September 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
“Where did the summer go to?” sings the cast of Anne of Green Gables on Confederation Centre mainstage. But Aaron Hastelow, the first Islander to win the role of Gilbert Blythe and performing the role for a second season, there’s no time to be wistful. With his first album released and a once-in-a-lifetime performance as a musical Hamlet, there’s little doubt where his summer has gone to.
Aaron saw Anne for the first time in 1998, at seven, and was onstage as a child of Avonlea in 1999, 2000, and 2001. He could recite the entire show by the time he was eleven. He saw “over ten” performers as Gilbert and understudied the role before earning it. Becoming Gilbert was the “highest, hardest goal” for Aaron.
“Because I dreamed so much of being Gilbert, I’m able to be myself (in the role). He makes one mistake – he teases Anne at the beginning of the relationships – and he really does try to make up for it… He uses wit and humour – but, of course, it doesn’t translate to Anne.”
Aaron says, “To make you like Anne and like Gilbert and make you want them to be together, they have to be real people,” and, he adds, “Real people make mistakes, and real people still find love.”
While playing Gilbert is a “full circle” experience for Charlottetown Festival–groupie Aaron (for him, “You can’t get more full circle than playing Gilbert,” he says), another full circle has been completed this summer performing the role of Hamlet in an in-concert revival performance at Indian River Festival of Kronborg 1582, a rock-opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Highlights of the show had been included in a 2004 Charlottetown Festival anniversary revue Something Wonderful, and Aaron saw that show about fifteen times, just to hear the song “That It Should Come to This.”
“When I was approached to play Hamlet by Adam Brazier and Craig Fair, I obviously said yes,” he says. He knew “one amazing song I adored” but had to learn six solos – “It was a gigantic undertaking on a short rehearsal schedule. I’ve never worked harder – or been prouder or happier,” he says. “The night at Indian River was electric.”
Kronborg 1582 will have a one-night only encore at the Centre on September 5. Is Aaron concerned that after a peak experience at Indian River that the encore will be a come-down? Nope. “There’s no point thinking it might be worse, because I know it will be better,” he says. “I learned so much from doing it at Indian River.”
Even though the show was first staged almost twenty years before Aaron was born, he can’t wait for more people to experience Kronborg: “It was ahead of its time back then – and people loved it then and love it now because the music is so good. People had never seen anything like it. It just shook everyone. I think it deserves another life past this.”
Between acting roles, “Now, anytime there’s two weeks off, there’s something to be done,” because he has launched a recording career with a first, eponymous solo album he describes as “one of the most exciting, most proud projects.” Part of the pride and the feeling came from working with his step-father, Jon Matthews, at the Sound Mill studio, and recording one of his songs, “The Bridge,” that Aaron says, “he wrote when he was twenty-five, and I recorded when I was twenty-five.” That was a meaningful moment for Aaron.
“I’d never really heard my voice by itself,” he says. “I wanted the listener to feel what I was feeling, without seeing me” – without costumes, sets, or dance. “I didn’t have a character to hide behind. It was equally as exciting, but it was really me – my music tastes and who I am.”
His career will go to Ontario for the fall (performing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in Hamilton), part of the winter, and the spring (a North American premiere of a stage play version of Chariots of Fire in London, with “acting and running instead of singing and dancing”) – and next summer, who knows?
“I love PEI so much, and I love the Centre (the Confederation Centre of the Arts),” says Aaron. “Until I completely retire from theatre, I want to be on this stage. This is home. This building is home. It’s an easy yes. If there’s ever an opportunity to be on PEI, I’ll take it.”
Finding himself in his art has been a lifelong project for Aaron. “I was eight in my first season here (at Confederation Centre),” he recalls. “On a personal level, what the Centre and Anne and musicals gave me was a safe place to be – and to be myself. Growing up in a beautiful but small town, people didn’t always agree with you,” he says. “I found my family at the theatre – and I always knew it would get better, and I could be who I really am.” Aaron is emotional as he reflects on Anne Shirley’s journey to find love, family, and acceptance, and to accept love: “I know while Anne was aiming to be herself… I was too.”