On Prince Edward Island, a summer without Anne Shirley’s antics is unimaginable.
The redhead protagonist of Anne of Green Gables, the Charlottetown Festival’s most storied theatre production, has charmed the fictitious town of Avonlea, forged a classroom rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, and accidentally intoxicated her friend Diana Barry with currant wine roughly 50 times each year since 1965. No annual musical theatre production in the world has run longer.
It seems nearly impossible to predict how the capricious Anne would have reacted last month when she heard this year’s show was cancelled for the first time in its history, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Even Anne’s biggest fans are not sure whether she would have stormed off into her backyard to proclaim to the birds that her life is “a perfect graveyard of buried hopes” – as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote in the original books – or if she might have happily self-isolate up a tree to make a pretty flower crown.
But Emma Rudy knows.
Since 2019, Ms. Rudy, a 25-year-old actor from Stratford, Ont., has been Anne. She is the 19th Anne to don the pigtails and thick pinafore dress on the Charlottetown Festival main stage. Last year, critics called her a potently comedic Anne, one with a lovely singing voice and plenty of the requisite sweetness and light.
Ms. Rudy was supposed to leave her current home in Toronto for PEI in May for rehearsals. Instead, she moved back with her parents, two Stratford theatre sweethearts, to wait out the pandemic. In the two months back at her childhood home, she has yet to isolate up a tree. Rather, she spends her time reading old plays and acting theory, and Zooming with other cast members – previously for rehearsal, now just for the social aspect.
She makes a schedule for herself each day to make life feel as normal as possible. She does yoga, goes for runs and keeps in touch with friends. Her latest leisure read was You Are a Bad Ass, a self-help bestseller by Jen Sincero. Like many, she waits for CERB payments to roll into her bank account in place of a disappeared summer income.
She’s sorry to lose her starring role to the coronavirus. In Ms. Rudy’s three years of professional acting, Anne has been her favourite character to play. She likes the character’s worldliness, her imagination, how she matures in front of her audience.
“People are missing out on a great story this year,” Ms. Rudy said. “Those who don’t know Anne think it’s just this fun cute story about this girl who goes to this beautiful place, but there is more meat to it than that.”
Ms. Rudy hardly speaks vicariously. It’s a funny thing to be Anne in PEI, where busloads of tourists from around the world stop at Avonlea Village, and where Charlottetown gift shops are cluttered with Anne of Green Gables T-shirts, chocolates and bottles of raspberry cordial. It took little time for her to notice that whenever an Islander recognizes her – even in her civilian clothes – he or she will stop her and ask for a picture with Anne.
The first time Ms. Rudy went to Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish last summer, the century-old house that inspired the setting in Montgomery’s story, she was with her parents. Camouflaged in a group of tourists, they followed the tour guide in and out of the white and green building’s rooms. Midway through the tour, the guide locked eyes with Ms. Rudy, stopped talking mid-sentence, and said “Wait ... I know who you are! You’re Anne!”
“The tourists also freaked out,” Ms. Rudy said. “My parents sure loved that moment. You can never fully prepare for how much love the Island has for Anne."
Going from being PEI’s It Girl to physical distancing at your parents’ house can be disconcerting. At first, she thought this new normal would be short-lived.
“I started doing this thing where I lied into the abyss and watched movies and thought it would pass,” Ms. Rudy said. “But then when I saw things getting cancelled even on Broadway, I realized we might be in it for the long haul.”
What followed for Ms. Rudy were weeks of uncertainty, during which she was in constant contact with the show’s artistic director Adam Brazier, theatre manager Dean Constable and chief executive Steve Bellamy who worked hard to check in on the production’s actors.
On April 30, the Charlottetown Festival announced its cancellation for the summer, putting itself and Anne of Green Gables on indefinite hold, much like the rest of the world’s entertainment industry. Broadway will feature no shows until at least June 7, while theatres across Canada have already cancelled summer and fall productions, and it is unclear when they will allow for full capacity audiences again.
Even though the short term looks bleak for actors, Ms. Rudy remains optimistic – resiliency is a character trait she sharpened by playing her alter ego.
“When times are tough for Anne,” she said, “she rewrites her own story. I hope I can do that myself right now.”
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