When it came time to research their characters and find inspiration for their next play, six female members of the Harbourfront Players didn’t have far to look.
That’s because they found themselves sharing two similar scenarios with the characters in Calendar Girls, the famous Tom Firth play being produced in Summerside this month.
The first involved taking on the challenge of fundraising.
In the play, when Annie Clarke’s husband, John, dies from leukemia at an early age, her close friend, Chris Harper, is anxious to raise funds for a comfortable sofa for the visitors’ lounge in the hospital where he was treated. In real life, the Harbourfront Players are also anxious to make money from the show that continues Feb. 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Harbourfront Theatre.
“We’re partnering with the Prince County Hospital Foundation,” says cast member Sandra Sheridan. “We’ve met with Heather Matheson, and she came up with a list of possible projects last fall and we chose the fetal heart monitor. So we’re pretty happy about it. Most of us are mothers in it. And that’s what inspired us to get involved.”
The second similarity involves a more physical theme. In the play, the members of the WI had to overcome the challenge of posing nude for a fundraising calendar. And like thier counterparts, the Harbourfront Players have had to meet this issue head on.
“It’s a little bit more of a challenge than I thought it would be. I was probably the one with the least concern about what we show, in terms of body issues. I also fully trusted our director, who is doing a great job with this,” says Sheridan.
“But man, oh man, it’s disconcerting thinking that I’ll be showing a fair amount of flesh to a fair amount of people,” says Sheridan who plays Chris, the girl who always wanted to be a star but never quite made it.
And what’s even more challenging for this actress is that her character is the first to take the lead in this artistic exercise.
“In one scene, I have to bare a little bit to show them that it’s possible to do it tastefully. Then in another we all have to do it to create the calendar. That I’m OK with because everybody’s got to do it. So we’re pushing through, feeling the comfort of the cast,” she says.
Cast member Sara McCarthy is also daunted by the demands the storyline places upon her.
“It’s an exercise in courage. The concept that the good majority of Summerside being out there and watching is really different. I might be shopping at Sobeys and someone will say, ‘oh you’re the naked one.’ And I’ll say, ‘yes, that’s me. Thanks for recognizing me,’” laughs McCarthy, noting cast members use sunflowers and other strategically-placed props to cover the bare essentials.
While it’s easy to focus on the nudity, this play is so much more, says director Marlane O’Brien.
“At the heart of the show is love, truth and celebration. It’s also very funny,” she says.
“It’s about women who have preconceived ideas about themselves or preconceived ideas of what they should be as well as finding strength, love and acceptance and power from other women who happen to come together in a particular place,” she says.
One character that O’Brien feels people are certain to applaud is Ruth, played by Stephanie Betts.
“She starts out as a bit of a mouse but then becomes the mouse that roared. Everybody in the play makes a journey, but I’m particularly drawn to hers. Perhaps it’s because she represents the woman who is hidden inside all of us. Then there’s Chris, played by Sandra Sheridan, who’s in charge of everything, but at the end of the play we see she has a lot of insecurities,” she says.
The play also shines a light on survival and understanding the nature of beauty.
“In the show, the husband who dies says, ‘Blossoms are the most magnificent when they’re mature.’ That’s so true. Maturity should be embraced and enjoyed. Then, at another point, the oldest female in the play, Jessie, says that when we start running out of time, we should start embracing everything rather than letting go,” says O’Brien.
One of the things that McCarthy is embracing is working under extreme conditions.
“That’s because Celia wears extreme high heels,” she says. “So there are funny scenes of her doing tai chi in high heels, while drunk, or strutting around in high heels. For me that’s the biggest challenge.”
AT A GLANCE
What: Calendar Girls
When: Feb. 15, 16, 17.
Where: Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside
Who: For the show, the Calendar Girls are: Sandra Sheridan as Chris, Sue Urquhart as Annie, Nancy Smythe as Cora, Catherine Ann as Jessie, Sara McCarthy as Celia and Stephanie Betts as Ruth. The cast also includes Nils Ling, Steven MacDougall, Thane Clark, Shelley Tamtom, Justean Hanson, Susan Rodgers, Karen Slater, Vernon Campbell and Susan Rodgers.
Inspiration: Calendar Girls is adapted from the true story of 11 Women’s Institute members who posed nude for a calendar to raise money for the Leukaemia Research Fund.
Tickets: Call 888-2500 or toll free 1-800-708-6505.