Tag Archives: Confederation Centre of the Arts

From Bogota to Bittergirl

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When “Bittergirl: The Musical” came back to the cabaret-style Mack Theatre in downtown Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, it came back because it had played to laugh-out-loud crowds during its world premiere there in 2015, and everyone knew the home-grown Canadian merry-go-round about breaking up was worth seeing, or seeing again in 2017.

Based on a 1999 play lived died and written by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, and Mary Francis Moore, one of them divorced, one dropped like a hot potato, and one in the whirlpool of being dumped, and their later-on best-selling book, “BITTERGIRL: Getting Over Getting Dumped”, the musical is the best of the play and the book and 60s doo-wop mixed with 70s mega-hits.

“When he danced he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.”

The show is a mash up of a live band song dance high emotion low comedy trenchant wisecracking and rip-roaring showcase performances. It’s about the one sure-fire way of hurting somebody’s feelings, which is to break up with them.

“Baby, baby, where did our love go? Ooh, don’t you want me, don’t you want me no more?”

Hooking up and heartbreak are as girl group as it gets. Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was still fifty years in the making when Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Motown were going strong. The Shirelles were the first to hit number one on the HOT 100 in 1961 with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.

When the musical comedy wrapped up its second sold-out run at the end of August, and the last of more than 20,000 theatergoers had left the 200-seat Mack Theatre, the young woman putting away bottles of vodka and rinsing out cocktail glasses behind the bar on the far side of the stage was the one person who had seen the show more times than anyone else, save the cast, crew, and front of the house.

“I love the show,” said Natalia Agon, the Mack’s bar manager. “Sometimes on my nights off I go see it with my mom or my husband or my friends. It’s so fun and I’m so proud of it.” Since starting work at the theatre earlier in the summer she has seen “Bittergirl” close to 40 times.

The 25-year-old traced an improbable path to her first sighting of the show. She almost didn’t make it. A native of Bogota, Colombia, it took a death threat to shove her off Colombian soil and land her on the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. The threat to her family came from terrorists, in the mail, on embossed stationary, declaring them a military target.

“Bogota was good,” she said. “I grew up there. My dad worked hard, and my mom worked hard, to give us what we needed. Starting over from zero was definitely hard.”

Bogota is a 500-year-old city in the middle of Colombia, the capital city and largest city in the country. It sprawls across a high plateau in the Andes. More than 10 million people live in the metro area, the economic, political, and cultural center of northwestern South America. “Most Noble and Most Loyal City” is Bogota’s motto.

Natalia’s parents met in Panama City, Panama. “They were poor when they got together. They would buy clothes or cigarettes in Panama, where they didn’t have taxes, and bring it back to Colombia, and sell it,” she said. “They did every job on the planet.”

By the time she started school her parents had scrimped and saved and purchased and owned and operated a 1,000-acre beef and dairy farm four hours away from Bogota, while still living in the city. “We went there every weekend, my two brothers and me, whether you liked it or not.”

At the same time, “bittergirl” the stage play took off, playing from bliss to breakup and back to full houses in Toronto, traveling to London, England, and laughing its way to off-Broadway in NYC. It was the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and the Colonel’s special.

“I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see, for every kiss you give me I’ll give you three, oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you.”

It was a long way from the little Toronto café where the three writers dreamed up the loving and hurting story, based on themselves and everyone they knew. “We’ve had some adventures together!” said Mary Francis Moore.

“Every night our audiences were waiting for us as we came offstage with their very own stories,” the co-authors have said.

‘I got dumped in the hospital ten minutes after giving birth…’

‘He left me for my little sister and now he sits across from me at Christmas dinner…’

‘My husband worked for CSIS and said ‘You’ll never be able to find me’ and I never have…’

“Swear to God. All true.” Truth is stranger than it used to be. The snag about some hook-ups is that they’re not worth the break-up.

“My parents had a big problem with FARC,” said Natalia Agon. “It was because of the farm, about paying the vaccine.” Besides the coca trade, in other words, cocaine, which sustained the leftist group during Latin America’s longest running war, extortion ran a close second in the financial affairs of the rebels. The money payments were known as vacuna, or the vaccine.

Scottish Border Reivers ran a racket called black mal five hundred years ago, the Sicilian Mafia has always understood the protection trade, and there is little confusion about what the Russian Mafia means when they say krysha up.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was formed in 1964, a peasant army that grew to number almost 20,000 militants controlling close to 40 percent of the country. The 50-year civil war, recently ended, displaced 7 million people from their homes and resulted in 220,000 deaths, among them 11,000 people killed by land mines.

“My dad paid the vaccine for a long time,” said Natalia. “But, once they saw they could use you for other purposes, whether storing drugs or storing guns, it was a yes or no answer, no matter whether you wanted to do it or not.”

Pedro and Maria Agon said no to cocaine and guns.

Soon afterwards, just before Christmas 2007, they got a letter in the mail. “It was on thick white paper, official looking, super fancy, with their FARC logo on it. We just left, our house, the farm, all my friends I had known all my life. One day my mom said, pack a bag, you’re not going to school on Monday.”

She packed pictures and letters from her friends and the blanket she was swaddled in when she was brought home from the hospital when she was born. “You can’t do that, my mom said. You have to leave everything.”

They left almost everything.

“We got out of there fast.”

The Agon’s were able to transfer property to sisters brothers aunts uncles, as well as convert some assets to cash. They were uncertain about relocating anywhere else in South America. They considered the United States a safe haven, but Natalia’s mother nixed moving there.

“She just didn’t like it, even though she had traveled to the States many times. She never felt welcome. She always felt a racial discrimination, even though she was going there to spend money. So we looked at a map and there was Canada. There was no thought process behind it, we just went.”

“Bittergirl: The Musical” took the Charlottetown Festival by storm when it opened in 2015, a crowd-pleaser bringing the howls and selling out all summer. Bitterness never felt better, nor misery in the hands of singers and dancers belting it out and mansplaining how he’s lost his magic and you’ve got to go.

“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good, he’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should, but just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does, that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.”

It went on to become a north of the border success story, having since been produced coast to coast, Edmonton, Manitoba, Vancouver.

Nine months after landing in Toronto, the Agon’s got their Permanent Resident cards. “It was a hard process,” said Natalia. “There was a lot of scrutiny, but it was never the you don’t deserve to be here kind of scrutiny.” The family rented an apartment and Natalia graduated from high school in 2010. She attended Centennial College, majoring in Food and Nutrition Management, and worked part-time in a nursing home.

In 2014 she and her husband-to-be, Miguel Cervantes, moved to Prince Edward Island. “I knew I needed a school that was going to give me a lot of interaction with professors and where there were internships to become a registered dietician.” She has an internship on tap at Humber River Hospital in Toronto when she graduates next year.

Natalia Agon enrolled at UPEI in Charlottetown. Her husband worked his way up to become the executive chef at Mavor’s, a contemporary eatery part of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. The menu ranges from the Moona Lisa burger, featuring homegrown PEI beef, to four-course dinners paired with Scottish whiskies.

Last year, looking for work, she applied at the Mack Theatre. She got the job. “I run the day-to-day operations and I’m the head bartender,” she said. She trains and schedules the other bartenders, keeps a firm hand on the inventory and cash register, and trims the sails on show days. Above all, all summer long she mixed Cowards, Mounties, and Magic Men.

“Those are the names of the three ex’s of the show, and they’re our three feature cocktails. The definite crowd favorite is the Mountie. I always tell everyone, I think you’re going to like it even more once the show starts.” At the break, however, the strains of ‘Be My Baby’ dying away, most order the drink they can relate to the most. Magic Men and Cowards give the vodka-heavy Mountie a run for his money among the crowd pressing at the bar, no matter that Mounties are renowned for saving damsels in distress.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you, babe.”

“Things have changed a lot in Colombia since we left,” said Natalia.

She has since returned several times for visits. Nevertheless, when her father went back to South America, the farm he bought was on the Ecuador border with Colombia. “He’s in love with the land. He can’t get enough of it.” One of her older brothers, a doctor, lives in Mexico and the other older brother lives in Spain. Her mother spends divergent parts of her year with her husband and far-flung children.

The Agon’s are a family of expatriates by necessity, not by choice. “My husband is from Guatemala, but he came to Canada when he was a one-year-old and never went back,” said Natalia. “His Spanish is broken. But I was born in Colombia, raised in Colombia, and most of my values are from being raised there. I loved it. Leaving was an emotional struggle.”

Although it’s true that loss is the same as change, and the world is always going to keep changing, surviving and coping with loss is difficult, especially when a chunk of your childhood goes missing. It leaves a hole in the world. It’s the price everyone pays for everything they’ve ever had, or will have.

“Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye, did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die, oh no not I, I will survive.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a boyfriend or your birthplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played for laughs on stage or it plays out in real life. There’s a thin line between humor and hurt.

“I never get tired of the show,” said Natalia. “The ex and the girls do a great job portraying everyone, our emotions, all we’ve been through. It’s happened to me, when you’re dumped for no reason, or it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve definitely heard that one before, and I’ve totally said it, too.”

Behind the bar she hears what everyone has to say about “Bittergirl”. When a case of nerves orders a cocktail she mixes up a Coward. “The moms, maybe when they’ve had one too many, remember ordering pizza, eating their feelings. It’s just heartbreak.”

One day can be sweet as can be and the next day bitter as all get out. “You don’t know if you should laugh or cry,” said Natalia. Everyone has their share of heartbreak. If you’re singing about it, you’ve lived it. Natalia Agon has lived it and sung along with songs about it, but isn’t recording a full album of it.

Whenever bitterness tries to get in on the act, she offers it a Magic Man. “That’s my favorite,” she said. The Magic Man is a south of the border blend of Kahlua, Pepsi, milk, and crème de cacoa.

Sometimes when husbands and boyfriends are at the bar at the Mack at intermission getting drinks for wives and girlfriends, but can’t remember what they want, she suggests they “go check with the boss.”

She’s not a bitter girl.

 

Selfie by Natalia Agon

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The Second Anne Shirley

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“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.

“No, why?”

“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.

 

Photograph by Andrea Surich