Horse Drawn Magic: Open-Air Theatre in Western Canada
Imagine travelling through the countryside on wagons pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses and stopping in small towns to perform a play. This is the premise of Horse Drawn Magic, a 1979 jewel of a documentary that follows the Caravan Stage Company throughout the interior of British Columbia and Alberta. The troupe travels an average of 19 kilometres a day with 9 Clydesdales, 5 wagons, 7 riding horses, 2 goats, numerous dogs and 24 performers, not to mention several of the performers’ children.
This wonderful film follows the actors, jugglers, clowns and musicians during the summer of 1978 as they tour Alberta for the first time. They travel, perform, eat and sleep outdoors, arriving in small towns just like the circuses of old, drumming up business along the way.
What is amazing is how they encourage audience participation during the shows. There is a scene of pure magic in which an actor dressed as a fortune teller sings a song and has several children take part in the performance. The look of wonder in the children’s eyes is priceless, but it is not only the young who are awed by these shows. In several scenes we see adults having the time of their life watching and participating.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to live on the road for 4 months, let alone to sleep under the stars. The film gives us a pretty good idea of the hardships endured by all, but the surprising thing is that the performers are clearly enjoying the experience. Every one of them has to do a lot more than perform. Whether it is fixing the brakes on the wagons or stopping traffic on the highways, they have their work cut out for them. Along the way, friendly farmers supply them with vegetables and fruit and, occasionally, a place to shower.
As one performer says, after living this way you feel much stronger. How often do you think actors have to perform with trains going by just 20 feet away? It happens, when you perform outdoors, as does the occasional rain shower. This does not dampen the enthusiasm of the performers or the audience. Grassroots theatre at its best.
Director Dorothy Henaut knew the founders of the troupe personally and proposed a documentary that would follow them during one of their summer tours. The project was approved, and Henault and crew spent several weeks in June 1978 filming the Alberta tour. They also returned in September to film the troupe’s last show in Armstrong, B.C.
The finished film was shown at the Toronto Festival of Festivals (now TIFF) to a packed house in September 1979. The director of the festival was so impressed with the film that he wrote to the NFB’s Film Commissioner to tell him he felt that screening was one of the highlights of the festival. He also suggested that the film would do very well in Europe.
Horse Drawn Magic was bought by television networks in England and Ireland, along with a half dozen more countries in the Middle East and Asia. Over the next few years in North America, it had a disappointing and scattered release, appearing on several CTV and Global TV stations, as well as on KCTS, the PBS affiliate in Seattle.
We now have the pleasure of presenting it to you on NFB.ca. If you have ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus, this film will appeal to the romantic in you. Even if you haven’t, it will bring a smile to your face.
Enjoy the film.