Converting a movie blockbuster into a stage show has meant playwright Tim Firth has seen more than his fair share of flesh, writes Kate Mead.
Getting involved with nude photography has had some alarming consequences for British playwright Tim Firth.
Firth wrote the screenplay – and subsequent theatre adaptation – to Calendar Girls, the 2003 comedy in which a group of middle-aged women pose for a cancer charity calendar with little more than cream buns and sunflowers covering their, er, cream buns and sunflowers.
Their true story led to a deluge of similar naked ambitions – some of which Firth has had the horror of viewing.
"Some hairdressers round the corner from me did [a calendar] a couple of years ago and it was absolutely gruesome," he shudders. "They had missed the fact that the original photos were very artistic, beautifully done, and that, crucially, they were kind of a rural burlesque. As soon as you start to see anything that you shouldn't in the photos, it deflates like a souffle. You have to be artistic about it and as soon as you have people racing around in their underwear holding curling tongs it falls apart."
Firth is speaking from his home in Cheshire. It's his only interview ahead of a touring stage production of his hit movie, starring a slew of local names, including Culture's cover girl Theresa Healey, Rima Te Wiata and Alison Quigan. It's early morning, but Firth's distinctive northern English accent is chirpy. Calendar Girls has been good to this Cambridge University graduate, who admits it took a friend to point out the story's potential.
Calendar Girls, which starred Dame Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, is based on the endeavours of the members of Rylstone Women's Institute – a northern English branch of the organisation famously built on jam and the hymn "Jerusalem" – who created a nude calendar in 1999 after a member's husband died from leukaemia. It's credited as one of the most successful British films of all time and has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide. But it may not have occured at all if it weren't for the friend who convinced Firth to write it after a case of serendipity.
"The extraordinary thing is that, despite the fact that I had been on holiday to the village where the calendar was shot three times a year since I was three years old, and despite the fact that I had bought the calendar myself, unknowingly, from one of the girls the year before the idea was presented to me – I had it up in my house – I was completely unaware of it as an idea."
Firth had a fortnight between projects to knock out as much as of the story as he could. This pressure meant he had to use a computer to write – something he had, incredibly, never done before – and he produced 20 minutes of screen time in the first day.
Because he was dealing with a tender topic, Firth says he wanted to write without influence and held off meeting the "real" calendar girls until they had read the script.
"The only comment that they had was whether it was entirely believable that a guy would come to give a talk to the WI on the subject of [the history of the milk marketing board, which is in the opening scene] ... and then they turned to each other and said `Well, yeah, but having said that, we did have that guy who came to talk to us last week about the history of his collection of tea towels' and that was even weirder and funnier than the [scenario] that I wrote."
Firth says the theatre version could be a way to continue the charitable aims of the Rylstone Women's Institute because the story "could be reinvented and replanted on a regular basis".
So he approached the gargantuan Disney film studios and obtained the rights to rewrite the story for the stage. Firth thinks Disney was too "bogged down" at the time with the stage musical version of The Lion King to worry about "a little play about the calendar girls... so they just said `Oh yeah, go on' and left me to my own devices".
The play is a stripped-back rendition of the film. It had to be "completely reinvented and obey the laws of theatre, rather than trying to make the laws of theatre obey the laws of film. Otherwise you'd end up with a very disparate and straggly story".
As a writer Firth thrives on developing characters and was able to delve into the stories of all the women and write a group comedy, rather than focusing on the two main characters in the film.
THE AUCKLAND Theatre Company version (which will tour to Hamilton and Tauranga) is directed by Colin McColl, who says the play's appeal is in its broad themes.
"At its heart, Calendar Girls is about the power of community," McColl says. "It's uplifting, funny and moving at the same time."
McColl's version sees New Zealand join a host of countries, including Greece, Norway, Australia and Russia, to take on an adaptation. Firth says he's gratified and surprised by his script's international appeal and endurance.
"The play has been performed in so many different incarnations now: literally out of the back of a van in South America and in huge state theatres in front of presidents in Eastern Europe.There must be something in the core of the story that is universally relevant in those countries, and I think that is something to do with fighting back at a disease that touches everybody, with wit."
McColl agrees: "New Zealand audiences know about Women's Institutes and they know about the insidious bloody disease that cancer is, so I believe they can easily relate to the women's situation in the play," he says. "As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. This and a sense of community as a way of getting through tough times, is as true here as it [is] in any country in the world."
Firth admits he has attended various versions of Calendar Girls "where I believe I can be of some help", such as the Australian and Canadian ones where there was no language barrier. Sitting through another of his works in Germany, however, proved to be a less productive experience. "I thought `I will never do this again' because each country has to reinvent a play for its audience and their mentality and its own culture, so in a way it's probably best not to get involved in that particular machine."
Firth's theatre resume comes with almost unlimited praise. The Cambridge University graduate first joined creative forces with respected director Sam Mendes (of provocative American Beauty fame). Firth went on to receive a Laurence Olivier award for best new musical for Our House and has enjoyed continued success with The Flint Street Nativity, which is still running in England despite being written in 2006.
Firth followed his stage success with a foray into film through comedies Blackball, Kinky Boots and 2009's Confessions of a Shopaholic. He's currently working on an innovative comedy about a best man's wedding video which involves one of the actors holding the camera for certain parts of the film.
But theatre is his main love. "The energy of the imagination is so alive in theatre, whereas in film you are usually delivered everything you need to know about the visual moment. That's why the occurrence of the sunflowers in the play of Calendar Girls is more exciting than it would have been on screen ... a few very well-placed sunflowers within a context of a theatre can be larger, or more potent, than a four-acre field of them [on screen]. There is a certain joy in the theatre in finding out how you express the changes of the season and how you make the world come to your room instead of taking your room out to the world."
Theresa Healey on nudity, her new role and moving on from Shortland Street.
What is it about the Calendar Girls story that resonates?
I think it's something about being in a group and the camraderie of being together and doing something that is really scary but you're doing it for a really good reason and afterwards you get this really good feeling of "Wow, we did it".
What month are you?
February. Which means for my character's image, it's summery and happy.
How much of your kit do you actually have to get off on stage?
Basically everything although we can't take the microphones off so we're not completely naked and I do have a wee apron that covers me a bit and of course we're nicely obscured by props!
Did you do anything special to get in shape beforehand?
No I didn't! I've been trying actually to put on some weight so I don't look too scrawny. I think the women with some shape look so much better their breasts are bigger and they're more womanly. So I did no special or specific exercise to try to look better because I think the show is about normal and natural bodies being beautiful not some idea of what beautiful is being the goal.
Have you done nudity before?
Yeah, little bits and pieces, on stage and in short films in scenes which have needed it and it doesn't really worry me. I mean, if it's right for the play and right for the character and it's not in a way that's gratuitous, then I think it's fine.
When you perform those scenes do you see it as being Theresa naked or your character Annie?
Oh, it's definitely Theresa naked! But with a little bit of Annie in there helping me do it and to cover it up a little. It's easier doing it as Annie but you're still yourself up there naked, there's nothing between you, your skin and the world there's no costume to hide behind.
A lot of people will recognise you from your Shortland Street days, what have you been up to since then?
I've basically done babies and family things. I've brought up two beautiful boys. My husband's been very busy making television and movies. I've done lots of other things too, travel shows, bits and pieces of television. I've had a lovely little part in Go Girls and will be coming back to that for another episode. So I've had an incredibly varied life; lots of helping out at school and being mother help. Lots of family things that I was pleased I was able to do.
Do you feel like you ever left Carmen [of Shortland Street] behind or do you still have a soft spot for her?
Carmen was a long time ago. She's like my younger sister now. But, boy, I still have a soft spot for her. She was a great character thanks to the wonderful script writers. It did take a long time for people to forget that I was her. I think it's a thorn in every Shortland Street actor's life that leaves the show because you've got a legacy you've got to get rid of.
Calendar Girls: Auckland, August 10-20; Hamilton, August 26-27; Tauranga, September 1-3.
- Sunday Star Times
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