When Walt Wingfield takes to the stage here at the Fergus Grand Theatre May 29 and 30, he and a couple dozen of his family and friends will offer mighty comedy entertainment – even though only one actor is on the stage.
Rod Beattie is creating a legend in Canadian Theatre with the Wingfield series of plays written by Dan Needles and directed by Rod’s brother, Douglas. They stem from Needles once being an editor in Shelburne and writing a column about a stockbroker-turned-farmer writing to the local Newspaper. Those letters were the basis of the first Wingfield plays.
They were once called the Wingfield trilogy, but that stopped after numbers four, five, and six in the series. The seventh, possibly the funniest yet, Wingfield Lost and Found, had its world premier preview over three days on the long weekend – and it was completely sold out.
Such is the love people seem to have for Walt Wingfield and Rod Beattie. He celebrated something of an anniversary in Fergus in 2006 – when he performed his 3,500th Wingfield show. He said in an interview on Monday that will reach over 4,000 sometime next year.
Wingfield on Ice is the fifth in the series, which means Beattie has been bringing Walt to Fergus for five years.
“That’s usually how it works” he said of performing in a new venue. He starts at Letters from Wingfield Farm, and works his way forward through the plays. That way, his audience, can follow the story– and anyone who has seen one Walt performance is immediately hooked into wanting to see the next. While they can be taken in as a one-off piece of theatre, following them in sequence is even more fun.
Beattie noted he started the run for Chemainus, in British Columbia last year, and will run through the entire sequence eventually.
Oddly, he said, “I don’t have a favourite” among the seven plays. “I like the one I’m doing at the moment.”
Wingfield plays a huge number of characters, starting with Walt, the stockbroker from Bay Street who moves to the back roads of Persephone Township and tries to make a living as a farmer. In the country, he meets a host of characters, including Freddie, the Squire, Don the dairy farmer, Freddie’s crazed nephews, Willy and Dave, and, of course, Spike the dog. He also finds true love while facing the problems of perpetual bankruptcy, in the form of Maggie, Freddie’s sister, who lives on the farm next door.
Walt plays all those characters, switching from one to the other with total ease. A change of hats, a shrug of the shoulders, and a rise or fall in the pitch of the voice, and he becomes each one. He said he has no particular favourite character, because, “They’re hard enough to control as it is.”
But if forced to choose, he added, “I have kind of a soft spot for Spike.”
Wingfield spent 15 seasons at Stratford, and said learning various characters in a repertory company is a similar theatrical process, although in the Wingfield series, he has to make the “changes moment to moment instead of day to day.”
Beattie said that he sees more differences between the plays than the audience appears to, and that allows him to perform, say, Letters from Wingfield Farm in Stratford one night, and then do two nights of Wingfield on Ice in Fergus starting the very next day. He never gets confused and seldom drops a line.
This year, he will perform Wingfield shows about 200 times. He said that travel is the toughest part of his job, and “If the audience could come to me, I could do it every day of my life.”
The last few years, though, he has taken some time, even though it was a tough schedule, to perform in at least one other play not related to Wingfield. Beattie did The Odd Couple last year in Calgary.
He said that early in his Wingfield career, which goes back to the mid-1980s, people assumed he was busy and didn’t ask him. But now that they know he is willing, he gets offers. This year, though, because of the new play, he will be doing strictly Wingfield shows.
Beattie has taken Walt and friends to the United States, and noted that he could go back there, but American attitudes make it somewhat tougher. He said they find it far more difficult to understand a stockbroker leaving that job to become a farmer.
“I’m not as comfortable being in the states as I am in Canada,” he said.
“I’m very aware of the cultural differences,” he said, adding that does not make him anti-American.
But, in Canada, he said, there is “an immediate recognition of the kind of humour” that Wingfield offers, while, in the United States, “People are a little puzzled by Walt himself. In Canada, Walt is instantly recognized as the guy next door – coast to coast.”
Beattie added that he looks forward to coming to Fergus at the end of the month. “You’ve got a nice little theatre there. We’re looking forward to revisiting Wingfield on Ice. That may be the only time we do it this year.”
For tickets, call Ralph Basset Associates at 519-843-4852, or visit them at 181 St. Andrew Street East, Unit 1, in Fergus.