The Community Players of Concord’s upcoming production, Calendar Girls, is about a group of middle-aged women who create a nude calendar to raise money for a more comfortable sofa in the local hospital’s visitors lounge.
Audition turnout was tremendous. Lots of women wanted to be calendar girls.
Directors and producers speculated why at a Monday night rehearsal at the Players’ Studio last week. For one, these kinds of characters — not mother or grandmother roles, aimed at women over 40 — are rare in theater, even more so in community theater. Calendar Girls is full of them.
“There’s a strong contingent of women of that age in the group. It’s why we had such a good turnout and why people are so excited about the show,” Director Steve Lajoie said.
And as far as producers know, this marks the first time Calendar Girls hits New Hampshire, and it might be the last time for a while.
Theater rights were pulled soon after they became available, because the musical version, now touring England, will soon hit the States. The nude scene, in which women pose for the photos, is only a tiny snippet, and it has a burlesque taste with “artfully arranged” props — teacups, saucers, rolls of wool — to keep a PG rating.
Most of all, the story, they said, is compelling.
“They’re excellent roles. And Steve was very careful, explaining how he was going to handle the so-called nudity, because there’s no real nudity in the play,” said Allwynne Fine, the show’s producer. “It’s such a minute part of the play. It takes maybe two to three minutes to do the flash of the poses. But the play is about so much more than that.”
The play is based on the 2003 film with Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, which is based on a true story about a group of Yorkshire women who raised money for leukemia research in 1999. Both the play and the screenplay were written by Tim Firth.
At the story’s center are two friends, Annie and Chris, who hit on the idea when Annie’s husband, John, dies from leukemia. They convince a group women of the Knapely branch of the Women’s Institute (kind of like a female Elks club) to pose nude while performing traditional WI activities, like baking and knitting and drinking tea, to raise money for the hospital’s very uncomfortable visitors couch. Hordes of press descend on their little village.
“They end up not only raising enough money to replace the couch, but the calendar goes viral, all over the world,” Kim Lajoie, who plays Chris, said at the rehearsal, just before jumping into the first scene. (She’s also married to Steve Lajoie.)
Meanwhile, Nora McBurnett, who plays Elaine from the local beauty salon, was in the back room prepping her camera and a large screen for actor headshots to hang in the front lobby come showtime.
Steve Lajoie sat at the front of the space, notebook in hand as cast read their lines with Yorkshire accents.
He later said the movie is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” covering a lot of geography but with little room for character development. Because characters remain local in the play, there’s more room for those goodies, which is what Lajoie likes about the show.
“In the past, shows written about women in this age group strike me as condescending — shows like Steel Magnolias,” Steve Lajoie said. “I read this one, and it didn’t strike me that way at all. They were fully developed characters, really interesting women, and the playwright took the time to develop each person. … The important thing is to be as realistic and as honest with this as possible. There are some theatrical moments in it, but the characters have to be 100 percent real and believable for this to work.”
The cast and crew said, between practicing scenes, they were very excited to produce something new for Concord, and also for New Hampshire.
“It’s nice to do Agatha Christie, but boy, it’s nice to do something brand-new,” Lajoie said.
They think it will resonate with Concord audiences.
“I think people will identify with this play. Because everybody knows somebody who’s terminally ill, and everybody knows somebody who’s on a cause,” Fine said.