit back and go ‘Is this a good idea for me to kick off the 40th season of the festival with my own play?’ It’s a risk. But then I thought that if I cannot believe in my own work as an artist, then what am I doing here? If we’re not willing to fail, we’re not going to achieve brilliance. I decided I would go ahead with Kitchen Radio because I do believe in it. I asked Kelli Fox to come on board and direct Kitchen Radio as I didn’t feel I should direct it.

Q: Is it easier directing something you haven’t written over something you have?

A: I’ve directed my own work in the past, but decided not to for Kitchen Radio. You have to wear two different hats and sometimes it’s hard to be in the same room. I’ve had to take a five minute break sometimes and tell the actors “the director has to talk to the playwright.”

Sometimes, you need the outside eye to get perspective. It was important to have a different director to get another perspective for Kitchen Radio so that I could keep polishing it as a playwright.

Q: What is your vision for the festival in the coming years?

A: I want to continue to have new work created here, especially expand the new play development program. Maybe start a winter retreat thing where we invite a company of actors, playwrights, directors and have play workshops.

The Blythe Festival runs until September 6.