Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt on The Pigeon King - On Stage Till June 15 2018

Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt on
The Pigeon King
On Stage Till June 15 2018
Heading to Ottawa at the National Arts Centre April 24 to May 5 2019

Written by Rebecca Auerbach, Jason Chesworth, Gil Garratt, George Meanwell, J.D. Nicholsen, Gemma James Smith, Birgitte Solem and Severn Thompson
Director: Severn Thompson

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"Incredibly enough, I've been living and working out here for about 20 years, but I'd never heard about this story until it was in The New York Times."
Gil Garratt (and pigeons) by Terry Manzo
It was a newspaper clipping that a friend sent to him that set Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt on the road to creating The Pigeon King, the hit country musical/comedy/courtroom drama that sold out shows last summer and returns for a remount until June 15.

It's a tale that illustrates the old axiom, truth is stranger than fiction. Blyth Festival's The Pigeon King is a true story of outrageous fraud, outsized personalities, and sheer absurdity - one that provied irresistible to Garratt's theatrical spidey sense.

In short, one Arlan Galbraith of Waterloo, Ontario managed to bilk farmers in southwestern Ontario out of millions of dollars for several years through an unusual Ponzi-style scheme he dubbed Pigeon King International. The deal was this: farmers would buy a breeding pair of pigeons, with the guarantee that he'd buy back the offspring for the next ten years at a price that was fixed in advance. His story was that the birds were racing stock, and he was selling them to the international pigeon racing community. He also claimed at one point to be selling them as meat. In actual fact, he never sold them at all - he simply sold the offspring to new marks as another breeding pair, with the same promise.

He took a total of $42 million from the investors he bilked, and walked away from obligations to buy $356 million worth of pigeon offspring. It sounds ridiculous, but the fact of the matter is, for seven years from 2001 to 2008, he managed to stay one step ahead. Until one day, it all came crashing down. His 2013 trial made international headlines.
The Pigeon King, written by Blyth Company members Rebecca Auerbach, Jason Chesworth, Gil Garratt, George Meanwell, J.D. Nicholsen, Birgitte Solem, Gemma James Smith and Severn Thompson, enjoys an encore run in the 2018 season, from May 30 to June 15. Photo by Terry Manzo.
Recognizing the local place names and given the nature of the story, Gil knew he had to find a way to put the story on stage. But, it's the local nature of the tale that proved problematic. "Nobody wanted to talk," he says. Gil tried to contract a couple of local writers, but ran into the same problem - the writers would find they had their own family involved in the case, and couldn't continue. "We hit on the idea of doing it as a collective."

When it came to the format, a number of ideas were tossed around before settling on the country musical/courtroom drama format. "We had to find a way of embracing the absurdity of the story - and also the genuine hurt." Country music to the rescue.

While The Pigeon King is a comedy, it still touches on the devastation left in the wake of the fraud scheme - century farms lost, divorces and other misery. Gil emphasizes that the humour in the play doesn't come at the cost of ridiculing any of the victims. He also emphasizes the central thesis of the scheme. "This was only possible because of the precarious nature of farming in Canada."

To get at the heart of the story, Gil began with a public list of the creditors left owing at the time of the trial. "I wrote a passionate letter," he says. It was a letter asking for the victim's help in providing the details. "I started getting letters back, and phone calls."

Gil recalls one of the first couples who replied. They had lost a great deal. "But, they were still able to laugh at it," he says. As the couple noted, and as it came out in court, until the scheme collapsed in 2008, Arlan never bounced a cheque, and was never so much as late for a pick up. The couple was so enthusiastic about the project, they asked for tickets to the show. "There was an openness," Gil marvels.

He gathered the stories of the farmer victims, Arlan's sales people, even from the prosecutors. Gil also listened to audio transcripts from the trial - where Arlan represented himself - and lifted some of the lines directly from the tapes.

During the trial, Arlan tried to bring in a theory about the Amish Mafia and other bizarre ruses to deflect blame. Gil was not able to interview him directly, but there was plenty of material - including his own words to quote - from the trial transcripts and numerous media interviews at the time, along with Arlan's own Pigeon Newsletter that he wrote and sent out during his dubious reign as an pigeon investment king.

As Gil and his co-creators gathered material and wrote the play, he describes a process that became a collective, one that gradually came to include virtually the entire community.

"It's got these incredible characters - the fall from grace, pride and hubris." 

Along with the comedic and musical elements, the play turned into a huge and unexpected hit. "There was some trepidation," he says, but it proved unwarranted. "People went crazy for it."

Among the audience members for its initial run in the summer of 2017 were many of the victims and people involved in the story, including one of Arlan's former salesmen. "Folks saw it and were hugely grateful. They were effusive." The former pigeon futures salesman went on to tell all his former clients about the show and even drove some of them to the theatre.

After this month's run, the show goes into hibernation, but only until next year. The show will be heading east to Ottawa's National Arts Centre in 2019 - the first Blyth Festival original production to do so. "We're going to load it all up and take it to Ottawa." Gil says that the invitation to Ottawa came from the NAC's Artistic Director, Jillian Keiley, who made the trip to Blyth last summer. "She came and saw the show, and was blown away."

Gil calls it a "real validation" of not only the play, but the community. "Blyth is so connected to the farming community," he says. "To put Canadian farmers on stage in Ottawa is really something.