Kelsey Verzotti was once told by a teacher she may never play Anne Shirley at the Charlottetown Festival because she's not white.
Hearing that was a pivotal moment in her young career, Verzotti says.
"Oh I can't be in a show because of the way I look? Because of my race and my culture?" she recalls thinking at the time.
"I remember that moment being very defining for me in this industry."
A fire was lit under her, not only to prove the naysayers wrong but to earn a role like that and become the role model she wanted to be for kids like her who were told they couldn't do it.
It didn't take her long either. This summer Verzotti, who is half-Chinese, is the headliner: taking on the biggest role in the biggest show of the Charlottetown Festival — on one of the most iconic stages in the country in one of the most storied musicals ever made.
Determined, fiery, excited, adventurous — she is every bit Anne Shirley.
"To be a role model to young kids who go see the show, and families, it's really special," she said. "I'm looking forward to soaking up every minute of it."
'We are stunning'
Verzotti is among a diverse cast of actors in Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, and it's something she's immensely proud to see and be a part of.
"When I look at our cast, like, we are stunning. It's all kinds of people that maybe have been told they'd never be in a show like this, I know I was, and so it feels full circle to actually be here and be doing the work," she said.
"It's going to mean so much to people who come to see the show who maybe don't always see themselves represented on stage."
This representation is the way it should be, as the Confederation Centre of the Arts' artistic director Adam Brazier will tell you. The fictional world of Avonlea — the quaint setting of Anne's stories — should be a reflection of Prince Edward Island.
"The face of P.E.I., today, is very different than it was in 1908 and the face of Canada is very different," he said.
"This is an iconic Canadian story, it should be reflective of the face of Canada."
'It brings a lot of hope to myself'
Justin Eddy is a Chinese-Canadian actor from London, Ont., and he's taking on the role of Gilbert Blythe.
Walking through the halls backstage and seeing pictures from past Anne productions, Eddy reflects on the cast and crew who've come and gone — some of whom he'd come to know from stages elsewhere in Canada, who pointed him to auditioning for the festival.
His picture will be on that wall someday too, and he knows how important this moment will be for theatre-goers young and old to see themselves represented and reflected on stage.
"Growing up I didn't have a lot of [representation], and seeing an Asian person like myself playing that type of role. So for me it's super important for the young folks watching to see themselves identified on stage and to say 'Yes, I can do that too,'" Eddy said.
"It's great that we are from all over Canada and that we've all come together in one spot … joined together in the telling of this story."
Nadia Haddad was born and raised on P.E.I. She's visited Avonlea Village, she's read the books, she's seen the musical many times. For her, Anne has "just always been around."
Now, she is playing Prissy Andrews in the musical.
"I've always dreamt of one day being on the stage, but I didn't know the opportunity would come so soon in my career, so it's honestly been such a blessing," she said. "I'm so excited."
Like Verzotti and Eddy, Haddad said the diverse cast is monumental for children and young actors who can finally see themselves on stage.
"The cast this year is just so beautifully diverse, which is so heartwarming to see," she said. "That's what our everyday looks like, right now in 2022, it's been looking like this so it's nice to have that reflect on stage.
"For myself, you know, being a Middle Eastern representation on stage is really lovely to see, because that's not something I see a lot either, so it brings a lot of hope to myself."
'She's just radiant'
Emma Rudy was the last to play Anne Shirley (in 2019) before the pandemic washed the musical away the past two seasons.
But she's back too, and this time playing Diana — Anne's friend and confidant. Rudy and Verzotti go way back, having attended theatre school together in the same class, so there's a special chemistry between them already.
"She's just radiant," Rudy said about Verzotti. "Islanders are going to fall in love with her the way that I have as a person anyway, but as Anne she's incredible."
Rudy is proud, too, to see her friend champion a diverse cast, and said she hopes this level of representation at the Centre will be here to stay.
"I'm grateful to be a part of it and to watch so many people make history on that stage. It's something that I know will be, but I hope to be continued forever."
The season has begun and will run into September, and Verzotti is ready to bring the magical world of Avonlea alive for theatre-goers through the beloved character of Anne.
"I'm going to try my best to be as in the moment as I can and learn from all these incredible people I get to work with everyday," she said.
"Hopefully in turn can help spread a bit of that joy to the Island."