“By the time Gilbert and Sullivan had worked together as long as we have, they were only talking to each other through lawyers.” That’s writer Dan Needles, speaking about his longtime collaboration with the Beattie brothers – actor Rod and director Doug – on the Wingfield chronicles. This series of one-man shows about stockbroker-turned-farmer Walt Wingfield has played on stages from Victoria to Halifax to acclaim for more than a quarter century. The plays initially mined the urban-rural divide for humour, but lately they’ve gone deeper: portraying an agricultural community in transition and exploring the vicissitudes of family life. In the seventh instalment, Wingfield Lost and Found, the title character struggles to save his crop from a terrible drought, and considers using the skills of a traditional diviner to help him locate a new source of fresh water.
The play is at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre in January, and it’s a homecoming for the trio: the Beattie brothers and Needles grew up in the city, playing ball hockey on its streets, before going on to study at U of T. Rod (BA 1972 WOODS, MA 1976) vividly recalls a one-on-one seminar with the redoubtable Robertson Davies, who had almost finished writing his locally set Deptford trilogy of novels. Needles and Doug also acted together in Merrill Denison’s Marsh Hay, a bleak portrait of rural Ontario life. “We were all excited by this idea that things could be set here, that we could tell our own stories,” Rod says, but their multi-episode tale would take several years of gestation.
After university, Needles (BA 1978 WOODS) tried his hand at farming in Rosemont, an hour north of Toronto, but he didn’t make much profit in his first year, so he took a job at the local paper. There, he began a popular column about a fictional city slicker who moves from Toronto to Larkspur, a town like Rosemont. Rod, who was trying to make his way as an actor, saw the material’s dramatic potential – and a nice role for himself in it. Needles and Rod toiled over an early draft script, while Doug (BA 1978 TRIN) gave comments on the near-final version and, as director, shaped Rod’s performances – their process to this day. Unlike solitary playwrights, Needles involves his compadres in every stage of the process. “We all have the understanding,” he says, “that theatre is not kind to single visions.”