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  • Jess Hutchinson

How Does LITTLE WOMEN

Do So Much Right?



There is no shortage of think pieces on LITTLE WOMEN and the genius of Greta Gerwig and her ensemble. But buckle-up, babies, because here comes another one. Since I can’t stop thinking about the beauty, earnestness, the goddamn love, and expert craft with which this movie has been infused, I am going to write about my heart-felt gratitude and wonder, put it in the electronic envelope of this blog, and use my ribbon-laden key(board) to place it in the little wooden post office of the internet.



Let’s talk about Adaptation, Baby

Can we just? For a moment? Talk about how Gerwig has used Time as a Narrative Structure in order to make this story vital, alive, and full of that good, sweet ache from start to finish? If you can watch this film and not think about the ways in which your past echoes into your present and/or not feel nostalgia for a childhood real or imagined, I just don’t know what to say to you except that you may in fact need medical attention.


And that is what makes this film such a brilliant adaptation. This film has a POINT OF VIEW. It has some shit that Greta Gerwig wants you to sit up and pay attention to. And this is what is so beautiful about taking a story from one form and placing it into another, which – for my money – is only something you need to do if you have something to contribute to the conversation. It’s clear that Gerwig has great love for all of these characters. That’s evident in the complexity her screenplay has allowed each one to have. It’s also clear that she believes this text has important ideas to contribute to a contemporary conversation, because this film, while being undeniably set in its original time and place, is also SO ALIVE with contemporary energy. These characters feel immediate because the actors have been encouraged to create them with all the messy, contradictory, beautiful vitality of REAL HUMANS. To imbue that in a text that’s over 100 years old – this is why adaptations exist: to honor the original work by creating something alive with the singular energy of the artists adapting it.





Romance, Marriage, and Money

I LOVE how much this movie talks about money. Not only do we get to see Jo travel from “grateful for less than the standard” to “Fuck You Pay Me And I’ll Keep The Copyright Thank You,” we get to see how money has ALWAYS been a social issue. It is complicated and messy and impolite – just like real money – and thanks to capitalism and misogyny and classism, we have been stoking the divides that result from it since before this country was founded. And while I may not have the same concerns that Amy lays out for Laurie when it comes to ownership of cash that a mid-19th Century woman had, you are not paying attention if you think marriage is no longer an economic proposition (ask me sometime about the 401k that I had to get MY HUSBAND’S PERMISSION to roll into an IRA even though I had not yet MET him when I earned that money).


Romance is complicated. Economics are complicated. Class is real and complicated. And this film does the interconnectedness of these things justice better than just about anything else I’ve seen.




Friendship

The phrase “More Than Friends” has always struck me as super reductive. It sets up a false hierarchy in which friendship is great, but of lesser value than romantic relationships. See also: “just friends” as if there is something of inherent lesser importance to non-sexual companionship. But this is what we see – everywhere – the primacy of finding a romantic partner over cultivating friendships and – as we learned from When Harry Met Sally (don’t @ me, I love that movie), an inability for people who might be romantically inclined toward each other to be friends because the sex always gets in the way. If there is an intense, immediate connection – we’re told – the feeling must be romantic. And if it’s not, it’s somehow less-than: just friends. Less than lovers.


Enter the remarkable journey of this Jo and Laurie. Here they are to show us both the way that the cultural obsession with romance can lead us to read connection as romantic love AND ALSO the difference between loving someone and being in love with them. Who knew that there are different, equally valuable ways to love people? Greta Gerwig, apparently. She is the genius I needed when I was 15 (and 25 and 35 and forever). Friendship is vital. And beautiful. And sometimes gets confused with romance, but there is HOPE for changing that script.


This film is beautiful and heart-forward. It is, as a friend pointed out: sublime. And in this time of so much ugliness, snark, and fear, I am grateful for art that is sublime and crafted with so much love and such a wise and loving point of view. It’s the kind of art I want to make, and it’s sure as hell the kind of art we could use more of.


Thanks, Greta. I don’t want to imagine our lives without you in them.


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  • Jess Hutchinson

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

How getting audiences on their feet can deepen new play development


When I was the Artistic Director of New Leaf Theatre, my then-literary manager Josh Sobel and I began experimenting with how audiences for our Treehouse Reading series shared feedback on new plays. Our methodology drew heavily on teaching artist and storytelling process work I had learned from Amanda Delheimer and Megan Steilstra at 2nd Story (and damned if those women don't continue to inspire). During grad school, I largely put this feedback methodology to the side, but in the last few years, I've been revisiting, refining, and reintegrating this process into my new play development work and finding the Walkback, as I've started calling it, to be a positive and productive tool in my toolbox.


Recently, a colleague who'd been to a reading I directed that included this kind of feedback structure asked me for a primer on it so that he could use it for a reading he's directing. This made me wonder if other folks might be interested in using/adapting these strategies, too. This blog seems like a good place to put these thoughts in order to share them.


And if you, dear reader, do try this methodology out, I'd love to hear what you think.

How to Lead a Walkback

1. Introduce the Form Before the Event Starts

I recommend introducing the idea of the Walkback format - without explaining what it is - at the top of the event with your welcome and introductions. I usually say something like, "We're going to do something a little different for feedback - something I like to call a Walkback - after we hear this play" (and then I make a joke about how there's no need to be scared. But then I tend to try to diffuse tension with humor).


2. Getting Started

After the reading/sharing of material, I get folks together on their feet (as they're able - more about accessibility below) in as open a space as we can manage. Something about getting on your feet before you know what you're in for is often helpful and creates a bit of buzz in the room. This sometimes involves a group rearranging of the chairs, but that's usually pretty exciting for folks. Once we're standing together, I introduce the Walkback notion as a different way for folks to think about and respond to the play they've heard.


3. The Relief of Not Rewriting

Even if I'm not using a Walkback format, I like to start all feedback sessions for new plays like this: I ask the audience to relieve themselves of the burden of rewriting the playwright's play for them, usually by asking them to collectively take a moment to feel the weight of that task lifting from our shoulders - ah what a delight! - and a reminder that the writer is the expert on how to revise their play. The gift we can give them is in reflecting our experiences of what we've heard today. Then they get to decide what to do with that information.


4. Parameters

Next, I explain that I'm going to be asking folks to respond to some questions by literally taking a stand - by putting their bodies at a point in space. For anyone with mobility issues, that person can stay where they are and then point to where in the room they'd put their body, and then it's up to the facilitator to keep eyes on them when inviting verbal response. I start with some easy, low-stakes warm-up examples: Imagine the floor is a now a continuum, a spectrum, with (pointing to one side of the room) THAT wall being "cat person" and (pointing to the other side of the room) THAT wall being "dog person" - now go to where you personally fit on the spectrum. The middle of that spectrum might be "I love both!" or "Horses!" - some of this is getting the audience to make meaning as a community. Make them solve outlier problems - don't give them another option. I'll do another spectrum question or two - keep it simple "Morning Person/Night Owl," "Coffee/Tea," or similar. If there's something simple that is thematically relevant, that's fun to use for these. Then I'll do one four-corner one: my go-to is favorite season, because you can also practice working on the diagonal (you tend to get people who like summer and winter or spring and fall - but you also have to tell them that it's not just corners, but the gradients in between that are up for grabs, too). With the four-corners/seasons, I open the floor to have someone tell us why they're standing where they're standing so that they can practice responding after they've put their body in space. I like to use the phrase that people are "invited but not obligated" to tell us about where they're standing. If someone articulates something that changes your mind/wins you to a point/sends you further away from their point of view, you're invited to change your physical position in response.


5. Crafting Questions

Once you've gotten folks warmed up to the notion of how they're going to be responding, it's time to dig into the specific information you're after. Even if no one says a word, they're giving you information just by putting their body in space - and this part of the process is, of course, deeply customizable. When choosing points in the room, I try to avoid more than 5 options if possible, just for clarity. And I try to make the initial ask something that can be responded to driven by a gut-feeling/impulse (and then, potentially, dug into once folks are sharing why they're standing where they're standing). For me, it's about getting a sense of where the writer's curiosity for this draft is alive, and then crafting spectrum-based questions that can lead us to reflective conversation (rather than prescriptive feedback) on those topics. It's the most exciting when the audience starts talking to each other and arguing on different characters' or events' behalfs.


I often like to start folks off with something like "what most drew you in: characters, story, issues/politics of the play, language/imagery in the writing?" with folks using the same geography as the seasons - so that you can triangulate if you'd like. Diagonals are super useful in this question.


If there is something germane to the play that's a little more esoteric, that can be a fun way to start or just before you wrap up. (This also helps you get a sense of who's in the room). I once used "I am a person who stays" on one wall vs. "I am a person who goes" and it was fascinating to watch people grapple with that having just seen a play that was thematically resonant with those poles.


Another multi-point sequence I find helpful is asking which character's team audience members were on. This allows you to get a sense of which character was most resonant, especially once we started hearing about why people were where they were. You can also use Teams (where you pick a spot based on a character) to assess where folks still have questions or - as I prefer to frame it - curiosity. This can keep people from jumping to asking questions in a more typical response-y way that can devolve real fast.


Interspersed with these spectrum question, I add things like:

  • As you go home and check in with the person you check in with about your day, how will you complete the sentence: "Today, I heard a great play about..." (this one I often ask after we've gone to which aspect of the play was most alive for us)

  • What are the specific images/moments/lines that are really alive to you?

  • What's the big idea from the play that you're going to put in your pocket to take out with you today? (this can be a good closing question)

I also tend to pepper in follow-up questions while folks are sharing, or ask someone to say more about something they share. Don't be afraid of letting a little silence into the discussion; sometimes the silence happens right before we drop into a deeper level of discussion.


What I find useful about all these questions is that they're all about information/response mining and tend to shut down the "well, actually..." crowd because there isn't a spot for those notions. And if someone tries to take the mic, it's vital that you stop them and remind them of the format the very first time it happens.


6. Keep It Moving

Like any good standing meeting, keep it contained and specific. This format is ideal for feedback that wants to be 30 minutes or less - and it's also useful for scenarios where there is time/space to continue the conversation after the formal feedback time is finished.


Have fun!

  • Jess Hutchinson

Expect more thoughtful words as we approach opening this coming Monday. But know that I am obsessed with the entire team behind The Man Who Was Thursday and so, so proud of what we're creating on and off stage together.

photo by Sarah Scalon

Get those tix: http://lifelinetheatre.com/performances/18-19/thursday/index.shtml