Tuesday 14 September 2010

NBer Conquers Green Gables

Photo: © Bernard C. Cormier 2010

Since 1965, Charlottetown annually becomes a Maritime hotspot for enthusiasts of musical theatre with the appropriately titled Charlottetown Festival.

From roughly May to October, people who dig such entertainment can sit back and relax to sights and sounds usually associated with Broadway in New York. The plays are usually performed for the public in the Confederation Arts Centre, an impressively large building facing the Charlottetown Mall, which was built in 1964.

If you're an actor in the Maritimes, there's a good chance that you want to eventually be on the festival's payroll at some point in your career.

The musicals presented may have changed over the years but Anne of Green Gables - The Musical has been a mainstay on the schedule every year since the festival began.

The musical's source material mostly lies in Anne of Green Gables, a 1908 novel written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942). It was the first of nearly a dozen books written by Montgomery featuring protagonist Anne Shirley, who can be almost seen as a Canadian Pipi Longstockings. In 2008, a century after the first book was printed, another author, Budge Wilson, wrote Before Green Gables, a prequel to the original novels.

Because Montgomery lived in the province and people don't usually buy souvenirs of potatoes, PEI has largely publicly adopted the character as tourism figurehead and mascot since the early 20th century.

The book series was so successful that many adaptations and spin-offs in other media were made, these include (but not limited to) two theatrical films (1919 and 1934), two animated TV series (1979 and 2000), a half-dozen television miniseries, a spin-off TV series titled Road To Avonlea (1990-1996), and most importantly (in relation to the musical) a 1956 TV-movie.

The 1956 TV-movie, which aired on CBC, played an important part in the development of the theatre production because it, too, was a musical. The material developed for the TV-movie was used as the foundation to what became Anne of Green Gables - The Musical in the following decade.

As anyone can clearly see, with such a long and successful history attached to it, Anne of Green Gables - The Musical can be good on a CV if you're an actor.

Such is the case for Quispamsis native Andrew McAllister. It's the second year that the 24-year-old, who now calls Toronto home, has been performing in the production. Last year, McAllister played the role of "Charlie Sloane" in the ensemble. This year, however, he's been promoted to "Gilbert Blythe," Anne's love interest and, in some sequences, antagonist.

"(It's) fantastic to play an icon role, like Anne or Gilbert. I feel that it could really be a defining credit on your resume, so I feel like this is my chance to maybe be looked at in the eyes of a casting director more seriously or taken more seriously and get better opportunities," he said.

McAllister's story proves that it's possible for New Brunswickers to succeed in show business if they're willing to work for it.

After finishing high school in 2003, McAllister enrolled in Sheraton College, where he graduated in 2007. Although it's usually recommended for actors to join a union, which he eventually did, he consciously didn't for a while so that he could gain additional experience by playing non-union roles.

"I did a cruise ship right after I graduated just to get some money and get some experience. Then I was finding that I had a few job opportunities to become (a union member) but I didn't take them because I figured that, once I'm just out of school, I want to build a name for myself and maybe do shows that I may not get to do if I was a (Canadian Actors Equity Union) member because," he said. "The thing is that if you're non-Equity there's a lot more opportunities, really. Once you join a union, there are only so many union spots and there are so many people who are "union" and if I'm 21 years old and I'm already a member... I just find that I see so many people that just struggle to get work. So, I wanted to do as many shows as I could so I did about 10 shows as non-union then the right things happened at the right time. Now I'm working as a union member.

"I've been a member of the Canadian Actors Equity Union for a few years. It's nice to know that (the Charlottetown Festival) mainly hires Equity members. I find the standards great, whether you're Equity or non-Equity but I find it adds a sense of professionalism and you know that you're well taken care of and, if you have injuries or what not, you'll be in good hands."

Another advantage for him associated to his gig at the Charlottetown Festival is the proximity its location is to his friends and family from the Saint John area.

"I'm very close to home! It's only like three hours away. It's just so refreshing that my friends and family can come see me in shows. Some of them haven't seen me in anything since high school. To be known as a working actor from Quispamsis, sometimes people don't really get what that entails and the hard work. They just think it's like you're singing and dancing and whatnot. It takes a lot of effort."

He said he has also had good support from his family.

"They understand that you can fall on hard times or you could be successful. I mean I've made a good living for myself since I graduated from college and I've continued to work, so I mean they're supportive in that but I think they also realize that if I were to be trying to survive in this industry and I was 30 years old and I still wasn't a member of a union or working that consistently, then they would probably say maybe it's time to think about teaching or doing some other form of being in the same industry but just (doing) something that's more certain."

Although he knew of its title character because he grew up in a province neighboring P.E.I., McAllister didn't know the story of "Anne of Green Gables" before joining the production.

"I've never read the book, I've never seen the miniseries and I live in New Brunswick. Obviously when you audition for a show you want to research it and you want to understand what it's all about," he said. "I didn't know a lot (about Anne of Green Gables) before I came but now, since I've been here for two summers, I feel like the 'World of Anne' is special. People would be doing themselves a disservice by not seeing (the production). Now, I feel like I missed-out growing up (without knowing the story or seeing the production)."

If anyone ever spots McAllister in public, they shouldn't hesitate to ask him for an autograph. In fact, people are invited to ask him.

"(If they ask for autographs), it means I'm doing my job!"

Anne of Green Gables - The Musical runs until Aug. 28 with showings at 2 and 7:30 p.m. at the Homburg Theatre. Tickets cost between $39.10 and $75 and there are also family packages available. To order tickets, visit www.charlottetownfestival.com or call 1-800-565-0278.

* Bernard C. Cormier is, among other things, a freelance writer and broadcaster. www.myspace.com/bernardccormier. www.twitter.com/bernardccormier. E-mail: Bernardccormier-gncb@hotmail.com © Bernard C. Cormier 2010