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Blogging the Fringe: The Donnelly Sideshow

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by Jeff Culbert

"This is The Donnelly Sideshow. It has romance, music and murder, all in one show."

I have been using that line as a pitch to Fringe patrons as they wait in line for other shows. People like the sound of it. They smile. Then I might add, "But it's a true story. It happened in 1880, around my home town of Lucan Ontario." 

But my pitch changes when someone recognizes the Donnelly name. I've already met several people in Victoria who know the story through James Reaney's trilogy of plays, The Donnellys. Others know Donnelly songs: one by Steve Earle, two by Stompin' Tom Connors and a whole album by Earl Heywood. (I'm adding four new songs to the genre myself in The Donnelly Sideshow.) Some people had seen a Donnelly documentary on TV; others had been taken to the Donnelly grave on the Roman Line when they were kids.

But the big one - the one that flips a switch of recognition in so many brains - is "The Black Donnellys".

For some people, that's all they need to hear. "It's about those Donnellys? I'm in." So for a guy pitching a show, it's tempting to use the name. It's just so ... efficient. But it also poses a slight dilemma.

"The Black Donnellys" is the name coined for the title of a 1954 novel, a thrilling and very popular book that revived the Donnelly story significantly, 75 years after the murders. Accurate history it ain't, but to be fair, author Thomas P. Kelley was a thrilling book-writer, not an historian. The title and the content of his book continued the same process of demonizing and scapegoating that led to the murder of the Donnellys in the first place. It's not a name that I like to use. I often tell people in the Fringe line-ups that the name "The Black Donnellys" is considered derogatory in Lucan these days.

But it's still the name that flips the switches. The Black Donnellys are better known than the Donnellys, it seems, so over time, my pitch started to sound like this: "Looking for show ideas? This is The Donnelly Sideshow. Have you heard of The Black Donnellys?" (From time to time, I would add a penance: "My mother would be appalled to hear me use that name.")

I even made this mistake a couple of times, "Are you looking for show ideas? This is my show, The Black Donnellys."

But that was too much; I had to stop myself. I had warning visions of me, holding my flyers in front of their faces and screaming "It's the Black Donnellys! And they're coming to GET YOU!!!!."

That's when I take it back to romance, music and murder. But for better or worse, The Black Donnellys will ride again, I am sure.


A solo performance, with songs, written and performed by Jeff Culbert
Directed by Jayson McDonald, Produced by Ausable Theatre (London Ontario)

You can see The Donnellly Sideshow at:
Victoria Fringe, Venue 12 - Canadian College of Performing Arts (1701 Elgin Rd, Oak Bay)

Sun Aug 28, 6:30
Mon Aug 29, 9:00
Tues Aug 30, 5:45
Fri Sept 2, 7:45
Sat Sept 3, 1:30
Sun Sept 4, 3:45

Jeff Culbert's blog

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