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Robert Winslow and the Poetics of Place

author: Denny Manchee

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4th Line Theatre: A Locally Grown Heritage Species

The place is a short drive from Millbrook: right on Duke Street, south to Zion Line, right again, through the woods and down a steep hill. At the bottom are a few houses and further along on the left, a cluster of barns and an old white farmhouse. This is it, Winslow Farm, a place that harvests imagination.

It’s the home both of Robert Winslow and 4th Line Theatre, the company he founded 22 years ago. And out of his fertile mind has come a body of work deeply rooted in this region, and in the place, just as he is rooted on the same land as his forebears. Instead of raising cattle and chickens and growing vegetables as they did, though, Robert has raised a crop of ideas and art among the barns and wetlands of Winslow Farm. Along the way he’s also raised a community of actors, volunteers and patrons like no other in Canada.

“4th Line is unique in its commitment to local history, site-specific performance, and its immediate community as audience,” says Richard Plant, Professor Emeritus of Drama at both the University of Toronto and Queen’s. “It illustrates a fundamental truth of our lives: we are shaped by our environment just as our environment shapes us. The audience and company share in experiencing and understanding what it has meant, what it currently means, and what it might mean in the future to live in a community that is examined, celebrated and criticized on its own outdoor stage.”

The day of my April visit, the farm is still winter dormant, but the afternoon sun warms our backs as we sit on the bleachers and trace Robert’s line – here, away, and back again. “As far as I know the Winslows were the first settlers on this property,” says the lean, sandy-haired 60-year-old. “My father and grandfather were farmers, and my dad was an only child and so am I. He died in 1975 and left it to my mom, and she died in 1990 and left it to me.”

Not being a farmer himself, it wasn’t obvious what he should do with it. And although he loved the place as a small child, he couldn’t wait to get away from what he felt was “a restrictive and claustrophobic community” when he reached his teens. He fled to the University of Toronto for his BA in the early 1970s, and then further west to Edmonton in the early ’80s “to try my luck at acting.” The Edmonton Fringe Festival was just getting on its feet and was a hub for actors and playwrights. “I worked out there for several years and then I was in Toronto in the late ’80s,” he says, his mind seeming to go back briefly in a moment of contemplation. Winslow is a thinker, his words considered, his bearing that of a philosopher who is constantly ruminating on the larger questions.

Coming back to the present and this rare sunny afternoon in April, he tells me the turning point in his peripatetic theatre life came in 1991 after doing another Edmonton Fringe show, a festival known for mounting plays in all kinds of spaces and that actually has a category for artists called “Bring Your Own Venue.” Robert headed back east, as he had done so many times, to regroup at Winslow Farm. But with his mom now gone, he was struggling to figure out some way to pay the taxes so he could afford to live there.

“I remember walking the fence line, and I sat there and looked at the field,” he says, his eyes closing with the memory. “I had already written the play The Cavan Blazers, and I started seeing some scenes in the fields and thought, this can happen here. This is the only way I can stay.”

The journey from epiphany to execution of an idea can be fraught, but Winslow found a group of people who were committed to his vision of developing and presenting original Canadian theatre that focused on regional history. 4th Line was born a year later with a mounting of The Cavan Blazers, an epic play (think galloping horses, swordfights and bloody battles) that explores the true story of a mid-19th century gang of Protestant Orangemen who took the law into their own violent hands and attacked Catholics who dared settle in the Millbrook area. Robert wrote it after digging into local history while he was caring for his dying mom.

With just one production he had found his audience. “I went to that first show in 1992 and have been going ever since,” says Paul Hickey, who runs an ad agency in Peterborough. “The experience is just so different, with characters walking in from the fields, and animals and the light and weather changing right as you’re watching.

“For me, what Rob has accomplished at 4th Line is nothing short of incredible,” he adds. “Not only through the performances at the farm, but by reaching out to the community in the form of soundings, readings and celebrations.” Hickey likens Rob’s community engagement to social media: sharing what he cares deeply about with 4th Line patrons, volunteers and the community at large.

There’s Breaking Ground in late March every year, where he presents scenes to the public and invites their feedback. There’s First Look at the end of the summer, with staged readings from plays he’s considering for the following summer. There are Festive Fridays and Artist Talks, winter skills workshops, training and mentorship programs for community members who want to learn theatre craft, and there are volunteer opportunities galore – from helping build sets to doing hair and make-up to taking tickets and ushering. Volunteers have been central to the company right from the start. “That epic outdoor production aesthetic is a big part of what we’ve done, and the only way you can pull that off is with volunteers,” says Winslow.

This is what involvement with 4th Line looks like for the Spasov family, who’ve been volunteering for 12 years and attending since the beginning. “It was our oldest daughter, Emilie, who got me started,” says Peter, a technology teacher at Fleming College. “She wanted to audition back in 2001 when she was nine, and at the audition Robert asked me if I wanted to act. I hadn’t done that since high school, but thought I’d give it a try. Since then, all three of my daughters and my wife have been involved – mostly acting, but Hannah was a pig wrangler one year.”

It’s a commitment that means sacrificing summer holiday time, but Peter says they’ve gained a lot, including making many contacts in the area and developing a real sense of community with other theatre folks. Emilie had the paid position of assistant stage manager for a couple of years, Hannah did some front-of-house and she and her younger sister, Anika, now have part-time jobs at Market Hall in Peterborough. “It got me interested in artistic things,” adds Peter. “I’m working on a novel and I started doing improv.” Peter’s also involved in a play-reading group that’s grown out of 4th Line. “About 10 of us meet at a central house in Peterborough once a month and read plays by Shaw, Ibsen, Dickens and Shakespeare – even Dracula!”

For 20-year-old Jake Vanderham, 4th Line offered an artistic refuge and professional training that simply wasn’t available anywhere else in the region to a young kid. “I had always said to my mom that I wanted to be in the movies or TV,” says the strikingly handsome young man, who just finished his third year in the BFA acting program at Ryerson. “They were doing a workshop of Dr. Barnardo’s Children in 2003 and it was a kind of escape for me, an alternative to summer camp.”

His parents would drive him everyday from their farm outside Cold Springs, “and I’d arrive at 10 and just follow my orders,” says Jake. That summer he workshopped the role of Young Walter, and the next year he was cast in that role, and has essentially grown up in the company since then. “I just kept coming back, and this summer will be my 8th season,” he says.

Jake is grateful to have had the opportunity to work in a professional company so close to home. “I took away a great sense of discipline and just what it means to work in theatre, to show up on time for rehearsals, to remain frozen in a scene for 10 minutes while the bugs were biting like mad and we were itchy all over, to rehearse in the blazing sun in July.” Plus, there was the privilege of working alongside pros like Richard Greenblatt in The Cavan Blazers.

This July Jake is back playing Thomas Winslow, one of the leads in The Winslows of Derryvore, a prequel to the Blazers that Robert wrote in the early 1990s after researching his family history in Ireland. (Catch Jake now before Hollywood calls.) It’s set in the 17th century, at a time when the English Crown was seizing large tracts of land that had been held for a millennium by Irish Catholic clans. In an act called the Plantation of Ulster, this land was given to Protestant English and Lowland Scottish colonists to expand the British Empire, and thus began the bitter and enduring conflict between Catholics and Protestants that crossed the Atlantic in the 1800s with Irish immigration to Canada.

We starve by the board
And we thirst amid wassail
For the guest is the lord
And the host is the vassal
Through the woods let us roam
Through the wastes wild and barren
We are strangers at home
We are exiles in Erin.

So says the poet Eochaidh O hEoghusa (pronounced O’Husha) in the opening act of the play, foretelling the inevitable rebellion of the ousted clans. The drama unfolds in County Fermanagh, a lush landscape of lakes and gentle hills that turned red with blood from both sides as rebels and colonists massacred each other.

What’s the relevance of this today, you might ask. “It doesn’t matter that it’s set in the 1600s, to me it’s what it can say to us now,” says Robert. “When we did The Winslows the first time in ’95 and people from First Nations came to see it, they said, ‘Oh my God, this reminds us of what happened in North America.’ We need to ask ourselves, what is the real impact of a colonial mentality? Are we still living in one in Canada? How do we treat First Nations?”

The play is also still relevant in Northern Ireland. “Regrettably, history in this Province can be taught in different ways and it is very easy where large sections of the community lead mutually exclusive lives because of religious differences, to view and interpret the same events from completely different perspectives,” says Robert’s cousin Geoffrey Wilkinson, who lives just outside Enniskillen, Ireland (See A Bizarre Coincidence). “Which side was right or wrong? Who had the moral high ground? The fact that Irishmen continue to fight each other over the same piece of land over hundreds of years shows how far we have come.” Or not.

With a cast of 60 plus, The Winslows of Derryvore promises the total immersion people expect from 4th Line. “It has action, romance, battles, love triangles, magic, music, everything,” teases Winslow the younger. Longtime patrons like Paul Hickey say that experiencing all of this in the open air blurs the lines between theatre and reality and occasionally verges on the mystical. “Almost everyone has had an experience of something like the clouds breaking and a shaft of light falling right on the character who’s delivering a major speech.”

Richard Plant remembers a swallow entering the scene of the play Beautiful Lady right when the lead, Beau Dixon, was singing a song about a bird in a gilded cage. “While the irony of the bird in a gilded cage was clearly evident to the audience, the most amusing part was that Beau didn’t know what to do about it because the swallow wouldn’t fly away despite his subtle attempts to shoo it off. What was real life and what was theatre imagination? That is some of the magic and draw of 4th Line Theatre.”

Which brings us back to place and the role it plays in identity. Robert Winslow is living in the house in which he grew up, and his book-lined office occupies what was once his grandmother’s bedroom. His deep sense of belonging resonates through every play he has written, and animates the barns, bog and fields that constitute his stage.

“As a child I had lots of time to wander throughout the farm, in the woods, along the stream, walking the rail fences as a balancing act, making forts in haymows, creating ‘houses’ in the trees,” he writes to me. “I became totally connected to the specific landscapes and places I loved on the farm – often hidden spaces, where I felt safe and free at the same time. I am now always trying to recapture that connection – trying to get back beneath the stresses to that place of breath and belonging.

“I am part of this land and it is part of me and I try to open that possibility for all the artists who work here and for the audiences who come here – everyone can breathe a little more deeply and connect with something beyond words in the lap of nature and landscape. This is how the child in me shares his personal playground with others.”

How lucky for us to have such a rich harvest of the mind just down the road.

A BIZARRE COINCIDENCE (A note from Denny Manchee)
I had never met Robert Winslow before interviewing him for this story, though I was aware we both had family roots near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. During our interview, Robert pulled out a photo album of a trip he and his wife Janette had made to Ireland in 2004. We flipped through the images of stunning scenery and came to a page where a couple was standing in front of a large house. “These are my cousins, Geoffrey and Rosemary Wilkinson, and that’s their house,” said Rob.

I felt an electric current zap through me. “That house looks exactly like my grandmother’s house on Loch Erne,” I said. “It was called Minnamurra.”

“It is Minnamurra!” said Rob, “and I’ve stayed there.”

I told him the story of my great-grandfather who had two brothers who settled in Australia. They returned to Ireland when the house was being built and insisted their brother call it Minnamurra after a beloved place in Australia.

To confirm this unnerving coincidence, that night I dug up some old photographs of the house and sent them to Rob, along with brief history of the family written by my mom. He forwarded these to the Wilkinsons, and indeed, they are living in the house built by my great-grandfather.

Make of this what you will, but I hear the lyrical voice of Ireland calling.


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