Stellar performers David Weale, Alan Buchanan, Gary Evans and Dennis King would agree that nobody can really pinpoint what exactly accounted for the huge pleasure The Four Tellers sparked in Islanders and tourists alike.
For me, after reflecting on this question for some time, the answer has become quite clear. This success has absolutely nothing do with what people want but, instead, has everything to do with we what need.
The Four Tellers, often accompanied by talented singer Rachel Beck and other musical guests, delighted audiences over these last four years. Over one hundred sold out shows with many people, like myself, going to see and hear them over and over again.
As Dennis King said, in 2015, “we started out by booking two nights at the Kings Playhouse with the idea of seeing where it could go.”
And, these were Monday nights, the only time slots available. Not exactly a formula for maximum attendance in this busy modern world. And, today, there are very few Islanders who have not heard of The Four Tellers.
The string of sold out performances at Kings Playhouse in Georgetown is an all-time record for any show at that venue. The troupe also performed to sold out houses at other venues including Victoria Playhouse, Victoria, Harbourfront Theatre and the College of Piping in Summerside, and Florence Simmons Hall at Holland College, Charlottetown. Best estimates suggest that around 25,000 Prince Edward Islanders took in the show at least once.
And with the farewell tour, The Last Laugh, held in September of 2018, people were still scrambling to get tickets to rapidly selling out performances. There was no levelling off nor peaking and ebbing to the four-year run of The Four Tellers. People were racing to see the show right up until the end.
Was there demand for the product known as The Four Tellers? Was there an analysis done, indicating there was huge potential in telling obscure stories about people most Islanders had never heard of? Or, the imitations by Gary Evans of fairly famous local people, showing them in unexpected but beautiful ways? Or, highlighting little hamlets and hidden away locales that get little coverage in tourism promotion and marketing? No.
Was there confidence they would succeed so vividly and dramatically? Not at all. Yes, the four individuals were known and liked by many Islanders. Most had performed to the delight of people before. So, they knew they would get at least a few people to plunk down some money and get through the door.
These guys are good at the art of the storytelling and, of course, they would make a success out of anything they do. But that is not how they felt as the lights came on stage for the first few times. There was hope. And courage. And much love. And they took it from there.
A performer can step out on stage knowing their audience wants them. Their famous song. Their familiar performance. But, it takes a whole other set of beliefs to step out there and give people what they need, especially when you don’t quite know that is what you are doing. That is what The Four Tellers did.
There is an eastern Prince Edward Island emphasis in the repertoire of the Four Tellers with Gary Evans focusing on the Morell area, Alan Buchanan celebrating tales out of Belfast and Dennis King recounting growing up memories in the Georgetown and Three Rivers region in fairly recent times. A lot of laughs and even a few tears are conjured by romance for the past and familiarity with people some of us actually knew many years ago or know today.
But that does not explain the seventy-year-old North Carolina tourist enjoying himself so much as he walked out of the Kings Playhouse. Never having been to PEI before, he was a prime target for my inquiry. “I did not know there were other people like us in the world,” the Appalachian-born American told me.
Graying and balding heads dominated the Playhouse on the four occasions I took in the show at the Kings Playhouse. But during The Last Laugh farewell tour in September, this pattern was shifting. I had been hearing reports of greater numbers of younger people going to the show.
As I chatted outside Kings Playhouse with three thirty-year-old people with no previous connection to eastern PEI or to the performers, I heard that familiar refrain. “I know somebody like that.” “That reminded me of you,” one said to her friend. Or, “that old guy from Belfast that Alan talked about, you know, I can totally see where he is coming from.”
People need to make the connection between the personal and the universal. And that is exactly what good story telling helps us do. And, that is important for us to note as Islanders. We are still a localized and communal people with a strong sense of our shared history. Prince Edward Island is made and remade on these memories. But, our story is refreshed and invigorated by people coming here with old stories and making new memories in our old, established community.
The Four Tellers have helped us see ourselves by telling us the stories of people we did not know. And did not know that we wanted to know. What we need is unknown to us until we make the effort to listen.