Tag Archives: Watermark Theatre

The Second Anne Shirley

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By Ed Staskus

“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.

Every summer for the past fifty-five years the musical “Anne of Green Gables” has played on the main stage of the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. The show is based on the 1908 best-selling book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

No show on London’s West End or on Broadway has been on the same stage for more seasons. It is not only Canada’s longest running smash hit, it’s the longest continuously running musical theater production in the world. Nineteen actors have played Anne Shirley since 1965.

“I was the second Anne, not the first. It’s an urban myth that I was the first, probably because I’m a local girl.”

Although Gracie Finley is a local girl, she is in the same way that Anne Shirley, the red-haired orphan from Nova Scotia, hero of the story, is a local girl on Prince Edward Island.

“I’m an Islander,” said Gracie. “But I was actually born, hold on to your hat, in Sheffield, Alabama.”

Her father was an American serviceman from Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, where there is a statue of James Finley, one of his forebears. The woodsman Daniel Boone came clean when he said, “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” James Finley was one of the scouts who helped guide Daniel Boone and clear the confusion through the Cumberland Gap in the 1790s.

Her mother was in the Canadian Armed Forces. They met in London, backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, during World War Two, at a fund-raising joint services concert. Fund-raising led to raising the roof and they married not long after.

In the 1940s Walnut Ridge was a farming community of fewer than three thousand. Croplands of grain, oilseeds, and dry peas were its chief commodities. Alberton, on the northwestern shore of Prince Edward Island, her mother’s hometown, was in the 1940s a silver fox farming community of fewer than a thousand.

“Alberton, those are my roots,” said Gracie.

After the war the newlyweds moved to the United States, to Walnut Ridge, to hot muggy summers and wet chilly winters. The closest ocean was nearly five hundred miles away.

“My mom had a big problem moving to the south. She was a young girl from PEI. It was awful after the war.” It had been awful for the underclass before the war, during the war, and it wasn’t any different after the war. “She just couldn’t stand what was going on there.”

Jim Crow had ruled in Arkansas since 1868 with the passage of laws segregating schools. By the turn of the century white primary law had been institutionalized, effectively disenfranchising the black vote. In 1957, after a Supreme Court ruling struck down so-called separate but equal education, the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division had to be mobilized to enforce the federal ruling in the state. The Ku Klux Klan to this day maintains its national office in Arkansas.

“It upset my dad, too. The decision was finally made. We were high-tailing it out of there.”

Gracie and her mother, although living in the south, had been spending their summers on Prince Edward Island through the 1950s. “She had to get away. We stayed at my grandparent’s farmhouse up in Alberton.” After pulling up stakes, moving nearly two thousand miles northeast, the family settled down to spring summer fall and Gulf of St. Lawrence winters on the island, winters being waiting for the next spring.

By 1965, when the newly-minted “Anne of Green Gables” headlined the Charlottetown Festival for the first time, Gracie Finley had several years of small fry ballet classes under her belt, was experienced in grade school theatrics, but had not yet founded the drama club at her high school-to-be. That summer she performed with the Circus Tent Theatre at the Confederation Centre.

“We did children’s productions in the afternoon. We didn’t get paid, but we could have jobs as ushers in the main theater at night.” She was thirteen years old. Chutzpah is something you either have or you don’t. “I saw the show from the first season. I snuck into rehearsals. I met Jamie Ray, a Texan who originated the role. She was the first Anne.”

The first Anne took an interest in the second Anne. “She went out of her way to talk to me, wanting to know what my plans were, always willing to lend me something, and help me,” said Gracie.

The next year, 1966, the show’s co-creator Don Harron, who also wrote the musical’s script, sought Gracie Finley out after seeing her in a small local play.

“Do you sing or dance?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.

He suggested she take singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said of her, she’s more of a dancer. Dancers said, no, she’s more like a singer. Singers said, no, you’re both wrong, she’s really an actor.

Two years later, in 1968, by then a triple threat, she took over the spotlight, becoming the youngest singer dancer actor to ever play the role of Anne Shirley, and the first of only two native Islanders to do so.

“It was pretty terrifying, I can tell you,” said Gracie.

She stayed in straw hat and red pigtails for seven summers. The show toured nationally in the off-season. In 1970 it went to Japan. The cast and crew shared a chartered plane with men from the RCMP Musical Ride. The ride is a choreographed spectacle performed by a full troop of 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police riders and their horses.

“Strong drinks were flowing freely,” said Gracie. “No one could get any sleep as the noise level got higher. When we arrived, I was deaf in one ear and I had to go to a doctor. He couldn’t speak English and I could only say hello goodbye and ice cream in Japanese.”

But the show had to go on. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book was translated into Japanese in 1952. “Akage no An” became a part of the country’s school curriculum and remains popular to this day. The show went on and was a hit.

Between seasons she got married. “I met Barry at a party in England. We’ve been married for 50 years.” She gave birth to her first child. After the 1974 season, when her husband, Barry Stickings, a chemist working for the German multi-national BASF, was offered an opportunity to work in Germany, Gracie Finley was ready to go.

Not go on the road, but go home.

“I thought, my first child is nearly two. I didn’t have that child so someone else would see him stand up and walk and speak for the first time.” Besides giving up a social life, sleep, and losing track of the space-time continuum, actors are often forced to sacrifice their families. ‘I can’t, I have rehearsal,’ is a common refrain.

“I’m ready,” said Gracie.

After several years in Germany, and after several more years in Montreal, where her husband was next transferred, Gracie Finley got a phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Alan Lund, the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival from 1966 to 1986. He invited her back to reprise “Anne of Green Gables.”

“I was 30ish, married, and had two children.” She thought about it for a second-or-two, and then said yes. She was back in pigtails in 1984. In 1985, her second and final year back, she became and remains, at 33-years-of-age, the oldest actor to play Anne Shirley. She was the youngest and the oldest. But she wasn’t done setting records.

“I was going from one form of birth control to another. My doctor told me to watch myself, because it might take a while for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”

Instead of exercising restraint she exercised her freedom. What happened was she got pregnant right away.

“I sat down in front of our producer, Jack McAndrew, who always called me Miss Gables. Jack, I said, I have something to tell you.”

He looked her in the face. “You’re having a baby.”

“How did you know?”

“We have three kids. I know the look,” he said. She became the first the last the only pregnant Anne Shirley, breaking new ground in the world of Avonlea.

“They said I could still pass for the petite orphan girl.” She was excused, however, from jumping off tables. An understudy played the matinees, as well. “Toward the end of the run, at seven months along, the costumes were getting tighter and tighter.”

In 1985 Gracie Finley hung up her straw hat and her career on stage. The Stickings family moved back to Germany and bought a house. “We went through all the rigamarole, lots of red tape. They have to put a stamp on everything.” As soon as they settled down her husband was transferred to New Jersey.

“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father always wanted me to be a ballerina. He would put on classical music and I’d spin around. But I was in love with Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey.” Rogers and Autrey were singing cowboys on the radio, in the movies, and on TV. “I told my father I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Daniel Boone, with whom the family has a kindred spirit, once advised the young, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”

In 1996 they moved to Great Britain. “When my husband got the opportunity we said, we have to, we just have to. I was thrilled. We love England.” They bought a house outside of Oxford with a large garden and stables. The house was nearly 400 years old and had originally been the Woodsman’s Inn.

“Our part of the country is where they first started turning chair legs.”

Her part of the country is what were once the forests of Shotover, Stowood, and Wychwood. Shotover Forest, nearest to where they live, supplied wood by royal decree for both fuel and building material from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped chair legs with chisels and gouges while spinning them on a lathe.

They lived in England, their children growing up, but often returned to Prince Edward Island. “We came summers, and after my mom died, and my aunts got too old for us to stay with them, we bought a year-round cottage in Stanley Bridge.”

Stanley Bridge is a small town just west of Cavendish on the north shore of the island. It is known for the Sterling Women’s Community Hall, the New London Bay, and the bridge on Route 6 over the Stanley River. When the weather is good, from the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge, the thirty thrill feet down into the cold water, avoiding eels as they swim back to the riprap.

The thrill is in the scariness.

“We’re right across the bay from Carr’s,” said Gracie. “There’s a small lagoon, a swampy place, which is great because we get all sorts of birds and wildlife.”

One day she got another phone call. The man on the other end of the line was Duncan McIntosh, director of the Charlottetown Festival and soon-to-be artistic director of the new Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, 12 minutes down on Route 6 from Stanley Bridge.

He invited her to dinner. She knew what was coming. He had been dropping hints.

“So, Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, but set on PEI in the 1970s,” said Duncan. “What would you think of playing the lead?”

“I went home and thought, why not?” said Gracie.

“Aren’t you afraid to go back?” her friends asked her.

“I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare. I wasn’t frightened so much as I was excited. I fell in love with Russian literature when I was a teenager. It’s when you’re going through the terror you get right into it. I love Chekov. That’s how Duncan reeled me in.”

If ever stranded on a desert island, she has told friends, she would make sure to have an iPod that never died, an endless supply of food, and lots of Russian novels.

Twenty-eight years after leaving the stage Gracie Finley was back on the stage, not in just one play, but in two plays at the same time at the Watermark Theatre. One was “The Shore Field’” by Duncan McIntosh, inspired by Anton Chekhov, and the other one was “Alice in Wonderland.”

“It’s like riding a bicycle. You get up there and start pedaling,” she said.

“I played the Queen of Hearts. Off with your head! She is just so preposterous. But I had a dynamite costume.”

It was dynamite until she actually had to don the poofed panniered straight-jacket dress and move around in it. “It took two people to get me in and out of it. When I went up to the balcony to play the judge, there’s a narrow part of the staircase, where I really had to push to get up those stairs.”

It’s been said, never look back, you’ll fall down the stairs.

In the 1960s, when repertory theater was going strong, Gracie Finley specialized. In the age of specialization, when repertory is fading away, she jumped feet first into repertory. “It’s a big challenge finding two plays where you can cross cast people. You become close very quickly, become a family. It’s chemistry.”

The Homburg Theatre, home of “Anne of Green Gables,” seats more than a thousand on two levels. The Watermark Theatre, a member of the Professional Theatre Network of PEI, is small, seating a handful more than a hundred. “Doing live theater, in a small theater like this, is like no other experience. It’s a smaller version of the Stratford stage. The audience is inches away from us. We feel that energy.”

In 2017, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockey sticks Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield in the memory play “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.

“This is going to take a lot of energy,” she said while rehearsing in early June for the season starting in July. “And, I have to say, I am very tired at the moment, very tired. I have to take a nap.”

Many people get snappish if they’re not well rested. A short afternoon snooze means waking up fresh again. It also means you end up with two mornings in a day, although not necessarily a second plate of Mussels Benedict.

In 2018, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley played the wild-evening-of-romance Ethel Banks in Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and the imperious Kitty Warren in George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”

“The best part about being here is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theater for a woman my age.”

When actors who are women reach about 50-years-of age they discover auditions are suddenly looking for a younger version of you. Age and gender matter on stage. There is a trove of plays, starting with the male-heavy Shakespeare, featuring men over 50. There is a thin scattering of plays featuring women over 50.

“Let’s face it, the roles get fewer and fewer for older women,” said Gracie.

Nevertheless, the roles keep rolling up to her doorstep.

“There’s nothing like the first day of rehearsals,” she said. “We sit around a big table, the cast, production people, and the director. We see a model of the set and sketches of the wardrobes. We take a break, get a cup of coffee, and read through the script.”

If need be, they take a nap.

“The rehearsal period is always one step forward, two steps back, you have a good day, and then think I don’t know what I did today. You get going again, you get to the stage, where you think, I think we’re getting there. It’s about a group who start to gel. It’s about taking an author’s idea, voicing that idea, and making it a reality.”

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” George Bernard Shaw pointed out.

Gracie Finley raised her family off stage. Even still, they were the kind of family that didn’t look at her like she was crazy whenever she broke into song and dance. After she got back on stage, they were the kind of family that made her feel less crazed whenever her script director stagecraft wasn’t making sense.

The theater for many actors is a second family, which is what happens after twelve-hour rehearsals and sharing the fear of opening night. Remember your lines and don’t freeze up stiff as a board. You can’t choose your family, on or off stage, but you can choose to make magic with them.

“I feel very lucky to be back working again,” she said.

Returning to the Watermark Theatre in 2020 for her sixth season, Gracie will be playing Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful,” the same part played by Geraldine Page that won her the 1986 Academy Award for best actress. She will also play one of the suspects in Agatha Christe’s “The Mousetrap,” the world’s longest running play.

“Our little stage, it’s so immediate. It’s electric.”

When most people are getting home for dinner, or getting ready to go out to dinner and a show, Gracie Finley is making the scene punching in to work, lifting words off a printed page and by lights make-up wardrobe dialogue action making them into a show, an electric thrill running up and down the spine, the first time and time as long in hand until the curtain call.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Gone Gros Morne

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By Ed Staskus

“The secret to acting is don’t act. Be you, with add-ons.” Michael Sheen

“I’m going to take off now,” said Leah Pritchard. “I’m going to go. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to leave. That’s what’s going to happen.”

It was the tail end of her last year at Gros Morne Academy in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Closing in on the end of theater studies with Sarah McDonald, the teacher pulled Leah aside. “Of all the students here, the one we think would be feasible as a professional actor is the one who’s always saying they don’t want to do it. You would be the one strong enough and talented enough to actually make it.”

Leah Pritchard had other plans. She was geared up and buckled down about joining the Mounties. She meant business.

When the class mounted their year-end play, everybody’s parents coming to see the show, Sarah McDonald rustled up Ross and Marion Fraser-Pritchard. She meant business, too.

“We’re going to put her in theater school at university, so that’s the plan,” she told Leah’s parents.

“My dad did not want me leave Newfoundland and he did not want me to be in the RCMP,” said Leah.

“Fine, great, we’ll keep her here,” said her father, despite himself and his wife both being Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I was still very angry about being in Newfoundland, about being moved around, leaving Nova Scotia.” She was 17-years-old. “I was a surly teenager, a willful child. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

She turned 18 her first day three months later at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “She can’t get into the theater program right away, but we’re going to make sure she gets into it,” Sarah McDonald told Leah’s father. “She was my mentor,” said Leah.

In the meantime, she snuck into theater classes.

“I was hanging with my friends one day when I got locked in the class by accident when the professor came in. After I didn’t get called out for it, after a few weeks I started answering questions,” she said.

“Who are you?” Todd Hennessey, the teacher and Head of the Division of Fine Arts, finally asked her. “Do you take this class?”

“Um, no,” she answered.

“Don’t worry,” her friends told the teacher.. “You’ll meet her officially next year.”

In her last year at Memorial University she headlined Hard Ticket Theatre’s production of “Venus in Fur.”.Todd Hennessey directed the spooky two-person sex comedy. “It takes one heck of an actress to convincingly play a character who is regarded as being a fantastic actress, and Leah Prichard nails it,” wrote Rachael Joffred in her review.

The campus she attended was the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College at Corner Brook, where the bulk of the theater program was, and which is two hours from  Rocky Harbour. Wilfred Grenfell was an English doctor who opened hospitals, orphanages, and cooperatives one hundred years ago to serve the coastal inhabitants of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was an able-bodied doughty man. Once marooned on a slab of floating ice slob, he killed some of his dogs to make himself a fur coat in order to survive.

“They wanted to keep track of me, since I was just 18.” Two years later her mother was reassigned to RCMP Headquarters in Halifax. Her father took a post in the capital city, as well. Leah Pritchard stayed lived studied and worked in Newfoundland for the next nearly seven years.

Rocky Harbour is on the far western edge of Newfoundland. The town is home to Gros Morne National Park. There is a fjord lined with cliffs and waterfalls, formed by long-gone glaciers. There are caribou and moose, rainy moody fog-bound mountains, and the tablelands, where you can walk on the earth’s mantle. The landscape is ancient.

“If you ever see tourism commercials for Newfoundland,” said Leah, “there’s always this big fjord where somebody is standing with their arms outstretched saying, “Look at the world!’ That’s where I lived. You can spend a long time by yourself there. I ended up loving it.”

A native of Nova Scotia, Leah Pritchard grew up in Lower Sackville, a fast-growing suburb of Halifax. In the 1950s it was known for its drive-in theater, harness racing track, and WW2 bomber plane ice cream stand. It is today a family-oriented commuter community.

Her parents, now both retired, were RCMP policeman and policewoman. The Force, as it is known, is both a federal and national police force. It enforces the law on a contract basis in the territories and most of the provinces. In many rural areas it is the only police force. Its French acronym, GRC, is sometimes repurposed as Gravel Road Cops.

Despite its name, the Mounties is not an actual mounted police force anymore, although it still was in the 1930s when they brought the Mad Trapper of Rat River to justice.

Her grandfather was a RCMP officer. “It’s just a family thing,” she said. “It also makes you very popular in high school, let me tell you,” she added with a booming guffaw.

She is the youngest of five children. Her sister and two older brothers were adopted by her father when he was 21-years-old. “Their dad was a motorcycle cop and died on duty. My dad fell super in love with his widow and made a bold choice. The kids were 3, 2, and 1-years-old. The RCMP has always been a part of our lives. There’s a sense of honor and tradition.”

Growing up, the family moved whenever and wherever her parents were assigned. It was how they moved to Newfoundland, when her mother was made a detachment commander there. Leah spent most of her teen years in Yarmouth, on the Bay of Fundy in southwestern Nova Scotia. The seaside town is proximate to the world’s largest lobster fishing grounds.

“You get real accustomed to small town life real fast. There’s a lot of space in and around Yarmouth to get weird.”

No matter what efforts you summon to make sense of it, the world can still be a strange place. Small towns impart a sense of place, but often feelings of self-consciousness, too. It can mean the opportunity to create your own options out of the weird mix of things.

It is where Leah caught the acting bug.

“I was at a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” at our high school when two of the actors started laughing hysterically on stage about something and couldn’t control themselves. I thought that looks like fun.”

She took fine arts and acting classes in both French and English. In lieu of lunch the drama students staged short one-act plays at a nearby small theater, declaiming their dialogue and handing out sandwiches to show goers who needed a bite. “We were just harmless theater geeks, so the teachers let us go and do that. I started spending all my time in theaters.”

Once in the acting stream at Memorial University she discovered the program was the only one of its kind in Atlantic Canada. It combined practical and academic training with small class sizes and one-on-one attention to detail by actors directors production professionals doubling up as faculty and staff.

“It’s a fabulous program, especially learning to handle Shakespeare,” said Leah. “The Newfoundland accent is the least bastardized accent in North America, the closest to what it would be in Shakespeare’s time. It’s got that time’s rhythm and music to it.”

Many Newfoundlanders work in classic theater, especially at Canada’s Stratford Festival, the internationally known repertory theater festival that showcases William Shakespeare. “The music is in our DNA,” said St. John’s native Robin Hutton, who has performed at Stratford for close to a decade. ”We can’t have a party without a sing song.”

Natives of ‘The Rock,’ as the province is sometimes known, who have worked at Stratford include Brad Hotter, Jillian Keiley, and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings. “We’re storytellers in Newfoundland,” said Brad Hotter. “Theater is a craft handed down, where you learn from people who pass it down from generation to generation.”

Leah Pritchard’s last semester at Memorial University was spent in England, taking master classes with working professionals and seeing shows in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon. “You see as many plays as you can, you write reviews, and you rehearse a play. When you come back you put it up. It’s the culmination of all the work you’ve done the past four years.”

One of the plays she saw in London was “The 39 Steps,” accompanied by her brother, Ian, a six-foot-six lanky young man with curly ginger hair who at the time was also in the theater program. The show is a comic treatment of the Alfred Hitchcock movie. It is played for laughs, so Leah and Ian laughed their heads off

“Most people would unanimously agree that I’m a very loud person,” said Leah. “If I’m being quiet, there’s something wrong. Ian has an even bigger laugh, a booming laugh, not subtle, at all. We were there laughing our heads off, Eastern Canadians watching a comedy. Everyone around us was quiet. Somebody said, ‘That’s not why we’re here.’ English audiences are reserved. Come on! I said. That’s exactly why we’re here. Join in the jokes, please.”

Sometimes being the loud enough voice for quiet thoughts is what works. Leah sang with the Xara Choral Theatre Ensemble on their debut CD “Here On These Branches” about northern cultures, communities, and landscapes. It was nominated for best classical recording of 2015 at the East Coast Music Awards.

It’s what she does getting ready to go on stage every night, too. She sings to herself, pop jazz show tunes by Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie Andrews.

Back in Newfoundland with a newly minted BFA in acting on her resume, she found work as a bartender, a nanny, and an usher. “I’d get up at 6 in the morning, nanny the three kids, drop them off at their family’s restaurant, jump into a shower, get into my uniform, and go usher at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival.”

She worked in a candy store to make ends meet.

“You eat a lot of candy,” she said.

She got a job at a dinner theater in Halifax.

“You gotta do it,” she said. “It’s like cutting your teeth.”

Madrigals in the Middle Ages were a kind of dinner theater. They made a comeback in the 1970s, featuring mysteries and musicals. Actors like Lana Turner and Van Johnson performed between appetizers and dessert. Burt Reynolds owned his own dinner theater.

“You’re a performer, but you’re a waiter, too,” said Leah. “You sing and dance and run off stage to pick up six plates on a tray, deliver them, and run back on stage. You get into wicked great shape doing it.”

The bane of dinner theaters is the hubbub. “You’re a waiter as well as a performer and you have to deal with eaters. But there isn’t a fourth wall. If someone starts talking on their phone, because they don’t really give a fuck about you, you can stop and say, do you mind?”

It’s best said with an upturned nose, mock haughtiness, and a snooty English accent. “It’s not like you’re in the middle of a soliloquy,” she said.

Breaking into the arts world is often a matter of catching a break.

”My first Equity gig was in the fall after I graduated, which is very lucky.”

In late 2013, another teacher from the university, Jerry Etienne, saw her in a remount of “Venus in Fur.” He has directed more than thirty productions as Artistic Director of Theatre Newfoundland Labrador and founded the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. When he signed on to direct “The Rainmaker” at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island the next summer he asked her if she would consider signing up at the same time.

“Yes, please,” she said.

She played the plain spinster in the drought-ridden story set in Depression-era America whose family worries center on her slim marriage prospects and their dying cattle. “Leah Pritchard tunes into the right emotional channel,” wrote The Buzz, Prince Edward Island’s arts and entertainment monthly tabloid.

Summer stock at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north central coast of the island means finding a place to live and a place to eat. “The stage manager and I roomed together for four years.” She ate at Amanda’s that became Fresh Catch that became Pedro’s Island Eatery when it was taken over by a Portuguese couple. “This village has been crying out for Pedro’s,” she said. “They give you so much food, delicious, and a beer. I get passionate about their haddock.”

Meanwhile, she worked up and down the east coast. “I’m very much an eastern girl,” she said. “I’d go insane without the ocean.”

In the spring of 2016 Leah appeared in “The Drowning Girls” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, a play about the real-life early 20th-century British wife killer George Joseph Smith, who married three women in succession and drowned all three in succession. “There was a lot of sitting in water for long periods of time. There was even a splash zone by the first row.“

Later that fall she played Balthazar in “The Spanish Tragedy” at The Villain’s Theatre in Halifax. All the actors were actresses in the new adaptation and the revenge story unfolded with a plentiful dose of black humor.

By the end of the summer season of 2017, after four seasons at the Watermark Theatre, she had appeared in productions of “Blithe Spirit” “The Rainmaker” “The Lion in Winter” “Romeo and Juliet” “An Ideal Husband” “The Glass Menagerie” and most recently “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” and the perky newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park.”

“The Watermark has been very kind to me,” she said. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to do Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.”

“Leah Pritchard and Jordan Campbell have genuine chemistry together, an innocent quality which is very watchable and perfectly suited to the play,” wrote Colm Magner in his review of “Barefoot in the Park” for The Guardian.

Some roles are more challenging than others.

“The Glass Menagerie was hard,” she said. “It was physically challenging, limping around, and I couldn’t figure Laura out, at first. She’s someone who lives inside herself, although as an actor on stage you can’t be too inside yourself. She’s a character who withdraws from the world, is quiet and reserved, and doesn’t want to be in confrontation. But on stage you need to be present, need to be seen, and need to be physically heard.

“It was weird.”

In the fall of 2017 Leah went on tour with Xara Choral Theatre’s adaptation of “Fatty Legs,” a children’s true story book about a plucky eight-year-old Inuit girl gone off to a residential school. “They called me Fatty Legs because a wicked nun forced me to wear a pair of red stockings that made my legs look enormous,” says the heroine. The larger theme is the cultural genocide of Canada’s defunct Indian boarding school system, which separated children from their traditional land, skills, language, and family.

Working with youngsters isn’t new for her. She has been a teaching assistant for Neptune Theatre’s youth theater workshops and led PEI Watermark Theatre’s youth theater acting conservatory for three summers.

Still a self-professed east coast girl, Leah Pritchard has recently moved to Toronto. The city boasts one of the liveliest theater scenes in the world, from major musicals at the Mirvish Theatres to Soulpepper, North America’s only year-round repertory company, to Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and longest running queer theater.

“I want to be on the coast, but I understand the opportunities are in Ontario. I know what stages I want to be on and I’m going to keep working as hard as I can to get on those stages, by hook or by crook.”

Getting in the front door is easy to do if you’ve got a ticket. Getting in the stage door is hard to do if you’re an aspiring actor. Trying to make it in Toronto is a long uphill row to hoe.

“In Toronto no one needs to see you, no one needs to let you into the audition room, because there are thousands of you out there,” said Leah. “The way I approach my career is, there are thousands of good actors, but there aren’t thousands of me. There’s only one of me and they should be so lucky.”

Sometimes she tosses her head back when she laughs, like an actress from another time, a Myrna Loy or Angela Lansbury, who she bears a resemblance to. If she hasn’t laughed ten fifteen twenty times a day it hasn’t been a good day. “I get that I’m a young Angela Lansbury, a lot. I should be as lucky as that. I tell them I’m like a young old lady, not like how people are trying to be beautiful today.”

Looking ahead moving forward owning her career in the big city, she has several pokers in the fire, including Prince Edward Island. “It depends if there are roles for me in the plays they choose,” she said. “Five years in that theatre would be amazing. Even if they don’t, if I can manage a visit, the ocean, Pedro’s, it would be fabulous.”

She toured in the fall of 2018 with Xara Choral Theatre’s production of “Fatty Legs” reprising her work with the troupe.

This year she has found her way back to the Atlantic Ocean and Pedro’s Island Eatery and the Watermark Theatre for her fifth season, appearing in both summer shows, “Boeing Boeing” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

“She is very. very funny in ‘Boeing Boeing,'” said Robert Tsonos, Artistic Director at the Watermark.

“I’m always working to better myself as an actor,” she said. “I’m an independent artist, so I’m not desperate to be liked. I’m older, a little wiser, although maybe not very wise. I’m still only 28. How wise can a 28-year-old be?”

It”s not about to be or not to be.

It’s about the sharp-eyed actor on the way to doing what she wants who understands the first word line page in the manuscript of horse sense keenness awareness is about being unfailing about being you, adding-on but no second-handing and no pretending about what you’re doing to make yourself happen.

Photograph by Matthew Downey

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

Dressed to Kill

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By Ed Staskus

“Just let the wardrobe do the acting.”  Jack Nicholson

“This is my first time doing an internship like this, and it’s inspiring to be working in the field and getting the experience in an actual theater,” said Rachel Farmer.

It was last May last year and Rachel was starting as the new kid on the block at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. A local girl – “I was born and raised on PEI” – she participated in musical theater with dance umbrella throughout high school, and two years further on was studying costume design at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Watermark was her first young foot in the door.

“I did most of the smaller tasks,” she recalled six weeks later as the summer season at the playhouse got underway with “Dial M for Murder.”

“I tried to do some of the dirty work, but it is a rite of passage,” explained Julia Hodgson-Surich, Rachel’s supervisor and mentor, about the labors of internship.

Interns used to be apprentices, although it amounts to the same thing, working at an occupation or trade for little or no pay in order to gain experience. Getting involved, not necessarily cracking the books, is often the best way to get the hang of things. The professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.

“It is an intern’s job to go for coffee for anyone who asks, delivering it hot and cupped in your bare hands,” Kurt Braunohler, the host of podcasts on the Nerdist Network, said about learning the ropes.

There are several imperatives interns have to follow. When uncertain, always ask, be a team player, keep a notebook, and be early, not just on time. You don’t have to be the last to leave, but don’t be the last to get there, either.

Pay attention to everything the big cheese says. Don’t complain, ever. Just don’t.

“I was Julia’s right hand,” said Rachel. “She tackled the main important stunning pieces. I worked on the suspender buttons.”

“I did manage to get her to sew all of the suspender buttons on the pants,” admitted Julia. “I’ve done that thousands of times myself. It’s how she’s going to learn to do it perfectly.”

“The handsome costumes do much to recall the postwar boom years,” wrote The Guardian in its review of “Dial M for Murder,” which sold out for most of its run.

When actors are getting into character, they are often soaking in what they are turned out in. They become what they are wearing. If you are wearing a banana suit, you become a very funny barnstormer on stage. There is no getting around it.

“She didn’t just shove me into the deep end,” said Rachel. “She helped me through everything.”

“I’m not as evil as some designers,” explained Julia. “I went easy on her for the first fitting. It was only after that that I expected perfection.”

Even though internships are often a chunk of paycheck short of real jobs, interns have to show their commitment and go the extra mile, doing everything to a T. It’s the small things that make up perfection, and perfection is no small thing.

“She assisted me,” said Julia. “When I needed a stage pin, she had it. When I said, these pants need to come in three inches, she wrote it down and got it done. We made sure everything fit immaculately.”

“The costumes by Julia Hodgson-Surich were classic and functional, with smooth lines and fabrics audience members will want to touch,” wrote Jane Ledwell in her review in The Buzz.

“We did fittings with each actor for each costume,” said Julia.

Seamstresses and costumers work with everyone from the actors to the director. The show has got to look real. Otherwise, it won’t feel real. Theater might be make-believe, but it’s got be in the flesh to make believers of the audience.

Would Superman even be Superman without his cape and costume? Would anyone believe him if he said he was Superman? No, he would just be Clark Kent, just another Joe behind a pair of glasses.

The costume department at all theaters is responsible for the purchase, design manufacture, fitting, continuity, and care of all the costumes. They create the look and mood of much of what is seen on stage. They need to be able to draw their designs, know how to translate creative vision into something more than the king’s new clothes, and know their fabrics and how to render and integrate them into the visual style of the play.

“Dial M, 1950s, everything was tailored, and some were handmade, some vintage pieces,” said Julia. “We had to order hats from England. Rachel did the alterations on the blue dress that’s at the top of the show. We made it fit like a glove. The actor could still breathe, but barely.”

At the Watermark Theatre they swap with other regional theater warehouses, since they don’t have the time or budget to make everything from scratch, and period pieces in the first and last place are hard to find.

“We go to thrift stores, looking, all the time,” said Julia.

“Seeing an actor’s face light up when we show them what they are going to wear is great,” said Rachel. “It’s the thing that makes them feel confident and in character and ties everything together, the props and set and story.”

This year’s Costume Designer at the Watermark Theatre, Julia was last year’s Head of Wardrobe. She is a designer, seamstress, and textile artist based in Toronto. “I use a lot of what I’ve learned in weaving and knitting, dying fabrics, and textile art,” she said.

She collaborates with the Cactus Sewing Studio and designs her own line of handmade clothing.

The theater runs in her family.

“I started as an intern, when I was 14-years-old, working in wardrobe at a theater my mother was a production manager at,” said Julia.

It was the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Although her father, Bill, was born on Prince Edward Island, she grew up in southwestern Ontario. Her mother, Andrea, has long worked in live theater. Her father fabricated sets for theaters across Canada before becoming a metal sculptor. His installation ‘Trees of the Carolinian Forest’ is in downtown London. A display of his Christmas sculptures is set up every year in Victoria Park in the center of town.

“I started as a sewer, and when I was done with high school, at 18, I started working as a professional. I was promoted to cutter.” She’s been working ever since. “My journey has not been with school. It has been entirely apprenticeships.”

Julia Hodgson-Surich’s contract last year expired as the season at the Watermark Theatre was starting. She was making ready to be on her way. “I don’t have anything on the horizon, but if it comes up, OK, let’s do it.”

Theater professionals are always on the move, looking for their next opportunity. What makes them professionals is knowing how to cope with not knowing where their next paycheck will be coming from. In the meantime, they keep their noses to the wind, staying in touch with what productions are going on and where.

She had been working on the new season’s shows at the Watermark since March. “We talk on Skype, have production meetings in Toronto, so that we’re all on the same page. I did sketches, collected things, came to PEI, met Rachel, and basically, ‘Let’s go!’”

When she took leave of the theater, she left Rachel in charge of the costumes and the dirty work for the next eight weeks.

“She’ll do the repairs, because after every show something is broken. She’ll do the laundry. She’ll be the dresser, making sure the actors look the way they’re supposed to look every single night. It’s a lot of work. I appreciate that I don’t have to do it.”

“I came into it thinking I was a fish out of water,” said Rachel.

She had been a fish out of water not long beforehand, but she was a quick study.

“I was originally planning on going into acting,” she said. “But I realized watching movies and plays, what I loved were what costumes were being worn, and I should probably just go into costumes, so I did.  When I got to Dalhousie, though, it was intimidating, because I had six month’s experience on one outfit, and all my classmates had been sewing since they were 4-years-old.”

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called learning. There wouldn’t be internships. There wouldn’t be mentors.

At the Watermark Theatre the costumers work in the basement. “It’s a tiny little room at the end of a hallway,” said Julia. “We have a window, but it looks out underneath the deck.”

“I love making things,” she said. “We get to sew, work with our hands. I wanted to do it since I was small. I grew up in a theater family. Babysitting was me sitting in a lightbox watching a show. I didn’t understand it, although I just loved costumes.”

The small room in the basement is where most of the mentoring goes on.

“Mentoring cuts into my work,” said Julia, “but it’s worth it. It’s rewarding. I prefer someone I can talk to, tell them what I’m up to, because then I’m talking it through. Sometimes I find out that I’m actually not doing the right thing.”

Talking things through, getting another’s perspective, often helps you to see issues more clearly, and gets your own thoughts off the same old track.

“I don’t want anyone to suffer, either. If I sense someone is having trouble with a hem, or a machine isn’t working and they’re rethreading it over and over, I will help. I won’t just let them flounder.”

“I’ve gotten so much out of it, and the Watermark is a wonderful theatre,” said Rachel.

”Everybody feels like they are a close-knit family here. You feel like everything you do has significance, like you’re not being swallowed up by the whole production, and you matter in the great cog scheme of things.”

This summer’s shows at the Watermark Theatre are the classic farce “Boeing Boeing” and the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Crimes of the Heart.” Even though “Crimes of the Heart” is premised on a murder, it has been described as “an evening of antic laughter.” The wardrobe department may not be getting the actors dressed to kill like they were in “Dial M for Murder,” a spine-tingler rather than a laughfest, but they will still look their part in their new parts.

In the middle of the fun on stage this summer they will be dressed to kill.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.