There are more than 700,000 curlers in Canada, according to Curling Canada, and many times that number of curling fans. Full disclosure: I am among those people who love to watch the game on TV, online, or being played by my daughter. She is the fifth generation curler in our family, following a family tradition that began in rural Manitoba, migrated to Thunder Bay and has now been played in London, Halifax and Calgary, all curling hotbeds in Canada. So to say we are excited about a curling play this summer at the Blyth Festival Theatre is a bit of an understatement. What is even better is that it was written by a local, Mark Crawford.
The New Canadian Curling Club runs until August 23 at Blyth and it promises to be a fun way to cool off this summer. The story centres on four newcomers to Canada who try to learn how to throw rocks, sweep, keep score and absorb the complicated etiquette of the roaring game. This new play follows Crawford’s recent successful comedies, some of which were staged at Blyth and at Port Stanley Festival Theatre (Stag and Doe, Bed and Breakfast, and The Birds and the Bees). He has also written a children’s play over the past year, Boys, Girls and Other Mythological Characters.
Crawford now lives in Stratford. However he was born and raised on a farm in the curling-infused region of Glencoe, just southwest of London, where he played the game a few times and was surrounded by those who love it. Crawford says the play is set in an anonymous small town in Ontario. “However, on another hand it’s a spin on a small town world in which a Jamaican character, an Indian character, a Chinese character and a Syrian character, who all live in this small town, are going to learn to curl. So I am drawing on the unexpected version of the small town story.” The curlers come together under the tutelage of a local person who is struggling with prejudice.
Crawford says the play promises to be humorous, as the traditions of curling collide with the perspectives on the game from those who have never experienced it. “I am drawn to writing about small towns and those kinds of communities. I am interested in reflecting those communities on stage partly because those communities have been supportive of my writing. I do think that I am able to draw from authentic experience there and to know who those people are, what they sound like. I am not an outsider writing about small towns. I am drawing on personal experience.”
The artistic director at Blyth, Gil Garratt, credits Crawford’s success as a playwright with the amount of time he spends learning about his audience, in this case the rural Ontario summer theatre fans.
“Even with his first play, Stag and Doe; before Mark pitched that play at Blyth, he had already been coming to the Festival and seeing shows for more than 10 years. He had spent so much time with the audience, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt. He still does that, still spends time in the audience, in addition to being an actor himself. He has dedicated serious time to being a real part of the theatre,” says Garratt.
Crawford has had his work staged across Canada, but he particularly likes to bring it home to theatres near Glencoe, such as the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. Artistic Director Simon Joynes calls Crawford a very talented comedy writer. “He doesn’t always take the easy way out with his work. He’s always willing to challenge an audience. Mark’s plays speak to our audiences, not only because they are smart and accessible pieces of writing, but also because he has roots in Southwestern Ontario, and those roots somehow allow our audiences to identify with his work,” says Joynes.
Crawford left Glencoe after high school to study at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College joint program in theatre. Crawford is also an actor. Most recently he appeared in Prairie Nurse at The Factory Theatre in Toronto. Later this summer he will appear in the same show in Gananoque. He has also performed in his own plays (in Stag and Doe at Port Stanley as Jay the caterer, and in Bed and Breakfast in Montreal and Victoria). Next season he will appear in that play in Ottawa, Regina and Vancouver.
Crawford says he is not interested in having one specific style as a writer or actor. “I am drawn to comedy but that is not to say that I will only, exclusively, write comedy. It is important to me that there is a real, human heart in all of my plays. Maybe that is my style. I hope that the plays are both very funny and have authentic depth to them, with people going through real things even though the situation is comedic.”
Crawford is interested in relationships between families and friends, and to explore what it means to be a person. “My goal is to get to the heart of something.”