More than meets the eye

The Fortune Theatre is about to stage a play that is the fastest selling in British theatre history - a play in which ordinary women go all out to raise funds for charity. Charmian Smith reports.

Starring in the Fortune Theatre's upcoming production of Calendar Girls are (back row from left) Lisa Warrington and Michele Amas, (middle row) Clare Adams, Donna Akersten and Donogh Rees, and (front) Hilary Halba. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Starring in the Fortune Theatre's upcoming production of Calendar Girls are (back row from left) Lisa Warrington and Michele Amas, (middle row) Clare Adams, Donna Akersten and Donogh Rees, and (front) Hilary Halba. Photo by Linda Robertson.
To many people, Calendar Girls is the film - or the play - where the women take their clothes off, but it's much more than that, according to Lisa Warrington.

Associate professor in theatre studies at the University of Otago, Warrington has swapped her usual role as director for that of an actor playing a retired schoolteacher in the Fortune Theatre's production of Calendar Girls, which opens on Saturday.

"It's so much more about the interesting questions that arise about how people view you when you are perhaps brave enough to do something like this. We reject those ideas of how people view you because it's just not true. I think that's what makes this play interesting and gives it a bit of depth - it's not just slapstick, farcical comedy, though it is very funny," she says.

Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth, who previously wrote the screenplay, is based on a true story about members of a Yorkshire Women's Institute (WI) who want to raise funds for a sofa in the local hospital, as one of their husbands has died of leukaemia. They decide to pose naked for a calendar, but with various props concealing strategic parts of their anatomies. Their venture attracts a huge amount of attention and they end up raising funds for a whole new hospital wing.

According to Australian director Shane Anthony, this happened in 1998 and was the first of the run of fundraising calendars in which people such as firemen pose nude or semi-clothed.

The original calendar photographs revealed flesh in a titillating but wry way, with a sense of humour and a twinkle in the eye, Warrington says.

Another of the actors, Michele Amas, who grew up in Dunedin and now lives in Wellington, says it uses props associated with what WI women do, such as baking, sewing and knitting.

"You counter that with being in poses where you've got your everyday things of a farm wife with no clothes on. It's wonderful - it's a brilliant idea they came up with," she says.

In the play, the women drink a lot of wine to raise their courage for the photographs - something the actors can't do - then take off their dressing gowns and stand strategically behind things like iced buns or teapots.

It may have been a brave action for the original women, but it's also causing some apprehension for the actors in the Fortune's production.

"It's no small thing to be in front of the audience as an actor anyway, but you are not usually asked to be as vulnerable as that," Amas says.

"It takes quite a bit of trust - you have to trust the other actors to be in the positions they should be to give you security to get undressed and into your disguise, whatever it is.

I'm probably less self-conscious about it now than I would have been in my 20s. The only other play I've been naked in was Steaming.

"I was in my 20s then and I vowed I'd never do it again. I think you put a lot more pressure on yourself in your 20s to look a certain way, to conform to a certain image. Once you get to being middle-aged, the rules change," she said.

Warrington says she is taking courage from what the play is about.

"It's about these really lovely, ordinary women who did it for charity and I'm thinking, 'Hey what they did we can do and it feels no different from that'."

The characters in the play, who come from a small, close-knit Yorkshire village, are a disparate group.

"We've decided the WI is probably the main social outlet, so if you don't want to go stir-crazy in the village you have little choice but to go along. There are very different types of women, some who in other circumstances would never think of joining the WI, and one says that," Warrington says.

"It's nice to have a play about older women who are not just seeing themselves through their children and grandchildren. They are seeing themselves as themselves, so there's very little chat about families or kids or anything, which I think is unusual and good."

The second act is about the consequences of what they did in the first act, and it throws up some interesting questions about how one identifies oneself, Warrington says.

Amas explains: "I think we realise we might have created a monster for ourselves. We did something on a very small scale that we thought was going to be very local and because it explodes, it changes. Some of the characters get carried away with the fame or attention or the spotlight on this small English village, and it becomes more dramatic how the characters deal with that."

Director Shane Anthony adds: "The piece is seen as the play where the women take their clothes off, but you realise there's great heart in the piece, which is very touching. That's what I find most moving about the play. It's not really about getting naked or nude, It's much more about the spirit, the gesture behind that action and the bravery."

 


See it

Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth, directed by Shane Anthony, opens at the Fortune Theatre on November 10.

It features Clare Adams, Donna Akersten, Michele Amas, Timothy Bartlett, Hilary Halba, Peter Hayden, Lynda Milligan, Hilary Norris, Donogh Rees, Danny Still and Lisa Warrington.