(Published in The Country Connections Magazine, No. 52, Summer 2006)
Shortly after I moved to the Peterborough area, I was asked if I’d like to attend a play at the 4th Line Theatre. Being a fan of local theatre, I accepted, and I was delightfully surprised at what I experienced.
After a short drive up the highway towards Millbrook and along some twisting county roads, we turned onto a gravel road. Other than a small sign posted at the corner, there was no indication of anything but fenced fields and cattle grazing until we reached a lane that bore a large board announcing the presence of the theatre. We journeyed up the winding driveway, past the brick farmhouse, and were directed to park the car in the adjacent field. There were several other theatre buffs already there. We were led through a gate and around the end of a barn to where a row of bleachers had been set up. These were to be our seats.
It wasn’t long before the bleachers were filled and the play began with a brief introduction by a narrator. We were sitting on one side of a barnyard that consisted of three weather-blackened buildings forming a u-shape. Directly across from us, in front of one of the buildings, a small wooden stage was set with a table, two chairs and a sideboard to depict a country kitchen. To our right we soon heard voices approaching, and then two men came into view. One was dressed in overalls and a straw hat; the other wore a brown suit, white shirt and a tie. They were discussing the new telephone lines that were being strung.
The play that we went to see is called Crow Hill: The Telephone Play. It’s the story of how the local telephone company was started nearly a century ago by a young country doctor as a means for his patients to contact him in an emergency. In the play it is a fictional Dr. Logie who is responsible. The performance carried us through many years of changes as it examined the impact of this new technology on the rural community.
The aging transformation of the characters, especially Dr. Logie, was extremely well done. Ona Gardiner, whose life inspired the story, graced us with a cameo appearance at the end of the presentation. Ona spent nearly 30 years answering calls from patients at a switchboard in the nearby Garden Hill home of Dr. Alexander Beatty in the early to mid 1900s.
The barnyard is not the only production venue on the farm. The following summer we enjoyed seeing Last Summer, a reminiscence of romance and young love discovered during a summer vacation at an area cottage, a romance that was interrupted when war broke out and lives were changed forever.
Getting to the stage area this time meant that we had to take a leisurely stroll through the woods to a small apple orchard. The bleachers were set up close to the stage and off to the left a three-piece band was assembled in a little pavilion, providing pre-performance entertainment. We later discovered that it was also a part of the story. The action took place very close to the audience, sometimes just an arms length away, and gave us a sense of being part of it.
Because we were accompanied by an elderly lady who was unable to make the walk to the orchard or climb up onto the bleachers, we were pleased that a minivan was provided to take her most of the way. We were given lawn chairs to sit on, placed under an apple tree, just steps from the stage. We had an excellent view; however, a couple of times, we had to duck to avoid falling apples, which caused a bit of a chuckle around us.
The charm of this unique theatre is not only the fact that all performances take place outdoors, but also the fact that, although there is only one built set for each play, the action for each scene often begins and/or ends away from that spot, perhaps in the adjacent field, or through the open doors of the barn, from where Dr. Logie burst forth in his Model “T” to begin one scene in Crow Hill.
As a newcomer to the area, I also enjoy learning some of its history through the plays, as most of them are locally written and based on local historical events. Most of the cast members are either professional actors, or aspiring drama students, many of whom are from the community. It’s obvious that they devote themselves to learning their lines and becoming their characters. Both of the performances that we saw left me feeling that I’d been invited into these lives. I felt the joy; I felt the pain.
Now that I’m familiar with this wonderful theatre it’s become an important part of my summer “must do” list. This year we’re looking forward to seeing Dr. Bernardo’s Children, but we’ll have to get our tickets early. Last year it was a sold out show every night, and we sadly discovered that we couldn’t pull our usual stunt of deciding at the last minute that we wanted to attend!