BLUE HILL — This really happened. In 1998, a group of upstanding middle-aged to elderly women in Yorkshire, England, decided to create a calendar in order to raise money to buy a sofa for the waiting room of the local chemo-therapy center.
This was not unusual, in fact this group, members of a social club, produced a calendar for charity every other year or so. But for the year 2000 they decided to do things a bit differently. Instead of featuring scenic bridges, gardens, and quaint vistas of the Yorkshire countryside, this calendar would feature the ladies themselves, naked.
Hoping to sell an initial print run of 10,000 the calendar was a stunning success, selling more than 300,000 copies internationally and earning millions of pounds for cancer research.
Their success sparked a trend of “full monty” calendars around the world that even reached the Downeast region, where the Wednesday Spinners, a large group of weavers, produced their own version.
In 2003, the Yorkshire ladies’ adventure was made into a successful movie starring Helen Mirren and, in 2008, it was adapted into a play by Tim Firth.
Now comes the New Surry Theatre, which has assembled a cast of women of a certain age, who in an act of bravery akin to that of those original Yorkshire women, are performing the play “Calendar Girls” at the Town Hall Theater. The production opened last weekend and will continue the next two weekends through June 10.
It is literally an actor’s worst nightmare — to find themselves naked, on stage, in front of a gaping audience. And yet this cast, during a break between scenes at one of the final rehearsals, claims the experience, thus far, has been a blast.
“Well, yes it has been fun, but I wouldn’t say that there have been no problems with this whole thing for me,” confessed Veronica Young, who plays Jesse, a buttoned-up retired teacher, in the play.
“This sort of thing is definitely not in my comfort zone,” Young said. “But our director [Johanna Blackman] exhorted us be as brave as those Yorkshire ladies and so in the spirit of Jesse who was also not in the habit of posing naked for a camera, I am doing something brave.”
During the course of rehearsals, the women said they have gotten pretty comfortable getting undressed in front of one another and even the few male cast members, most notably Hoyt Hutchins, who plays the calendar photographer. Hutchins, says he had his own problems at first, knowing where, or more importantly where not to look.
“But these women are so professional and talented,” he said, “they soon put me at ease.”
The women also credit their director for putting them all at ease with the unusual challenges this play presents.
In fact, several of the women signed on for this play because they had either worked with Blackman before, or wanted to work with her.
“We have really come together as an ensemble,” said Glenon Friedmann, who plays Chris the Alpha, uh, female, of the group who is the driving force behind the calendar.
“But we all have our individual moments as well,” added Bec Poole who plays her friend Annie, whose husband is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.
Poole is best known as a director for NST productions, these days, and this is first time in while she has taken on an acting role.
“Being a director is a more natural fit for me,” she said. “But to be a better director, I felt I needed to get back in touch with what actors need.”
That she has chosen to re-enter the spotlight, au natural as it were, is rather eloquent testimony to her dedication to her directing craft.
Cherie Magnello who plays Celia, said she has not seen the play and has even avoided seeing the film “Calendar Girls.”
“I didn’t want the film to influence my relationship with Celia, whom I really like,” she said. “She’s a warm and caring person but she’s got a spark of fun to her.”
Vanessa Hawkins, who plays Ruth, doesn’t really need to explain who her character is. She made it clear during the earlier scenes that Ruth is that sweet girl (she appears to be the youngest calendar girl) who hides her shyness and perhaps loneliness behind bubbly enthusiasm. Both she and Lori Sitzabee said they got involved because they were eager to work with a group of dynamic women.
And speaking of dynamic women, Blackman, is certainly one of that ilk. While she has only directed one NST play, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” she has played lead roles in many of them and brings considerable directing experience in her past.
As the rehearsal resumed, Blackman leaned forward in her seat focusing a laser-like attention to the action on stage.
From time to time, she stopped the actors, when the dialogue becomes muddled, or she wanted a certain line or thought to be emphasized in the general buzz and chatter.
She says what drew her to this play in the first place was its truth.
“I wanted to emphasize this basic story about a community of real women — nothing out of the ordinary — who come together in grief, to transform that grief into something creative, brave and extraordinary,” Blackman said.
Rather than being intimidated by her large cast — some of whom also are directors — she says she has been buoyed by their support and enthusiasm.
“NST has been a family to me,” she said. “and it feels as if the core of this family has gathered around to support this production.”
This includes the papa bear of NST, Bill Raiten, who, despite his “retirement” last year, visited this rehearsal to see how it was all going and offer a fresh perspective when needed.
“No one pair of eyes can see everything,” Blackman says. “And Bill’s presence — just his showing up — always pulls something fresh out of the actors.”
Blackman says working with these actors has been a joy, the other aspect of staging a play like this — the production details — maybe not so much.
“It’s ironic that a play about making a nude calendar has so many costumes, so many props!” Even with the help of her stage manager Cora Hutchins, she admits it has, at times, been overwhelming. “But I am learning a lot,” she said.
Raiten added that his wife, Elena Bourakovsky, and her crew have been working overtime to create more than 100 costumes for the cast.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 1-2 and June 8-9, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 27 and June 10. Tickets cost $15 per adult and $12 for students and seniors.
A special benefit performance will be staged at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, for the Cancer Support Center of Maine. Benefit tickets cost $20 per person and can be reserved by calling 322-0960.
To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit www.newsurrytheatre.org.