Story & Photos submitted by: Ardith Racey
It’s opening night, and the show - a musical based on local history - is sold out. There’s a buzz inside the building that may have something to do with the well-attended, operational bar which rests at the far end of a very long, wooden plank stage. A wall of windows opens onto a panoramic view of a green-blue lake. It’s late June and the world is filled with summer.
I try to imagine this place 98 years ago when it first opened as part of Tweed’s Memorial Park. Or 50 years ago when it was the-place-to-be on a Friday night. In fact, the “Tweed Dance Pavilion”, set on the shores of Stoco Lake, was erected in 1929 - just before the Great Depression. It was primarily intended for dances, social gatherings, picnics. In the 30’s, dance bands would circulate through the area, performing at four similar pavilions.
There’s something quite lovely about the open-aired ambience of the place that is difficult to articulate - it possesses a kind of old-fashioned grandeur. But instead of being allowed to fall into ruin, or be destroyed as were the other neighbouring pavilions, local and government funded initiatives have enabled it to maintain its original look. The vaulted, wood ceiling and hardwood tongue-and-groove floors have witnessed much.
Tonight, they witness a musical production. Hastings. The Musical. Tim Porter, the Artistic Director of Tweed & Company Theatre introduces the show. He’s young, and he’s “super excited” as he explains, first, that the stage is an “alley stage” and that the wood was donated by a local lumber business. He introduces some of the key players, writers, musicians, and highlights the many local sponsors behind the show; clearly, this has been a labour of love by a young theatre group who have “produced three large scale original Canadian musicals, as well as countless other Canadian and international productions”. He calls this show a “song cycle”.
So, why a play about Hastings County, I muse before the show begins. What has pulled this talented group of young people to this small village?
The show begins with a reference to Mrs. Simpson’s tavern - which in fact, was the first watering hole in Belleville in the late 18th century. We are to imagine the door of her tavern as a “passageway to the past”, and for much of this performance, this concept seems apt because the play itself is a “doorway” to the “incredible people and events which give Hastings County its identity”. Names like: Billa Flint, Captain John Meyers, Mackenzie Bowell, Susanna Moodie, James McNabb, Thomas Coleman, Merrill Denison, to name a few, resonate throughout the songs and dialogue as the musical progresses. Events like: the hardships of pioneer life, the War of 1812, the first Hastings County Fair, the Rebellion of 1837, the Farmers’ Revolt, Irish immigration due to the Potato Famine, the Eldorado Gold Rush, and the Suffrage Movement. Again, to name a few.
The content of the musical resonates with me, too. I grew up in this place, and have lived here much of my life. A copy of Historic Hastings, by Gerald Boyce, has sat on my parents’ bookshelf since 1967, Centennial year. The performance of Hastings. The Musical runs for ten days and coincides with Canada’s 150 celebrations. Fitting, indeed.
As the play progresses, I recognize the tremendous energy and creativity of this theatre group; the play moves from burlesque to serious, in keeping with the songs which move seamlessly from upbeat foot-stompers with lots of drums, piano, guitar, mandolin, and bass to elegies fuelled by violin and flute. Throughout the evening, the voices of the performers capture and captivate. It’s a play that uses two large wood trunks, stamped with “Ship to Hastings County”, and a few wooden chairs as props to create a tavern table, a newspress, a stage coach, a sawmill, a grave, a train, a boat . . . the simplicity of this is echoed with the homespun attire of the men and the simplicity of the women’s dresses. And as with good theatre, we are pulled into the past.
In fact, it is the past - the history of Hastings County - that has inspired the writers and composers of Hastings. The Musical. This, in itself, is impressive: that young people can be inspired enough by history that they want to turn it into performance material. And specifically, by the history of Hastings County.
But it’s more than the past that has pulled this troupe to Tweed.
For several years, they have performed at the Marble Arts Centre, in Actinolite, another building with significant history. These young people truly like being here - in Hastings County - giving back history to the community in a place that holds so much history. They are having fun - just as the founders of the Pavilion intended. I’m impressed with the artistic enthusiasm of the performers - they are passionate, excited, and happy.
Hastings County is a place that draws dynamic artists and talented young people from all over Canada. The crew and cast of Tweed & Co have chosen Hastings County, and specifically the rustic village of Tweed, as the focus for this musical, and the place from which to showcase their talent. Like those early pioneers, these young people are resilient and creative. Places and histories can loop back and forth. Watching this musical is a double hook: the play is about local historical events, set in a venue that is historical, in a county that continues to inspire. It’s history inside history. Hastings County is both old and new, a home and a destination with lots more history in the making.
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Story and photographs by Ardith Racey
As one of our six Local Wanderers exploring Hastings County, Ardith enjoys arts and cultural experiences, agri-tourism adventures, small towns, and paddling the local lakes and river systems.
Learn more about Ardith through her bio, as well as for a link to the other adventures she has shared with us. You can also read about our other five Local Wanderers and the excursions they've experienced across the County.
Our Local Wanderer Initiative is funded and supported in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Sport and Regional Tourism Organization 11 - Ontario's Highlands.