‘Blyth’ spirit

This year marks the 30th anniversary season of the nationally renowned Blyth Festival. With a tradition of mounting new Canadian plays with rural themes, the festival, held in a tiny town in southwestern Ontario’s Huron County, has earned a reputation for excellence in Canadian theatre. A significant number of York University alumni, faculty and students who have been associated with the festival since its beginnings continue to contribute to it today.

One of the founding artistic directors of the Blyth Festival was James Roy, who is currently area executive producer of CBC Radio Drama. He graduated from York University in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre and a year later established the Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ont.

Another member of the York community who has played a leading role in the success of the Blyth Festival is award-winning stage designer Shawn Kerwin, who chairs the Department of Theatre in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. As senior set and costume designer, she has been involved in many memorable productions at Blyth. The festival has been the beneficiary of her talent and skills on and off since 1977, and she has since been named one of the festival’s Honorary Associate Artists for her outstanding commitment.

Right: Shawn Kerwin

“Shawn’s unerring common sense, combined with a healthy measure of passion, is evident in all of her designs. Quite simply, she serves the play,” says Karen Stewart, Blyth’s director of marketing. “Of equal importance is her commitment to foster emerging artists at the Festival. A constant champion of new designers and directors, Shawn has steered her share of fledglings back on path with a firm, yet gentle hand.”

Kerwin brings this same kind of vigour and passion to York University. She has been teaching and advising students at York since 1992, as well as supervising study projects and developing new courses. In 2002, she mounted an exhibition of York student design work in Beijing, China, as part of the Beijing Central Academy of Drama’s International Theatre Showcase.

A brilliant designer of stage sets and costumes, Kerwin has designed more than 15 Blyth Festival productions, including this year’s Spirit of the Narrows and Salt Water Moon. Her past Blyth credits include: Leaving Home (2003), The Drawer Boy (2002, 2000), Goodbye Piccadilly (2002), Sometimes Never (2001), Anne (2000), That Summer (1999), Thirteen Hands (1998), There’s Nothing In The Paper (1997), Sticks and Stones (1988), and A Summer Burning (1977).

“Blyth is a fun place to work,” says Kerwin. “It attracts good actors and directors and has a very good production facility. Additionally, I have always been interested in the development of new work, and have designed many new plays in theatres across the country. For me, the most interesting thing isn’t necessarily the commitment to specific plays, as much as the commitment to the philosophy of doing new work.”

Her designs have also been seen on stages from coast to coast in Canada, including: Mirvish Productions, CanStage, DVxT Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Factory Theatre, Soulpepper, Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Direct in Toronto; Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton; Grand Theatre in London, Ont.; Festival of Classics, Oakville; Stratford Festival; National Arts Centre, Ottawa; Neptune Theatre, Halifax; Citadel Theatre, Edmonton; Pacific Opera in Victoria, BC, as well as in England and the United States.

With an unquenchable zest for theatre, Kerwin received the Tom Patterson Award in 1981 which is given annually to a young design member of the Stratford Festival, followed by Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 1992 and 2001 for her commitment to excellence in theatre in Toronto.

Her lengthy and versatile career also involves the design of more than 250 window installations for Tiffany & Co.’s Canadian flagship store in Toronto; costume, wardrobe and production design for the film DNA (2003), directed by Jack Blum and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; and production design for the short film Ministry (1998), directed by her York University faculty colleague Ines Buchli.

“As I continue to come to Blyth, I am struck by the level of commitment towards the arts in the people who live here” says Kerwin. “Every season, as the choir and orchestra play outside the theatre on opening nights, I am very moved by the fact that in this small village there are so many talented people. The volunteers who work for the festival and the people in the community who support the festival are such a clear indication of why the arts are important. Sometimes in the city you lose sight of the relationship between what you do and who sees it. In Blyth, you never lose sight of that relationship.”

With marked affection, Stewart says, “Shawn is a tireless advocate for the company and its artists and is thoroughly admired by one and all who work here. We at the Blyth Festival are extremely proud of our association with Shawn. Her position in one of Canada’s leading theatre programs is well deserved.”

Modest and somewhat protective of her privacy, Kerwin quickly deflects the praise, “Getting me to talk about myself, unless directly put on the hot seat, is harder than peeling grapes with mitts on.”

Another distinguished “Yorkie” who has influenced the Blyth Festival is stage director and producer Katherine Kaszas (BFA ’76), who served as artistic director at Blyth for several seasons. Her name is also associated with CanStage, Manitoba Theatre Company, Alberta Theatre Projects, Prairie Theatre Exchange and Theatre New Brunswick.

A large number of York University students have also shared their talents with Blyth audiences over the years. Gillian Gallow, who is graduating June 2004 with a BFA in theatre, and Paul Jamieson, a 3rd-year theatre student, have been hired this season, continuing the rewarding relationship between York University and the Blyth Festival.

As the summer breezes of Lake Huron scent this annual theatre festival, York University continues to prepare its students for the next phase of their theatrical journeys – which may, perhaps, also lead to Blyth one day!

The Blyth Festival opens on June 18. Visit the Blyth Festival Web site for more information.

This story was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena, communications, Faculty of Fine Arts.