One of the pioneering forms of theatre in Canada is the collective creation. Canadian theatre legend Paul Thompson developed many of the early collectives – some of those for the Blyth Festival, making the Festival a kind of home for this particular style of storytelling. Collective creations are very often tied to the land and the history of a community, and The Pigeon King is no exception. However, in this case the idea for the show came to Blyth Festival Artistic Director (and the portrayer of the Pigeon King himself) Gil Garratt from a very far away place. A friend of Gil’s sent him an article from The New York Times about a story that occurred minutes away from his door in Huron County, involving many people who were farmers in the community. The thrilling moment when a story literally lands in your hands and demands to be told is precious. Within a year, Gil had gathered a group of writers, actors, designers, musicians and their director, Severn Thompson.
They began interviews in the community, some of which were difficult to get. It turns out that not many revel in telling stories about that time they were swindled. However, this team, with their passionate and compassionate hearts, won the farmers over, and found the truths that became the building blocks for a great piece of theatre. Collective creations are an assembly of everyone’s ideas, and the larger the collective, the more pitfalls lie within. It takes a group of gifted artists who operate with a high level of generosity and curiosity to unite the team toward a single narrative line. The director is a key player in this, and Severn comes by this naturally. Not only is she an accomplished director, actor and playwright, but she was inspired early on in the art of the collective by her father, the king of Canadian collective creation, Paul Thompson.
Enjoy the show!
“He who does not trust is not to be trusted.” ~ Lao Tzu
Arlan Galbraith printed this quote in large letters and included it with his Pigeon King contract package. One could say that our whole economy is built on a similar kind of faith. This play is the result of a group investigation and exploration of Pigeon King International, a business that ran from 2001 to June 2008. In 2013, Arlan Galbraith stood trial in Kitchener’s Superior Court for fraud. Hundreds of people had lost their trust along with their investments, even while some of them still considered him a friend. All characters in the play, with the exception of Mr. Galbraith, have fictional names and are only loosely based on individuals we researched and interviewed in order to respect their privacy.
Most of us are forced to contend with almost daily fraud attempts online, by phone, or in person. Even while researching this play, I was caught by an online scam that appeared to be connected to a legitimate retailer’s website. Limited action by our credit card companies and our country’s legal system provide little protection for us. According to the Better Business Bureau, almost $100 million was lost across the country in 2017 through fraud, and this only accounts for the estimated 5% of cases that are reported. Only a strong demand from the public will bring about the change that’s needed to effectively catch and stop these questionable ‘businesses’.
The Pigeon King is a story of hope, fraud, uncertain economies, justice, forgiveness, despair and love. I like to think that it’s also a story where trust can be found again, at least in ourselves and our ability to overcome misfortune. Pigeons could be a perfect example of this resilience as they’ve survived and thrived along with us for thousands of years.
This project began when a friend of mine, who is a local newspaper editor in Huron County, sent me a link to a New York Times story by John Mooallem, entitled Birdman: The Pigeon King and the Ponzi Scheme that Shook Canada. Intrigued, I began to read the article. I was immediately struck by the names of places I recognized: Kitchener, Waterloo Court, Saugeen, Stratford. There were Amish and Mennonite communities being described that I recognized; local farm events that I remembered taking place; names of people I’d heard before. The Times story had taken place in my backyard.
At first, when I began to talk about the story in our rural community, I’ll admit I was surprised by how hard it was to get people to talk about what had happened. Farmers in the know tried to introduce me to farmers who’d been caught up in the scam, but very few of them wanted to say a thing.
The first playwrights I approached about a stage adaptation turned away from it. One of them confided that his cousins had been caught in the scheme and lost their farm, and he couldn’t touch the story with a ten-foot pole. I spent more than a year trying to convince someone to write it. I conducted a half dozen interviews but only with farmers who knew farmers who’d been involved. Nobody wanted to come forward. In short, there was a silencing amount of shame.
My chief co-conspirator, Gemma James Smith, thought we needed a way to tell the story that would take the sting out, and she hit on the idea of making this a country musical, full of rousing toe-tappers and hurtin’ songs. It changed everything.
Gemma and I had dinner with Jack and Becca, and all four of us started reading all of the coverage we could. Even just that night, over a couple bottles of wine, we wrote song titles for songs that might or might not ever exist.
In her research, Gemma found a list of all of the creditors of the Pigeon King bankruptcy, complete with addresses, and so I wrote personal letters to all of the farmers in our region, explaining who I was, what the Blyth Festival does, and how, since 1975, we have celebrated farmers on our stage, advocated for their needs, and tried to amplify their voices. I promised anonymity, offered to listen, and told them flat out in the letter that we at Blyth knew that a lot of the reason these farmers got taken by Arlan had more to do with the precarious state of contemporary Canadian family farming than it did with anything else.
Gratefully, the phone started to ring. And over the next year we conducted dozens and dozens of interviews. Our team grew too. Jason Chesworth, George Meanwell and Birgitte Solem came on board. We met in the winter of 2016 and started improvising and trading stories we’d found, or relating anecdotes from folks we’d met, and the momentum started to build.
Director Severn Thompson joined the team and helped us not just shape the play, but invent a process, one that worked in a room full of large personalities. She also rolled up her sleeves and dug deep into the research.
Severn managed to get her hands on audio recordings of the trial itself. We travelled, all of us, to the courthouse in Waterloo and went through all of the evidence, reading through binders and binders of victim impact statements from the sentencing. We interviewed investigators, arresting officers, lawyers, the Crown prosecutor, former employees of Arlan’s, family friends, and thankfully, in the end, dozens and dozens of farmers.
When the play opened in Blyth, in the summer of 2017, we didn’t know what to expect. I don’t have words to articulate how gratifying the response was that night. Aside from an uproarious standing ovation, we found, in the crowd afterward, farmers whom we’d interviewed in the creation process, who were laughing and raving about the show. Who shook our hands vigorously and said they were going to call so-and-so and tell them they had to see it. And this phenomenon happened in which farmers who’d felt utterly ashamed and diminished by what Arlan had done to them, suddenly felt vindicated, and they became our champions. They took pride in the show, knowing they’d contributed to what was on the deck, and the whole project became a lot bigger than us.
In his recent memoir, Canadian poet turned farmer Brian Brett said, “farming is a profession of hope.” (On the same page he also admitted that if the Ministry of Agriculture knew how little he paid himself he’d be brought up on charges of exploitation).
More than pigeons and squab, what Arlan Galbraith traded in was hope.
Empty barns became pens full of possibility.
Farmers who’d been dealt a bad hand suddenly had another ace in the deck.
Until the whole house of feathered cards came down.
But, to extend the gambling metaphor a little (and after all… this is a farm story… so why wouldn’t we extend the gambling metaphor), it’s important to remember that while Arlan may have run the table, there were a lot of other players betting on his dice – not just the farmers who got fleeced. There are banks who made business loans against century farms, mortgage brokers, feed companies, trucking companies, contractors, insurers, lumberyards, and more… whole communities were riding on Arlan’s reckless roll.
While his scheme may go down in the annals and the almanacs as one of the most preposterous, it will not be the only one… and it certainly won’t be the last.
As more than one couple told us when they were asked why they believed him, they said simply “he always paid cash on the barrel… was never late… never bounced a cheque.”
They had their doubts. But sometimes the need for hope is greater than the scale of doubt. It’s the same odds: boxcars and snake eyes.
Jokers are wild. The Pigeon was King.
Artistic Director, Blyth Festival