One Woman, 17 Characters, and a Hidden World of Faith: Gracie at the Finborough

Though Gracie star Carla Langley previously performed in the character-heavy The Ferryman for 10 months prior to tackling a one-woman show, she’s more comfortable with her current role than one might think: in Gracie, Langley plays seventeen characters. Gracie, directed by Gemma Aked-Priestley and assistant directed by Mingyu Lin, is the European premiere of the award-winning play by Canadian writer Joan MacLeod. It follows Gracie, a young woman, as she grows up within the community of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A fundamental Christian sect that shares scripture with the Mormons, but who split from the faith in the 19th century, FLDS followers live in close-knit, closed off communities that are often viewed as “cults.” FLDS controversially practices polygamy, a major reason for their schism with Mormonism.

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Aked-Priestley first discovered the text when she discussed directing a production for the Finborough Theatre with the space’s artistic director, Neil McPherson.

“He sent me over about 12 scripts, but as soon as I read Gracie, I thought, this is it, this is the one,” says Aked-Priestley. “It kind of sparked from that moment.

Once she’d chosen the script, Aked-Priestley approached Langley about performing the multifaceted role. Langley, fresh off of her time at The Ferryman, instantly agreed.

“Since I’m Irish, I do a lot of Irish parts. I was in The Ferryman for quite a long time, which was absolutely amazing. But I really wanted to do something different, something I’d never done before,” says Langley. “I really felt like now is the time that I need to push myself to do something that really scared me.”

Audience members first meet Gracie when she is eight years old. “She becomes friends with the audience, and take us on her journey to see what it’s like to live where she lives,” says Aked-Priestley. “When Gracie is 15, a proposition is made—I should say, a proposition is told to her, as she is told she’s soon to be married. It’s about how she reacts, and the decision that she decides to make, and where she goes. Does she stay where she is, or does she take the leap to the outside world?”

In order to provide the audience with a better sense of the world Gracie lives in, Aked-Priestley, Langley, and Lin have been conducting significant research into the text and the fact surrounding FLDS. They point me towards a wall of their rehearsal room—it’s covered in maps, notes, pictures, and outlines, tools for them to create the visceral, populated world that Langley alone will create.

“We’re getting to the bottom of what this community believes in, and what their principles are; we wrote down all the facts in the text and all the questions in the play that are being asked,” says Langley of their impressive research wall. “Character work’s really important because we want it to be obvious that I’m playing Billy, or that I’m playing Gracie. It’s been very detailed so far.”

The form of the one-woman play, long the butt of a sitcom’s joke about its most dramatic character, is slowly but surely making its way into the mainstream of British theatre. Langley, who will make her one-woman show debut in Gracie, cites Naomi Sheldon’s Good Girl and Cary Mulligan’s Girls and Boys as two recent one-woman shows that made large splashes on the scene.

“The one-woman show is gaining momentum, and it’s great to be a part of that story—giving women the centre stage,” says Aked-Priestley. “A character like Gracie comes from a marginalized, sexist society. She’s very much a working class, salt-of-the-earth kind of person. She doesn’t come from a particularly educated or affluent background. It’s really important to give characters like that centre stage, so that we’re diverse in the one-woman shows that we’re telling, and that we’re not just producing one-woman shows about characters that perhaps are similar to a lot of people who go to the theatre.”

For directors Aked-Priestley and Lin, the matter of representation is a significant factor in what drew them to the text. Aked-Priestley grew up with a single mother in a working-class family, and found elements of her own life story in Gracie.

“The play starts with Gracie in a van, moving to British Columbia—we kind of looked at the script, and we worked out that actually, she was probably given just one or two days notice to do this. And a similar thing happened to me when I was younger—I remember coming home from school one day and my mother said, “we’ve got to go.” And I remember going to school and saying goodbye to my friends. We just left in the night.”” recalls Aked-Priestley. “Gracie is a girl who, in many ways, is nothing like me. In other ways, she has this vivid imagination. Carla and I have been speaking about the fact that when we were younger, we had imaginary friends. We often use our imaginations as a form of escapism, and there’s lots of parts of Gracie that I relate to. I think all artists, whether you’re an actor, a director, a writer, when you get involved in projects, there’s a bit of you in that play.”

Lin is particularly interested in the representation of faith that Gracie portrays. Faith is one of the Arts Council’s protected characteristics, but it is the characteristic that is least represented in contemporary British theatre. By not addressing the issue of faith, Lin observes, “we marginalize a lot of communities, particularly ethnic groups that are already marginalized.” Though FLDS is not a faith that has major representation in the United Kingdom, Gracie is “a gateway to make theatre-makers and audiences startthinking about addressing faith in a wider context.”

Each member of the team agreed that they hoped Gracie would inspire audience members to consider their own relationships with faith. Langley notes that she enjoys the tone of the play, because “Gracie doesn’t necessarily have a negative approach to, or judge, the faith that she has.” Despite the turbulent events Gracie endures at the hands of FLDS, she maintains her belief in God.

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“It will, hopefully, inspire people to question their own sense of a faith or spirituality,” says Aked-Priestley. Though Aked-Priestley was not brought up in a religious household, both her parents were; recently, her mother has returned to religion, an example of the conversations surrounding the fluidity of faith that Gracie provokes. “This project has been really interesting for me to consider my own sense of faith and belief. Hopefully, the people who come to see it will as well.”

Beyond religion, Gracie also addresses the issue of abuse and violence that women endure, often due to sexism and oppression. In the FLDS community, young women are married to men that are chosen for them, and have little say in the course of their lives.

“The reason why it’s a one-woman show is because women don’t get a voice in this community. And their voices are systematically oppressed. So I think it’s important that it’s a woman who is taking the space. She’s given the opportunity to speak,” says Aked-Priestley. “I think there are hundreds of examples of women around the world who are in positions where they are dictated what to say, what to do, who to marry, the lifestyles, the choices they’re allowed to make for their bodies and sexual choices, reproductive choices, and it’s not as far away as we think. I think it’s much closer to home than we think.”

Gracie has partnered with Refuge UK, the country’s largest provider to women and children escaping domestic violence.

“For me, I want this play to be supporting and reaching women and groups of people who might not necessarily come to the theatre,” notes Aked-Priestley. “If you’re a feminist, if you believe in championing women, and telling women’s stories, and the ERA 50/50 campaign – if you support that, you should come and support one-woman shows and see what they have to say.”

Gracie plays at the Finborough Theatre through May 15. Tickets available here.

Gracie with Stars