Nina Thiel has served as a campus minister with InterVarsity, a Christian fellowship, since she graduated from University of the Pacific in 1982, and when auditions for Stockton Civic Theatre’s “Calendar Girls” were announced, she passed.
Her ambivalence centered on the nudity in the show, in which a group of older women in a Women’s Institute group in Yorkshire, England, hit upon the idea of posing nude for a calendar to raise money for a new settee at the local hospital, where one of the women sat as her husband was dying of leukemia.
Then Thiel got an email that one more character needed to be cast, and her son John urged her to audition.
“I read parts of the script we’d be reading,” Thiel said. “I loved it.”
Thiel discovered the play, based on a true story and inspired by the hit 2003 film starring Helen Mirren, is more than a story of older women stripping for a cause.
“What was really exciting about it is it’s a play, at its core, about female friendship,” said Beth Lopes, a Los Angeles-based guest director. “This is about female friendship and holding each other up through dark times. There’s also a lot of comedy too, and the outrageous calendar. The story that’s important to me is women seizing ownership of their bodies. For a lot of women, in America specifically, their worth is tied to youth a lot of times. This play is a testament to women being sexy, powerful and worthwhile at any age. That’s mirrored in the characters and the company of actors playing them. They’re incredible. It feels very important right now to be doing a play about strong, intelligent, brave women holding each other up.”
For Cindy Braden, who plays Annie, the character whose husband dies, the show, in some ways, was better than real life.
“I feel like strong, powerful women have a hard time trusting other women,” Braden said. “I feel like I have that tendency. I’m kind of a loner. I don’t have a lot of girlfriends. I think women get caught up at this age in their 40s and 50s, raising our families. We don’t have a lot of time for other women, for friendships. Being thrust into this changed me. I spend so much of my time with other women. It’s beautiful. They’re going through the same stuff. I trust more again. We have each other’s back. It’s like going to a support group every night.”
The bond was strengthened, particularly among the six women involved in posing for the calendar, because of the nudity involved, although audience members won’t be exposed.
“It was scary, but afterward we felt so much closer,” said Braden, a music teacher and mom to a 14-year-old son. “The first time, I wore extra deodorant; I was just sweating it. Then it just felt like, oh, my gosh, we’re all beautiful, wonderful and different. I always knew (that). (Whether) you’re a (size) 2 or a 12 or 22, when you’re there for each other, you’re all beautiful at the end of the day.”
Without fanfare, Thiel disrobed in rehearsal first, never getting to Lopes’ plan to ease into it by first rehearsing in underwear.
“My character, Chris, led the way in the play and I was going to lead the way,” Thiel said. “I don’t know if it fired everybody up, but I felt we should just do it. It was fine. I was more thinking about it as performer, more worried about getting the shirt unsnapped and open than about what was underneath.”
That confidence, Thiel said, is a credit to Lopes, who not only tested the view of every seat in the theater but made her cast comfortable.
“She is fantastic,” Thiel said. “She’s just amazing. I appreciate her level of professionalism. She’s a wonderful director and gets the best out of all of us. That’s been wonderful, too. That matters a lot to me. You have to trust your director.”
Lopes, a New York University theater major who lives in Los Angeles with her actor husband, a cat and a dog, travels throughout the country to direct. She was invited to direct “Calendar Girls” by SCT artistic director Dennis Beasley, with whom she attended graduate school at the University of California, Irvine, when she decided she wanted to focus on directing rather than acting.
“I feel so lucky,” Lopes said of the SCT experience. “I felt everyone was so welcoming. The theater embraced me with open arms. They were all on board for what I wanted to do with the show and everyone was on the same page. It was a lovely environment. I would be happy to come back.”
— Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord