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Nancy Carroll Takes the Reins for Greater Boston Stage Company's 'Calendar Girls'

Friday Jun 1, 2018
Nancy Carroll
Nancy Carroll  (Source:Provided)

If you've seen Nancy Carroll on area stages in plays as diverse as Ripcord," "The Luck of the Irish," and "I Was Most Alive With You," then you probably remember her. Brimming with the magnetism of a born star, Carroll can't help but capture our full attention, whether she's nailing the character of a sign-language-using ape in the Central Square Theater's 2017 production of "Precious Little" or appearing in movies like "Irrational Man" and "Spotlight."

But did you know that Carroll is also an experienced director?

Though acting has been her focus of late, Carroll returns to the director's chair for Greater Boston Stage Company's upcoming production of "Calendar Girls," adapted for the stage from the 2003 movie by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth and starring a panoply of the area's best-beloved actresses.

It's a true story about a group of proper, middle-aged English women who decide to create a topless calendar featuring... want for it... themselves! Their goal is modest: To raise funds for a charity that's dedicated to helping leukemia patients. But when the world responds with heartwarming enthusiasm, these women find themselves celebrated internationally.

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with Nancy Carroll about the story's success in various formats (movie, stage musical, and play), a certain not-dissimilar story focused on men, and the rare pleasure of seeing a theater work in which the guys are decidedly outnumbered by strong female characters.

EDGE: You have an extensive resume in acting, but I'm not sure how much directing you have done. Is this your first directorial undertaking?

Nancy Carroll: Well, I have directed in Boston before, but it was all so long ago. When I started out, I was acting and doing choreography because I have a dance background. I would do choreography for musicals - I don't even know how many; you name a musical, I've probably worked on it. And then during the height of the 'Nunsense' craze in the late 1980s, the writer asked me to start picking up his overflow, and that's what got me into directing. From there, it just kind of moved on to other projects - to other plays and other musicals, and it was just a natural progression from acting and choreography to directing.

When I left New York and I came back to Boston, I think that was.. oh, it's been 20 years now... I didn't let anyone know that I had directed, really, because I was trying to shift my career out of musicals and into drama. So, I just kind of pocketed it for a while. This is really the first time that I've directed in Boston in years.

EDGE: How did you come to be directing this production for the Greater Stage Company of Boston?

Nancy Carroll: You know, they had me write some director's notes for the program, and it's been two years now since Weylin [Symes, Greater Boston Stage Company's Producing Artistic Director] brought this up... I can't remember. Did he say, "What would you like to direct? What plays do you like?" I can't remember how any of this happened, it's been so long. We started having auditions a year ago! I literally put in my director's notes: "I don't know how I got here. I don't remember how this happened!"

EDGE: It sounds like a much more involved process that just showing up for an audition, getting cast in something, and doing the work to act in a production.

Nancy Carroll: I will say over the years things have changed in Boston, in that people check your availability a good nine and twelve months out. I think Weylin wanted to get a jump on things because people do get booked up so far in advance, and he wanted to see if he could get is cast secured before they received other offers.

EDGE: It used to be the case that plays would be adapted to film, but more and more we see the opposite happening - films are now being adapted to the stage. What do you make of that?

Nancy Carroll: As we are finding in rehearsals, it makes for a few problems, because there's an assumption in the script, oftentimes, [in terms of] references, that everyone's seen the film. We're having to deal with some clarity issues because not everyone has seen the film. There's a bit of a problem that we're rectifying in rehearsals now, and there's also a feeling in the script as we move from scene to scene as if we have a camera, which we don't, so we're having to smooth the transitions for stage. It does create a few staging issues that we're working around, and hopefully, we will solve every single one of them!

[Laughter]

EDGE: This story has been adapted not only to a stage play but also to a stage musical.

Nancy Carroll: I didn't know that. Someone mentioned that in rehearsal at the start of things, and I did not know they had made it into a musical.

EDGE: And, of course, this is based on a true story... what is the appeal? Why has this story taken off the way it has?

Nancy Carroll: Well, I mean, the story, believe it or not, is now almost 20 years old. The first calendar was produced in, I think it was 1999. Someone said to me the other day, "I bet this is done a lot," and I said, "Gee, I wonder if it is because the cast is so large that most professional theaters can't really afford this many actors." But I think the appeal of the play is you have these ordinary women who think they're doing something small - all they're trying to do is but a settee, a sofa, for the visitors' lounge, and it blossoms into this [phenomenon]. They kind of got adopted by the world, which they never expected. They have small lives in a small town, and they think they are doing a small thing.

I think the appeal is the courage it took for them to make a topless calendar. And that they were women of a certain age, and I think they just got embraced by the public for their courage and their generosity. Over the years, in our research we found out, their calendars have made five million euros. And it was for charity! It wasn't for any personal gain - it was a charitable act.

EDGE: It's a charming story - and a popular story, obviously - but has there been any concern or any conversations among your cast and crew... especially with the current groundswell of awareness in women's issues and exploitation... about the content of the material?

Nancy Carroll: I don't think it's an issue, because it's the women's idea. It's not imposed on them. It's their idea as to how to raise money, and raise money quickly, in order to buy this settee. They're buying it in honor and memory of one of the women's husbands who has died. So it comes completely from them. I don't think it's exploitative in any way.

EDGE: As you mentioned, this story took place around 20 years ago, and it took place in Britain - so I assume you are sticking with the time and place, not updating it or transposing it to America?

Nancy Carroll: No, it's set where they live. We want to honor them and portray them as truly as we possibly can. So we're leaving it set right where this happened.

EDGE: Are you having fun with the accents?

Nancy Carroll: Great fun! We have a wonderful dialect coach in Christine Hamill. She is helping us find the sound that is significant to Yorkshire but still allowing our audience to understand what we are saying.

[Laughter]

EDGE: It can be a fine balance.

Nancy Carroll: It is. I use the word cautiously, but we're having to kind of "homogenize" the accent a bit so that it's not so guttural that it's not understandable.

EDGE: A few years before the 2003 film "Calendar Girls," there was a 1997 film, "The Full Monty," which told a similar story of a group of British men putting together a revue in which they dance and strip down in order to raise money. Like "Calendar Girls," "The Full Monty" has been adapted as a stage play and also a stage musical... do the two projects mirror or complement one another in some way? Is that even something you think about as you prepare this show?

Nancy Carroll: I think it was just happenstance, that that occurred. I love that movie, too, but as I recall in the movie they were all unemployed men who were going for a... it wasn't charity...

EDGE: I think they were raising money for one of the guys to pay child support and get to see his son.

Nancy Carroll: Yes, that's right, I remember that - one of the men is estranged from his wife. And they're all on the dole - one of my favorite scenes is when they're all inadvertently practicing their choreography while they're waiting on line. It's been a while since I've seen that one.

But I do think that it's just happenstance that they both popped up in the same five-year time frame.

EDGE: You were mentioning the cast a moment ago, and it's such a wonderful cast! Kathy St. George, Karen MacDonald, Bobbi Steinbach, Jade Guerra... it must be a dream to work with so many highly skilled and talented actors.

Nancy Carroll

EDGE: Yes, those three men: You've got Nael Nacer, Sean McGuirk, and Michael Kaye. Do they feel outnumbered? All too often in theater you have a cast that's top-heavy with men and only one or two women. This time it's the other way around.

Nancy Carroll: Absolutely! The other way around. Actually, Michael Kay had a wonderful statement the other day in rehearsal. Somebody asked a question like that: "Do you feel outnumbered?" And he said, "Do you know what I feel? I feel jealous of these women's relationships and how close they are to each other, and how they share." He said, "That is really a part of a woman's world." I don't know if it's true everywhere, but he was kind of intimating that men don't share the way women do when they're in each other's company.

EDGE: I think that might be true.

Nancy Carroll: There was kind of a universal nodding from our three men. I thought that was a very astute thing to say.

EDGE: Did you have much of a part in the casting decisions?

Nancy Carroll: Yes, Weylin and I sat together through every audition and every callback. And we consulted each other because there is a range of ages - a span for these women - and we miraculously agreed on every choice together.

EDGE What have you got coming up after this show?

Nancy Carroll: Every day it changes. I'm going to New York tomorrow for a callback, so I never know. You have one audition, and if you don't get it then that's the end of that; and if you have a second shot, then you just never know what's going to happen. Right now, I have June and July off. But that's today.

EDGE: Would you be okay with having the time off?

Nancy Carroll: I would really like to spend some time at the beach!


"Calendar Girls" runs at the Greater Boston Stage Company from May 31 - June 17. Tickets and information at http://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

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