Calendar Girls, the 2003 British blockbuster comedy film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters was written in response to a real life charitable fundraising phenomenon.
When Angela Baker’s husband, John Richard Baker – an assistant national park officer in Yorkshire, England – succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998 at the age of 54, Angela and her friends decided to do something in John’s memory. They raised money to purchase a sofa for the visitors’ lounge in the hospital where John was treated.
The idea grew into something much bigger and unexpected when the group of middle-aged women, who belonged to the Women’s Institute, came up with the idea of producing a nude calendar to raise funds for Leukemia & Lymphoma Research, the leading blood cancer charity in the UK.
Never did they imagine that they would sell over 200,000 calendars in the first year of the grassroots fundraiser. The women continued producing calendars – with their favorite Yorkshire recipes on the back of each month – from 1999 until 2010, raising over $3 million to date to help find a cure for the deadly disease.
From Screen to Stage
Usually a play is made into a movie, not the other way around, but in the case of Calendar Girls, screenwriter Tim Firth adapted the movie to the stage, which opened in 2008 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and went on to London’s West End. The play will make its U.S. debut in June at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut.
“The nice thing about Calendar Girls is it’s funny, it’s compassionate, and it’s about something we can all relate to—losing someone and wanting to do something,” says Jacqueline (Jacqui) Hubbard, Ivoryton Playhouse artistic director, who grew up an hour from Skipton, England where Calendar Girls takes place.
“I have two sisters and a brother working in National Health Service in England in small hospitals,” she says. “My mother is always very involved in raising money for these charities.”
Jacqui explains that the Women’s Institute is like a church ladies’ fundraising group—a traditional women’s activity in England. Doing a calendar was a time-honored fundraising strategy. This group had made a calendar every year featuring pictures of Yorkshire churches, bridges, and other local scenes, but sold very few. When some of the women saw a calendar with a pin-up girl on it in an auto repair shop, they realized that those were the kind of calendars that sold.
“Theirs was very much a tongue-and-cheek calendar,” Jacqui notes.
“Angela Baker just wanted to raise enough money for families to have a place to sit and be comfortable in the hospice or cancer unit,” Jacqui says. “Everyone feels absolutely defenseless when someone is going through this and wants to do at least one small thing. It’s that core underlying theme of the play that resonates with people.”
It certainly resonated with Jacqui, who was determined to bring the stage adaptation of Calendar Girls to the Ivoryton Playhouse, which proved to be no easy feat.
Jacqui says her mother saw the play when it was in London, starring local TV celebrities, and enjoyed it, which gave her the idea of producing it in Connecticut.
“I called the agent for the play in London and asked if they were considering bringing it to the U.S. He said, ‘yes, but we want to do a Broadway (NY) run,’” Jacqui says. “I hadn’t heard anything the following year, so I called him again and he said the play had gone to Toronto. I called him a third time and he said, ‘We have one more avenue we’re going to follow, but to be honest, Ivoryton is just too small.’ On my last attempt last year, he said, ‘You can have it.’ You had to pick me up off the floor.”
Jacqui assumes the agent gave up on premiering the play in New York because everything that comes to Broadway has to have lots of bells and whistles and financial backing. Small plays that make it tend to have a major backer.
“A small company in Maine is doing a reading, but we are the first U.S. theater to do a professional production,” Jacqui says. “I’m sure it will be successful and go on to other theaters. Some shows, you just know, will have a certain appeal.”
“A lot of people have said (of Calendar Girls) ‘It’s just so English.’ But it’s really not—it’s a very universal theme,” asserts Jacqui.
“I think it translates quite well to the stage. In England there were two big stars in the movie—their relationship became central and everyone else was peripheral. The play has made it more of an ensemble piece, so all the characters are more fully formed.
“I hope you get the intimacy in the theater that you don’t get in a movie — that human connection,” Jacqui adds. “Although we can’t do all those great scenes on the Yorkshire hills!”
Regarding nudity in the play, she says, “You’re not going to see any nudity. The women will be taking off their clothes, but will be hidden behind their knitting or baking or gardening, etc. It’s choreographed to make sure when those robes drop, the pieces are in place, so you don’t see more than you’re supposed to.”
Jacqui makes the point that women over 40 and up to 70 in all shapes and sizes were featured in the calendar and will be portraying the characters on stage.
“Women bought the calendars because it was a vindication of their bodies,” she says. “We’re so inundated by images in the media of what we’re told our bodies should look like. A woman might think ‘I’m 56 and this woman my age is posing for a nude calendar and still looks and feels beautiful.’”
Jacqui remarks that the theater’s lighting designer, Doug Harry, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years ago.
“Because of stem cell research, we have a handle on this disease, and Doug is doing OK. He wouldn’t have survived 20 years ago. It’s one of those things that really brings this home.”
Calendar Girls is at The Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, CT, June 3-21. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.