P.E.I. actress Gracie Finley thrilled to return to the stage after many years away to perform at Watermark Theatre in North Rustico
© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY SALLY COLE
Gracie Finley is excited about performing in two plays at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico this summer after a 28-year hiatus from an acting career. She plays in The Shore Field by Duncan MacIntosh and in Mike Griffin’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Gracie Finley is embracing the ultimate acting challenge this summer.
The Island actress is performing in two plays at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, after a 28-year hiatus from theatre.
Remembered for her poignant portrayal of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables – The Musical, at the Charlottetown Festival from 1968 to 1974 and again in 1984-85, Finley is thrilled to be once again treading the boards on her beloved P.E.I.
“It’s been absolutely wonderful,” says Finley who divides her time between Stanley Bridge, P.E.I., and Speen, the Chilterns, U.K.
“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and you start pedalling and that sense of freedom and expression (comes back). There’s also the excitement of doing it with other people and the interplay on the stage,” says Finley, who plays the feisty Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, as well as the anxious Alfie, the pivotal part in The Shore Field, a new play by Duncan McIntosh that was inspired by The Cherry Orchard by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
Her roles are very, very different.
“Alfie is a very complex character. And, by all means, I haven’t found every dimension of her yet. I think that’s coming,” says Finley, referring to her character, a popular, much-loved actress, who, at the end of her career returns to P.E.I. from Montreal to face the loss of her magnificent shore farm after a default on the mortgage.
In contrast, the Queen of Hearts is quite simple.
“If she doesn’t like something, she says, ‘off with your head.’ That solves everything,” says Finley, with a laugh, adding she adores this magical play which is directed and adapted by Mike Griffin.
“When we come to (do) Alice, we say that we’re going to play. That’s what we’re doing. And adults (as well as children) are coming to the show, having such a marvelous time, suspending belief.
“They gave us permission to play for them,” says Finley, adding her only challenge is a physical one.
“My Queen of Hearts dress is like a straight jacket. It takes two people to get me in and out,” says Finley, whose costume has panniers — undergarments that make the skirts poof out at the waist and hips.
Even simple movements, like walking, can pose a challenge.
“When I go up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase where I really have to push through to get up those stairs,” she says.
Watching Finley stepping across the stage after many years away brings a mixture of emotions to McIntosh, who is the theatre’s artistic director.
“One of my first feelings was relief because she has this legend of magnificent performance that changed peoples’ lives. And, as a director, you go, ‘Oh dear, I hope it’s still there.’
“But rehearsals were great. I could see (her star quality) in rehearsals and think, ‘I hope that transfers to the stage.’ So the first entrance of Alfie Rainey in this production is quite a startling one, one that you build up to. The first time I saw it was at the dress rehearsal. And Gracie appeared and it was like a searchlight. It was so powerful. I thought, ‘oh my gosh’ we’re here,’ “ says McIntosh who met Finley when he was the artistic director at the Charlottetown Festival.
At the time, he was interested in restoring the original Anne of Green Gables production, as directed by Alan Lund, which he did.
Finley was one of the people he contacted to ask if they were interested in helping with the restoration. She agreed.
“It was the beginning of a friendship. When the 100th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables came about and we were going to create this theatre, Gracie joined the board right away so our friendship continued.”
So it was collaboration from the beginning.
“Gracie certainly knew what we were doing here and she has been a major supporter in lots of different ways. We were also well aware of her talent.
“Gracie said that she thought of her strengths on stage as a tragedian. I think it’s a part of Gracie’s performance that people on the Island remember — that luminous quality that she brought when the audience first met her, abandoned at the train station, and the luminous quality they found at the end, when she sacrifices her education for Marilla’s interests (after Matthew’s death).
“It’s the quality of being totally watchable in uncomfortable situations.”
For Finley, it’s opportunity to return to her first love.
“Doing live theatre, in a small theatre like this, is like no other experience. I love it. I love it.”
What about the future? Finley doesn’t rule out the possibility of performing on stage again. But she’s selective.
“It depends on what they do. I don’t know what plays they’re planning to do next year,” she says.
AT A GLANCE
Up close with Gracie Finley
High school attended: Colonel Gray High School, Charlottetown.
Family: Married to Barry Stickings. The couple has three children.
Favourite movie: To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Favourite quote: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” — Walt Whitman
Five things to take to a desert Island: An iPod that never dies with her music on it, Russian novels, Russian poetry, endless supply of food and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Favourite claim to fame: Putting the King of Sweden at ease during a state dinner that she attended with her husband.
Favourite creative activities: Writing poetry and a children’s book.