Welcome home, Dan Needles
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.
A long, long time ago, I landed a job as a young reporter for the Orangeville Citizen. At its sister paper, the Free Press & Economist in Shelburne, the editor, who was about my age but rather more clever, had just left for a career at Queen’s Park in the office of local MPP George McCague. His departure was a sad day. I was newcomer to the hills, and the Shelburne editor’s column, “Letter from Wingfield Farm,” had been a weekly cause for celebration. When the paper arrived, all else ceased as we competed to be first to read the next installment in stockbroker-turned-farmer Walt Wingfield’s letters to the editor.
Time and again, through the fictional Walt, Dan Needles pinpointed exactly our own experience as eager rural neophytes fumbling to absorb the wit and wisdom of our farmer neighbours. The letters were both a hilarious account of Walt’s feckless experiments in farming and a poignant tribute to a way of life that was slowly disappearing.
Fortunately, Dan’s career as a bureaucrat didn’t work out. And in the ’80s, he seized the opportunity to turn his original columns into a one-man play. Since then, Letter from Wingfield Farm has been followed by six more Wingfield plays, and Persephone Township and the town of Larkspur, based on Mono and Shelburne, have become iconic rural Canadian communities. The latest in the series, Wingfield: Lost & Found, opens in Orangeville at the end of this month. And a novelization of all seven plays, Wingfield’s World, was released last fall.
But it isn’t just Wingfield that has kept Dan busy. He has written other plays and novels, and in 2003 he won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his book With Axe and Flask, the History of Persephone Township from Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present. For 15 years he was also the back-page columnist for Harrowsmith Country Life. But Harrowsmith’s sad demise last year was our gain. With this issue, we are very pleased to welcome Dan’s gentle and philosophical humour as a regular column in our pages.
Dan grew up in Rosemont and still has family in Mono, including his mother Dorothy Jane Needles, and sister, Laura Ryan, mayor of Mono. But deeply frustrated by encroaching urbanization, Dan and his wife Heath moved a few miles north to raise their children on a farm in Nottawasaga. Still, we continue to claim him as a native son of these hills and regard his presence in this magazine as a happy homecoming.
Welcome back, Dan.