Miss October and the Success of Calendar Girls
As soon as I arrived in Bangor, Maine 23 years ago I had Penobscot Theatre on my radar. I had aspirations to get involved in the local theatre scene somehow, maybe just ushering or perhaps, could it be possible, even acting again? I was a 37 year old mother of three, a high school English teacher from Northern Ireland, who had immigrated to live in the country of my American husband. We had met in a drama workshop at the University of Bangor, North Wales, when he was doing his junior year abroad. It was almost like coming full circle in a way, from Bangor to Bangor. A phone call to Penobscot Theatre to inquire about ushering turned into an audition, which was the beginning of a ten year period, wherein I was fortunate to play many wonderful roles including two of my favorites, M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. My last role before returning to teaching full time was in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters in 2003.
The movie, Calendar Girls also came out in 2003, just as I was feeling lucky to have been hired at Hampden Academy as drama coach and English teacher. My experience heading the education program at Penobscot Theatre had helped my application as their drama coach had just left, but my new work schedule put a serious thirteen year damper on my own opportunities to act. However in 2015 Bari Newport, the Producing Artistic Director, offered me the role of Chris in Calendar Girls. I had given up being drama coach in 2013, but was still teaching. Bari had approached me before when she had first taken on her position at Penobscot Theatre as she was reaching out to members of the community, who had been part of the theatre. I had auditioned for her and also become a member of the Board of Directors for the theatre. I said, “Yes!” immediately. Thoughts of how exactly it would work out being nude on stage as a local high school teacher flitted through my mind, but the thrill of being involved in that show and having the opportunity to act again overwhelmed my concerns.
For me this was a gift, a sheer pleasure. These characters were familiar to me, not just because I had seen the movie, but because I was British. Yes, I had grown up in Northern Ireland, but I had watched so many episodes of Coronation Street and All Creatures Great and Small. I could hear the lilt of the Yorkshire dialect in my head as I read the script. I knew the WI. I had seen close friends go through treatment for cancer. I could relate to these women, to their friendships, their teasing, their daring and their rivalry. What a story! As I would stand backstage waiting to go on, I felt grateful to the actual women, who had had the guts and determination to make that calendar happen and to Tim Firth for taking their heart warming story of friendship, of overcoming loss and the lure of short lived fame and turning it into a movie and then writing the play. How often does that happen? That a movie becomes a play? In fact the movie-like transitions through time and place created some of the biggest challenges including lightning paced costume changes to reflect the shifts in seasons and in locations from the church hall to John’s hill.
Our director, Angela Bonacasa, was a certified stage combat instructor and her ability to choreograph movement proved invaluable in the blocking, especially of the scene where the shooting of the calendar takes place, particularly the December month, where all the women are naked. This scene certainly took the longest to block, as the movement and timing has to be precise. Angela and our whole crew could not have been more patient and considerate of our insecurities and the nudity happened in carefully planned steps, but finally there came a rehearsal when we were ready to just do it. We were all in this together. No-one flinched. We reveled in each other’s beauty and adventurous spirit, just like in the play.
All of us were local actors and most of us had worked together before. What a privilege it was to reconnect again, to bond together through this life affirming play. As it turned out, students, parents, colleagues, my own children and the wider regional audience loved the play. Women friends shared their own stories of having created a nude calendar; parents confided they had seen me in Calendar Girls before we started their child’s conference; others referred to me with a wink as “Miss October;” colleagues said they had finally taken the step of buying a season subscription. The metaphor of the sunflowers spoke to me personally. Here I was in my later stage of life with two married daughters and two grandchildren, yet having this glorious opportunity to tread the boards again. Bari chose to open the theater’s 43rd season with Calendar Girls in September 2016, when the sunflowers were still in bloom, and our set construction crew were able to visit and take pictures at a local farm with a field of sunflowers for inspiration, reminding us so beautifully of John’s words “that wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is such an admirable thing.”