Cowboys and Other Illusions – Jesse Aaron Dwyre on Farther West
From three years old until I was about six years, I was a cowboy.
Growing up in the country, it came naturally with my surroundings, I guess.
Christmas day, I was given chaps, boots, a hat, holster, plastic guns and a badge.
I was serious.
I wore the getup every single day. Everywhere I could. Even to church.
After working on this show for the past few weeks, I am now fully aware that there were a few defining elements of being a cowboy that I overlooked when I was a kid.
I saw the pretty ladies, the shiny guns, the badges, the horseback riding and the campfire cookouts. What I didn’t understand was the hard stuff: the survival, the scratching tooth and nail to eat, the disease, danger, the slavery, prostitution, the running from the law, the booze, sex, blistering heat, numbing cold, the lonely log cabins, and the daily worry of just staying alive.
Like all good Westerns, the plot of our play is a bone-dry, simple one.
This is the story of a prostitute, May Buchanan.
She’s a free spirit, independent, she will not be owned, and she will not be held back, she knows where she is headed:
May hits the tracks like a freight train running and she makes it very clear to every man in her vicinity that they can have some of her, but never all of her.
Forbidden Fruit and the bees start to swarm.
Probably best I didn’t understand all that when I was five.
I must say I am exceedingly thankful for plays like this, plays that appear simple and yet are exceptionally difficult to harness.
As our director Diana Leblanc mentioned on day one, the emotional track of this show soars to extreme highs and lows and there is an operatic feel in the sweeping poetry. Each day we make strides to unearth the truth of this story and as we work I have come to realize that at the very core of this story is something very special: an undeniable ache.
These characters sing and dance, hoot and holler, joke and drink, but under it all seems to be a communal pain that throbs, for which one woman is the temporary cure.
May, acts as the balm and the bandage for hurt and broken cowboys. She fills their emptiness. The men become addicted to her physically, mentally and even spiritually. Somehow, even in the worst situations, May maintains hope. She keeps moving forward towards better days, towards a better life. Just as her customers use her for their escape- she uses them as a means to hers.
Mr. Murrell calls the play a Romance, which puzzled me at first, but as I watch my fellow cast members work fervently, I see exactly where the Romance lies: in the determination and endurance. There is real muscularity in how these characters love each other and that, I hope, is something that everyone who sees this show can relate to.
I don’t think it is possible to mount a show like this without a few bumps in the road or bruises on the bones. Each morning in the rehearsal hall, we leave the modern comfort of sneakers and cellphones behind to strap into boots and corsets, bonnets and gun belts, readying ourselves to very literally tumble into rivers and wildness.
I am thankful for the opportunity to explore this terrain. Farther West is not a show that is produced very often, and in hearing stories of past productions, I realize that many of the pioneers and pillars of Canadian theatre are intrinsically connected to this play.
If it were possible to gather all those folks together, past and present, under one tent- you’d have one hell of an old time prayer meeting.
Today we move from the rehearsal hall onto the stage- an incredible environment that our creative team has conjured and as I get ready for work- I feel curious and excited.
I stop for a brief second and I realize that, like the five-year old me, sitting in the church pew – I am completely obsessed with being a cowboy again.