The unsolved murder of renowned Canadian painter Tom Thompson simply adds mystery to his legend, a legacy that would have prevailed had he died peacefully of old age.
That’s why playwright Jim Betts is keen to emphasize that Colours in the Storm, which opens the Theatre Aquarius season this weekend, is about the life of Thompson, not his death.
Betts’ writing incorporates Canadian themes because “Canadian writers need to celebrate our own stories and I don’t know if that happens as often as it should.”
When he started his research into Thompson in the mid 80’s, during his stint as a writer for the Young People’s Theatre, he originally thought the artist’s murder would make a good basis for a children’s show.
“Eventually I abandoned the idea of writing a show based on the mystery of his death, because I began to get more interested in his life, in what made him tick.” He decided that a children’s mystery/adventure wasn’t the right format.
Later, while working with the Muskoka Festival, Betts made the decision to write the musical “based on what Thompson was passionate about in his life, rather than the mystery surrounding his death.” The show premiered there in 1990.
Jim Betts is a soft-spoken man who chooses his words as carefully as one would expect from a successful writer. Taking a break from rehearsal, Betts recounted how, after starting his research on the famous landscape painter, he identified with the dramatic changes that Thompson went through over eight decades ago.
“Now obviously you can’t write a show about Tom Thompson without dealing with his death, but what began to fascinate me was the fact that Thompson had never shown any real significant interest in painting, until he arrived in Algonquin Park at age 35 and it changed his life.”
When Thompson arrived in the park in 1912, he had some background as a commercial artist, including some work with other artists who later formed part of Canada’s most famous art movement, The Group of Seven.
“I suppose at that time, I was not that much older than Thompson had been and I was looking to make some changes myself. Embarking on this project allowed me to reassess how I wrote musical theatre, and this is not a musical in the traditional sense.
“I call it a play with songs because the songs function in a very different way than they do in traditional American musicals.”
Each song in the play is based on a single painting, like Northern River, Spring Ice, Algonquin, or on a series of paintings. The aim was to allow the audience to experience, in a theatrical setting, the visual experience of viewing one of the paintings.
Playwright Betts is also directing this time around, a role he first filled last year at the Orangeville Festival, where he is the founding Artistic Director.
Betts modified his original idea, to have no visual references to the paintings, and now there is some use of Thompson’s work in the play. But his aim remains to recreate the sublime experience of the viewing of the art, by substituting another medium, song.
Betts’ has the other characters in the play also going through some sort of crises of their own, trying to find ways to change themselves. Those characters include Winnie Trainor, who was rumoured to be Thompson’s fiancée and Martin Bletcher, a rival for Winnie and the first suspect in Thompson’s murder. Shannon and Annie Fraser run the Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake, where Thompson, an accomplished woodsman, drowned.
“The search that Thompson, in our show, goes through, the passion he discovers in himself and the determination to completely fulfill his potential is what in fact leads him to his death. It’s a traditional tragedy in that sense.”
Jonathan Porter has designed the set. Lighting designer Louise Guinand has been able to use the background, based on one of Tom’s sky paintings, for varying effects, so that visually it’s the most colourful set and lighting design that the play has ever had. “It’s a long way from the original concept of the show, where we did it with three chairs, a bench and a barrel.”
Betts is happy that Jonathan Whittaker, the original actor to play Tom Thompson, is returning to the role. And the actor’s even become a passable painter from the experience.
“Thompson’s painting is a metaphor for all of us who decide to make changes,” sums up the writer as he prepares to head back into the rehearsal. “My big goal was to have everyone leave the theatre saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something I’ve always wanted to do, whether it was gardening, picking driftwood up off the shore … if Thompson can do it, I can do it!’ ”
Betts hopes that it becomes apparent to anybody who wants to do something new and different and creative, that the decisions Thompson made are the same kinds of decisions any of us can make about changing our lives.
“Tom saw what he wanted and he went after it.”