I’m sitting with Robert Winslow in the bleachers at 4th Line Theatre on a warm July day. Birds are chirping from their roosts in the weatherworn barn that serves as the backdrop and backstage for 4th Line’s outdoor plays. Wind wafts through the tall grasses that grow in the fields of the Winslow family farm, and beyond that rolling countryside and farmland stretch into the distance.
And then, a horrifying cacophony breaks the moment: audio of a snarling dog fight taken from The Exorcist blares over the sound system.
“I hit a bit of a wall last week,” admits Winslow. It’s three weeks into the run of 4th Line’s first production of the 2017 season, Bombers: Reaping the Whirlwind, where Winslow plays a central role for the mostly sold-out crowds that fill the 350-seat theatre.
But it’s not just Bombers that’s exhausting Winslow. “I think it was heat exhaustion from working in the sun all day and then doing this show at night.” As Bombers goes up five nights a week, Winslow is awake for 8 a.m. rehearsals six days a week for 4th Line’s August production, The History of Drinking in Cavan. Winslow plays an even bigger part in that one, a double role as the play’s dual narrators, and he’s also the play’s writer and director.
The Exorcist clip will form part of the surreal soundscape of the play, which takes wandering, disjointed (some would say ‘boozy’) trip through 200 years of the social and cultural history of drinking in the area—from the town’s founding (“It’s called Millbrook because there’s a mill,” says Winslow, “and one of the first things they did was set up a distillery as part of the mill”), through prohibition and bootleggers, wild nights drunk driving on county roads, and alcohol as a part of youth culture today.
“What alcohol does to us is fascinating,” says Kim Blackwell, 4th Line’s Managing Artistic Director. “We’re hilarious when we’re drunk. Our bodies get looser, and our tongues get looser, and our laughter gets bigger. But alcohol consumption is on a razor’s edge. How many of us have not had our lives touched by the disease of alcoholism and alcohol abuse?”
As the play developed over the past five years and people began sharing their stories about alcohol, what began as a light and playful romp became something stranger and darker. It also coincided with a personal journey for Winslow, as he came to terms with his own mother’s alcoholism—adding yet another layer of difficulty for him. “It’s a work that’s about process,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have the dramatic unity of a Cavan Blazers [the theatre’s hugely successful debut production]. It’s a much more personal work.”
I had the opportunity to see this process first-hand, speaking to Winslow and many of the people involved in the production. They spoke about the long journey that brings 4th Line’s plays to the stage, about community and storytelling, and about the creative and spiritual journey taken by one of the central figures of the area’s theatre scene over the past four decades.
4th Line Theatre’s history begins in 1992, but its origins stretch much further back. The converted farm where it stands has been in Robert Winslow’s family for five generations. Winslow’s own theatrical history began at the Peterborough Theatre Guild and on the experimental stages of Trent University and Artspace’s 1980s-era City Stage.
From there, he moved to Edmonton, where he discovered the possibilities of community-based theatre with the Catalyst Theatre, a group using ‘forum theatre’ techniques. Also known as the ‘theatre of the oppressed,’ these social activist plays were developed by performing in front of audiences who were encouraged to stop the action whenever they felt it rang false, and tell the actors how to make it better.
Their play It’s About Time about institutionalization was developed by performing in maximum security prisons and halfway houses, and then toured across Alberta and up into the Territories. Says Winslow, “I know more little towns in Alberta than probably anywhere else.”
Winslow soon returned to Peterborough, where he experimented with theatre in non-traditional venues with his improv troupe, East City (their slogan: “Burning Theatre to the Ground”). At the same time, he was researching his own family history in the area, and eventually developed that into 4th Line’s first production, 1992’s The Cavan Blazers.
Kim Blackwell, now 4th Line’s Managing Artistic Director, was an assistant stage manager on that first show. She recalls, “In order to fulfill our grant, we had to do six performances. We kept losing people and getting new people. I ended up sewing like six costumes, then acting in it. And then it went crazy. We did six weeks of performances, all sold out. We were on the CBC. So then we looked around and said, oh, we should do more.”
4th Line is now in its 26th year. It’s expanded significantly and gained national attention. Local history plays still play a major part, but in recent years, the company has taken on more ambitious productions and, with Blackwell’s guidance, commissioned works from acclaimed Canadian playwrights like Maja Ardal, Alex Poch-Goldin, and Sky Gilbert.
“I see 4th Line broadening its audience the past couple years,” says Justin Hiscox, who’s been serving as 4th Line’s musical director for 19 years. “Still doing these amazing shows like Bombers or Hero of Hunter Street that are nostalgia pieces, but it has some edge these days, and this one certainly is that.”
Winslow has taken many lessons learned in his early activist theatre days forward into The History of Drinking. Like many 4th Line productions, it started with a ‘community reminiscence’ in February 2011, where people gathered at the Millbrook Legion (a space with its own storied history of drinking) to talk about their experiences with alcohol.
Originally, says Winslow, “I just thought it was a funny title,” but as the reminiscence continued, people began to speak about the impact of alcohol abuse on them and their loved ones, and the powerlessness they felt about it. “In the play, that very same shift happens near the end of Act One. It goes from storytelling to this more serious discussion.”
A number of these reminiscences are reproduced verbatim in the play. The play also uses real places and names from Millbrook’s history: the bootlegger-run village of Tomsville, the cocktail bar the Fireside Tavern, and King, the town drunk when Winslow was growing up, who soon became one of the play’s narrators.
“When I talk like King,” says Winslow, “that’s me remembering him—a 12-year-old’s memory of this guy weaving from side to side. His memory community-wise is as a figure of fun, but I don’t think I just make fun of him. I try to put flesh on his bones, and talk about his hopes and fears, and create a myth about him in a way.”
These kinds of real details give the play specificity, and, as Winslow says, “the universal is communicated through the specific.”
As community memories were folded into the play, Winslow was also dealing with another part of the past: his father had passed away suddenly while he was in university, and, as his career had taken off out West, at home his mother was descending into alcoholism. She passed away shortly after his return to town.
“My mother was this sort of soulmate,” he recalls. “If I had a cigarette, she’d know I’d had a cigarette. She was an intuitive person. She could sense what other people felt, and always tried to make them feel better. But when she suffered in terms of drinking, that wasn’t coming back to her—there was nobody understanding her. To watch this person I was so close to go through this, and to feel they weren’t there anymore….”
And so the play became more personal, and a second narrator entered: Robert Winslow himself. Winslow has often brought elements of his personal history into his work, in one form or another: The Cavan Blazers was directly about the Winslow family—though Winslows 150 years in the past. Winslow also uses ‘sense memory’ as an actor to lend realism to his characters by tapping into personal emotional memories. That process could only be easier, and more painfully intense, when speaking about his own family, and doing it on the farm where he grew up.
The play continued to evolve over the next several years. Scenes got their first public reading at 4th Line’s biennial First Look public workshop series in 2015, and the whole first draft got a private reading around a kitchen table the same year, then more scenes were read to the public at Breaking Ground in 2016.
Throughout, Winslow kept adding and subtracting elements from the script, balancing humour, history, and confession, as well as more expressionistic elements. Horror movies became a recurring motif: The Exorcist, Psycho, The Thing, An American Werewolf in London. These films have been favourites of Winslow’s for years, and their sinister stories—about unexpected horrors and people transformed into monsters—resonated with the subject matter.
“There is a lot of the subconscious at work in this play,” he says. “The thing about alcohol is, it’s not the rational part of our brain that’s at work. It opens up the irrational, and I think that’s its great appeal.”
A script will always be a half-finished document. A playwright can obsess over perfecting tiny details, but the end-product will always be determined by the thousands of choices made during rehearsals.
This is particularly true for a surreal script like The History of Drinking in Cavan. Says Winslow, “I started going through the script, and it’s like, ok, giant chicken… how am I going to make that? A ballerina… an undertaker with a horse-drawn hearse…”
Indeed, very little was worked out before production started, and Winslow encouraged his actors to experiment in the space. For this process, he chose to work with an unusually small cast for a 4th Line production: six professional actors and four volunteer actors. Each actor takes on multiple roles, as the play flows in and out of different time periods and levels of reality. Shelley Simester, for example, plays four named characters and several other roles. “Utility Actor #3,” she jokes.
“When you do a run,” she says, “you finish one scene, you change your costume, you take a deep breath, and [come out as another character]. As you run it more, the whole pace and flow of that gets into your body.”
Musical director Justin Hiscox also has to shift modes quickly. While most 4th Line plays are set in a specific time period, this play requires everything from bluegrass and hymns to Motown and techno. Hiscox also took inspiration from the horror motif, with soundtrack elements pulled from Psycho and The Thing. “It’s a much wider range,” he says. “Much more fun, actually, than playing just one style.”
For Winslow, keeping track of everything while also playing in nearly every scene, meant bringing on extra help: directing intern Monica Dottor. Says Winslow, “I’m not Wayne Gretzky, so I don’t necessarily see the game as if I’m in the stands.”
“I’m basically on board to support Robert and to be his outside eye,” explains Dottor. “We’re still in an experimental phase now, so we do a scene one way, then come back and do it a different way, then I say, ‘This is what I saw this time, as opposed to what we saw last time.’ Then we decide which way to go—or to keep exploring and find something else.”
Dottor keeps a watchful eye over the varying levels of reality in the play. “Some of the play is definitely rooted in total naturalism, and some of the play is in ‘puppetland.’ At every point in the play, we have to make a choice as to which world we’re playing in, and be really clear that everyone’s there at the same time.”
This makes small signifiers especially important. In a decidedly ‘puppetland’ way, Winslow in character transforms back and forth between King and ‘Robert Winslow.’ To accomplish the transformation, he cocks his hat forward (Winslow) or to the side (King). Dottor helps keep these choices consistent.
Elsewhere, Winslow stops a more naturalistic scene set in a 1960s cocktail lounge, when he notices that a new prop—a serving tray with a beer bottle on it—isn’t period-appropriate. “It needs to be a stubby bottle,” he says. “Canadian, or Labatt 50 maybe.”
Later, he explains, “How you create Millbrook back then—how you create an old bar or a doctor’s pharmacy—is with very small things: one prop, or a banner.” For an older audience who remembers stubbies, these are obvious signifiers, and for a younger crowd, they help create a fuller, more realized world—even if it does keep lapsing back into puppetland.
The rehearsal process is always a strange one. On the first day an actor arrives, the script is a mystery, full of enticing possibilities and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Then, day by day, scene by scene, line by line, it’s torn apart, broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. Mysteries become emotional character arcs, then become a set of technical instructions, and then, with repetition, they become a routine. When I observe rehearsal, a little over two weeks out from opening night, it’s somewhere between the last two.
They rehearse a big musical number, and the action starts and stops as the directors and actors figure out who balances on who during this pose, and which foot to land on after that twirl. It’s technical and exacting and exhausting.
In this play, the process has been particularly difficult for Winslow. “When I’m learning lines, sometimes I’ll get really emotional. It’ll affect me and I won’t sleep well. When you’re pushing, when you’re yelling and you have heat exhaustion and you’re struggling to find this really tough thing that this guy is going through, it’s a real strain on your system.”
But then, hopefully, something strange and beautiful will happen. Four days after my visit will be the first full run-through of the play. It’ll be awkward and stilted at first—entrances won’t line up with exits, sound cues will be missed. But slowly, it’ll start to gel. It’ll still be strange and it’ll still be disjointed, like any good drunken ramble, but piece by piece it will unify.
And with skill and with a little bit of luck, by opening night, The History of Drinking in Cavan will once again transform back into a mystery—this time, one for the audience to discover.
The History of Drinking in Cavan runs from August 7 to 26 at 4th Line Theatre.
Photos by Davey Warren.