By Ed Staskus
“Many people think I was the first Anne, but I wasn’t,” said Gracie Finley.
Every summer for the past fifty-two 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. Eighteen 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, it is in the 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 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, in the 1940s was 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 500 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. 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, winter 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 hadn’t 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, 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.
“Because you look like an orphan,” he said. She was five foot two and 100 pounds.
He suggested taking singing and dancing lessons. She took lessons and took on something like the likeness of an orphan. Actors said, 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. 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 improbably 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 47 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 Stickings was ready to go.
“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 often are 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 Barry Stickings 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 awhile for the changeover. I said, la, la, la, nothing’s going to happen.”
Instead of exercising restraint she exercised. 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.” 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. “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 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 Barry Stickings was transferred to New Jersey.
“We lived up in the hills, outside Morristown, where there are lots of horses. I love horses. My father 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 offered the counsel, “All you need for happiness is a good wife, a good gun, and a good horse.”
In 1996 they moved to the UK. “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, originally 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 from the time of Henry III. Turners shaped 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 west of Cavendish on the north shore. 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, sitting on the waterfront deck of Carr’s Oyster Bar, you can watch kids jump off the Stanley Bridge the thirty thrill feet down into the bay.
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 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 come 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 said, 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 straightjacket 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 backward, 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.”
Last year, her 4th season there, she played the jolly hockeysticks 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. “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.
This year, returning to the Watermark for her 5th season, Gracie Finley is playing 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 women actors 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 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.
“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,” said George Bernard Shaw.
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 weren’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.
“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 up and down the spine, the first time and time in hand until the curtain call.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”