Dan Needles: Wingfield’s Progress
Frustrated by the disappearance of Mono’s farm community, playwright Dan Needles created Walt Wingfield, a feckless ex-urbanite who champions the spirit of rural life and keeps the audience rolling ruefully in theatre aisles.
From the summer 1995 issue of In The Hills.
It’s late spring, and Dan Needles’ forty-acre Collingwood farm looks pretty much like any Ontario farm at this time of year – muddy. A mild winter has been succeeded by a drab, cool spring, and there are only a few hints of the explosion of green that will follow in just a few weeks.
In person, Dan Needles looks very much like what he is, a writer who farms. Or a farmer who writes, depending on whether his ewes – pronounced “yos”, of course – are lambing. The family farm has the look of functional chaos that most farms tend to have, and Dan himself moves with the unhurried, deliberate manner of someone who is reflecting on what he is doing even as he does it.
Back from Sunday morning church service just long enough to change into coveralls and start his chores, Dan welcomes a visitor into his house, where his wife Heath has just started to bake biscuits. He declines a suggestion that the interview be held at the kitchen table, and opts for his office instead, a room that, judging by the baby grand piano in one corner and a scatter of small toys, is multi-functional.
In conversation, Dan Needles speaks as deliberately as he moves, pausing before responding to a question, then starting into an answer only to pause again as if considering whether there is some still more exact way of putting things.
Asked why someone who has written with such humour and accuracy about the difficulties of farming in the northerly reaches of Mono Township (he claims that his family farm in Rosemont was located on the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba) would move to a farm another notch north in the Collingwood area, Dan typically has a joke at the ready: “Well, it has topsoil. We never had any topsoil in Mono Township.”
Almost immediately, however, he embarks on a catalogue of the areas within Mono that actually do have topsoil. “There are some good farms on the north and south side of the Hockley Valley, in the lee of the Escarpment, on 20 Sideroad – that’s not bad. But the climate’s pretty poor there.”
Topsoil may be one of the attractions of a farm in Nottawasaga. But in conversation Dan also makes it clear that when he bought the farm seventeen years ago he was attracted to it in large part because it was located in an actual farm community, a community like the one he had known growing up on the Seventh Line in Mono Township, but which now endures only in the Wingfield cycle of plays he wrote in the 1980s.
“There are people still around with memories of the old rural community, but it has largely ceased to function,” he says. “All the people I wrote about are gone. Their farms are gone. It’s a bedroom community for Toronto. Everybody commutes. Hardly anybody works locally.”
In the early 1970s, Dan Needles was in his twenties, and as editor of a local weekly newspaper, he was in a perfect position to observe the changes taking place in Mono Township. What he saw was a traditional farming community being superceded with breathtaking speed by a new population of weekenders and commuters. Dan could see a community dying away all around him in Mono. But nobody seemed to care. Certainly, nobody showed much enthusiasm for listening to his impassioned denunciation of the changes.
“I was quite disturbed by what was happening, but every time I talked about it people would say I was stuck in the past and couldn’t accept progress,” he says, drawing out this last word in a way that both echoes and mocks the complacent conviction of those who lectured him on how development would mean nothing but good things for Mono Township.
Dan was also aware of the irony that the community itself was participating fully in its own demise. ‘The last people who were going to preserve the old rural community were the farmers, because they’d done without for so long,” he says. “So they happily chopped up the farms into estate lots and moved into a big house in town for their retirement. They couldn’t wait to get shut of the place.”
Realizing that the change was going ahead regardless of whether he approved or not, Dan decided that, if he couldn’t prevent the rural community of his youth from disappearing, then he would at least do what he could to ensure that it was remembered. In particular, he would find a way to celebrate the people he had known, and the stories he had heard, while growing up in Mono. “I wrote the plays leaving out all my feelings about the death of the family farm, and 1 just tried to show as accurately as 1 could the people and the stories 1 remembered with such affection from the Seventh Line,” he says.
As editor of the Shelburne Free Press and Economist (every newspaper should bear such a stirring title), Dan had little difficulty conceiving of a vehicle for his efforts: a column in his own paper. He framed the column as a series of a weekly letters to the editor by Walt Wingfield, a newcomer to the community and the former chairman and CEO of the brokerage firm MacFeeters, Bartlett & Hendrie. Walt has put aside his life in Toronto to seek a new life by buying the old Fisher place on Lot 26 of the Seventh Line and is determined to farm it using circa 1905 agricultural techniques.
And so began Letter from Wingfield Farm, in which Mono became Persephone Township, Shelburne became Larkspur, and in which readers were first introduced to Freddie, the mixed farmer (livestock, auctioneering and auto parts depot), Jimmy, his dour hired hand, the Squire, and Don, the practitioner of capital-intensive dairy farming.
Dan emphasizes that a certain editorial pragmatism also drove his decision to begin the column: it left him with one less hole in a paper he often found challenging to fill.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of news in Shelburne. There were twenty-six issues that were warm-up Fiddle Contest issues, and there were twenty-six wrap-up issues. The crossover was sometime in February,” he recalls.
“I used to go across the street to the Gulf station after the paper came out and I’d hand my paper to the guys and sit on the Coke cooler while they’d read it in about thirty seconds. And they’d say, ‘Well, that was a great effort, Dan, but now we’ll tell you what really happened’ and you couldn’t print any of it. There was lots happening, but it was all Local Minister Runs Off With Organist stuff that you couldn’t parlay into a straight news story.”
Dan wrote the column from 1974 to 1977. During that time he left the newspaper, and in a case of life paying absolutely no attention to art, left the country to work in the city as executive assistant to George McCague, a cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Bill Davis.
Dan found life in government disillusioning (he claims he went to Queen’s Park a Conservative and returned an anarchist), and after four years he left for a job in the corporate sector, as director of public affairs with a large life insurance company.
In the early 1980s, Dan was presented with an opportunity to rework the material from his original columns into dramatic form as a one-man play. That first play, Letter From Wingfield Farm, was soon followed by the sequels, Wingfield’s Progress, and Wingfield’s Folly.
Seeing the plays, one is struck by how little of Dan’s frustration made its way onto the stage. Instead, he fashioned a series of stories in which the farmers time and again triumph over the threat of the encroaching urban world. Along the way, Walt Wingfield, the exuberant if feckless ex-urbanite, is accepted into the community – in no small part because he more than anyone recognizes the value of the rural way of life. The tone is essentially comedic and, although dark moments intrude, in Persephone Township -if not in Monothe family farm remains alive and well..
His friends readily agree that there is much of Dan Needles in Walt Wingfield, but they also emphasize that there are important differences.
“Walt’s a plunger. Dan is much more cautious,” says Doug Beattie, who has stage-directed all three of the Wingfield plays. In the plays, Walt Wingfield experiences one fiasco after another with livestock and fowl. but his enthusiasm almost immediately propels him to some new challenge. According to Doug, Dan had one disaster with veal calves during an earlier flirtation with farming, and it was some fifteen years before he would consider a farm venture involving “any creature with an advanced nervous system”.
The value of community – a genuine community, in which neighbours support each other, share a set of common values and yet are tolerant of each other’s differences – is at the heart of the Wingfield cycle of plays. And the life that Dan knew on the Seventh Line is clearly the yardstick for that notion of community. Today, his mother Dorothy Jane, a children’s author, still lives in Rosemont and continues to stage an annual concert series at the Orange Hall. His brother Arthur, who also lives in Rosemont but now works in Toronto, founded another the Rosemont landmark the Globe Restaurant. which he operated for seventeen years. “He still does the books for the people who have it now. He can read a set of restaurant books like poetry and tell you where it doesn’t scan,” he says.
In the late 1980s, Dan got married and, with his wife Heath, decided the time had come for a return to the country. He had rented apartments during his entire stay in Toronto, always thinking that at some point he would move to the property he had purchased in Nottawasaga. “I made the decision to come here, and Heath was agreeable because she was a country person herself, raised in Mulmur,” he says.
“I liked the city and had mixed emotions about leaving the company I was with,” he says. “I had a good job and enjoyed my work. I had a lot of friends there, but I just could not see how two people could raise a family in that chaos. Both of you have to work so hard and so long to afford the things you want to give your children that you’d never be able to spend any time with them. Most of my friends are caught in that trap down there.”
And by contrast with his character Walt Wingfield, Dan resolved to make a clean break when he left Toronto, declining his company’s offer to accommodate his desire to live in the country and write. “I said that would be dividing my time between a whole bunch of different masters and between two communities. There’s a tough kind of Biblical principle at stake. You have to decide. You have to make up your mind where you belong,” he says.
Since completing the Wingfield trilogy, Dan has written two other plays, Perils of Persephone, with characters who are just a short drive from the goings-on on the Seventh Line, and Devilled Eggs. He is currently working on a novel. based on his experience at Queen’s Park, and another play which draws its inspiration from one of the people he knew in Mono Township, Russell Thompson. Called The Vision of Austin Ransier. ‘The play uses Russell as a kind of inspiration. I put him in a different situation but use his character to move a plot.” he says. “Russell was a devout Baptist, and he was an interesting mixture of the spiritual and the profane.”
Dan is acutely aware that the changes he observed in Mono Township are now being echoed in Nottawasaga, where affluent Torontonians keen on ski chalets with a view of the lake, have created new pressure on farmland. And he jokes that his three young children may eventually resume the family’s northward exodus.
“This is a tradition that goes back to 1923,” he says. “My mother is from a fine old Ontario family. Her mother was a Massey, and moved out to the east end of the city and built a big house on the family farm – the Massey Experimental Farm. And in 1955 my mother did the same thing, moving up to Mono. And I did the same thing. At this rate, my children may wind up on Manitoulin Island.”
For the time being being, Dan seems happy writing and running his fort 1′acre farm (including six sheep, four goats, two geese, two cows, thirty chickens and a horse) according to the philosophy articulated by Walt Wingfield in the third and final play: Rule One is “Don’t spend money.”
“I think Walt actually had it right in the third play:’ Dan says. “The land does produce all by itself. with the sun and the rain. There’s a natural process out there that works, if you don’t abuse it, and if you accept its limitations and live within them.”
The Wingfield Trilogy continues to make hay
Sometime this year, Rod Beattie will give his 2,000th performance as Walt Wingfield in the Wingfield Farm trilogy of plays. Not bad for a stage production that has been less than compellingly described as a “One-man epistolary play about farm life in southern Ontario.”
Today, there are no less than thirteen Wingfield Farm sets stored across the country – a reflection of the fact that an engagement for the first of the plays usually leads to return visits for the second, Wingfield’s Progress, and the third, Wingfield’s Folly.
In May of this year, Rod Beattie returned from a four-week engagement in Sarasota, Florida, where he performed all three of the plays. It was the second time he’d taken the show south of the border. Last February, he performed for five weeks in Cincinnati. To help orient audiences to the particularities of rural Ontario, a special glossary was included in the program, defining such terms as “concession” and “whipple tree”.
After more than ten years performing as Walt Wingfield, and Freddie, and Maggie, and Jimmy, the Squire, Don the dairy farmer, and those two “genial maniacs” Willie and Dave, Rod is in a position where he can now choose how much Wingfield he wants to perform, balancing the plays with other work through the year. But he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. “It’s still the most fun I have on stage all year,” he says.
In the beginning, it would have taken a brave soul to predict the enduring popularity of Letter from Wingfield Farm. Interviewed separately, author Dan Needles, Rod Beattie and his brother Doug, who stage-directed all three plays, all still talk about a disastrous production during development of the original play, when they found themselves booked into a downtown Toronto theatre in the middle of August – and discovered for themselves why most theatres are “dark” at that time of the summer.
“We got great reviews from all three dailies, but nobody came to the shows,” says Doug. “There was one evening where we had six people in the audience, and discovered that five of them were friends of Dan’s from work.”
The Wingfield plays were a Needles/Beattie collaboration from the start. But it was Dan’s brother, Reed, who performed in the original production at the Palmerston Library Theatre in 1984.
Doug’s brother Rod stepped into the role – or roles – for the second production at the Rosemont Orange Hall, and has been performing in it ever since.
The characters in the Wingfield plays are composites of people Dan Needles knew while growing up on the Seventh tine of Mono Township. And he found the reaction of people in the community surprising.
“People generally got it wrong. They would recognize other people, but not themselves,” he says. “And I quickly learned that you can’t offend people by putting them on stage – we all seem to crave a certain notoriety. But you can offend them by telling them that you had somebody else in mind.”
The letter to the editor format of the original columns provided a natural framework for a one-man play. But in adapting the material for the stage, Doug Beattie was keen to improve on what had been done in the past.
“Most one-man shows are essentially monologues, or performances in which an actor plays two characters at most. There had never really been a play with quick back-and-forth between several characters.”
The first play, in which the various characters were introduced, featured a large number of two-character scenes.
By the second and third plays, however, scenes in which Rod moves between four, five and even six characters have become routine.
The story content also evolves over the course of Wingfield’s Progress and Wingfield’s Folly. The storyline of Wingfield’s Progress includes the death of a major character, a development that Rod Beattie felt was crucial to expanding the scope of the plays. “Up until then, you think you know the boundaries of what what will happen,” he says. “After that, anything is possible.”
Wingfield’s Folly introduces a major female character, a love interest for Walt Wingfield. “It’s a man’s community in the first two plays because it was difficult for Rod to carry a woman’s part for any length of time,” says Dan. “But Rod had always thought that Walt had had his eye on Maggie ever since the first time he saw her waving from among the geraniums in Freddie’s Pontiac, which she used as a planter.”
While Rod may have ventured the part of Maggie, Freddie’s sister, with some trepidation, the audience response showed people had been waiting for this development in Walt’s life. “It’s a bit hard to describe, but it’s almost as if people move forward in their seats when Maggie appears on stage,” says Doug.
When he first began performing the characters, Rod, who knew many of the people behind the characters from visits to Dan’s family farm, used to check his performance against his memory of how the people actually spoke. “But I stopped doing that awhile ago. Over the course of three plays, the characters have acquired full identities in their own right.”
Letter from Wingfield Farm began as a newspaper column, evolved into a trilogy of stage plays, and was then published in book form. The evolution may not be over. Although a proposal to base a television series on the characters in Wingfielrl foundered, recently interest has been expressed in reworking the material contained in the plays for presentation as a series of half-hour programs that would air as a limited run series.
And there has been persistent interest from theatre directors in seeing a fourth Wingfield production. No plans are in the works, but Rod feels there’s a good case to be made for a return visit. “It’s true there’s a strong feeling that third play was meant to sort of tidy things up. But life has moments like that and you go on from there. I just don’t think we’ve said all there is to say about these characters.”