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Writer Claudia Allen:'Free' agent with new film
by Jorjet Harper
2009-09-09

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"In college I thought I was going to be a lawyer," recalled Chicago playwright Claudia Allen. "Then I stumbled down the hall to a playwriting class, and my life changed."

Today, Allen is perhaps the most prolific contemporary writer of lesbian-themed plays. Of her repertoire of 24 produced plays to date, 11 have either a lesbian relationship as the central focus or a major character who is lesbian or bisexual. Allen's plays have been produced around the country, and have won a number of awards. Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory recognized Allen's cultural as well as artistic contribution by honoring her, in 2000, with its Trailblazer Award "for demonstrating excellence in playwriting and for moving lesbian plays from the theatrical fringe to the artistic center."

In 2008, the artistic center of Allen's work expanded to include screenwriting, when her stage play Hannah Free, the story of a lifelong lesbian relationship, was made into a film. By then Hannah Free had been produced in many theater venues—among them Boston, Miami, Austin, Texas, Oregon, Arkansas, and North Dakota. "It's kind of covered the country," said Allen. "It's my most frequently produced play." Allen is very pleased that, as a film, Hannah Free can now reach even wider audiences.

Allen grew up in the very small town of Clare, Mich. She moved to Chicago in 1979, and the following year her play Freedom Rider was staged at the Playwrights' Center. Later she became associated with one of Chicago's most respected theaters, Victory Gardens, as a playwright-in-residence, and has had 11 full-length plays produced there. Allen credits director Sandy Shinner as a mentor and collaborator, and Victory Gardens as a wonderful home theater for her work. "The first production of mine that Sharon [ Gless ] was in was at Victory Gardens, and Julie Harris did a couple of my plays there as well." Allen also continued to have plays produced by other Chicago theater companies. Her light, humorous gay spoofs have been popular at gay theaters in town, including Xena Live! at About Face and The Gays of Our Lives at Zebra Crossing.

New territory

A number of Allen's plays have had their first public readings at Chicago's Women & Children First bookstore, including, in 1991, Hannah Free. In 1992, it had its stage premiere at Bailiwick, directed by Laurie Attea—who, years later, worked as an assistant director on the Hannah Free film. After its Chicago premiere, Hannah Free was staged by many small companies around the country. The first professional [ Equity ] production of Hannah Free was at Victory Gardens in 1996.

In Hannah Free, Allen explored new territory in the dramatic depiction of lesbians. At the time she wrote the original stage version of Hannah Free, the few well-known plays about lesbians that existed at the time "tended to show us in a dramatically sealed lesbian world—for example, six lesbians at the shore ( Jane Chambers' acclaimed Last Summer at Bluefish Cove ) , or a group in somebody's apartment," she explained. "I wanted to show us woven into a bigger life, a larger framework." Some of the inspiration for Hannah Free came from an ongoing lesbian custody battle in the late 1980s that had been widely reported in the gay press at the time: lesbian Sharon Kowalski, who had been disabled in a car crash, was put in a nursing home where her life partner, Karen Thompson, was denied visitation by Kowalski's family. "I wanted to write a fictional, not a literal, version of that situation," said Allen, "and dramatize the legal rights—or the lack of them—of women in committed lesbian relationships. At the same time, I wanted to explore the impact of aging."

From stage to screen

When plans for a film version of Hannah Free were developed, Allen was the natural choice to write the screenplay. Allen also became an executive producer of the film, along with Tracy Baim, who spearheaded the entire project. "I've been turning my friends upside down and shaking loose the change," said Allen. "But it's actually been fulfilling to see how many people want to support this film. I think people have been pretty happy about doing it. At this point it's way beyond my ego and the story I'm telling. It's a big story that we're all telling."

Allen tends to stay in touch with people who have been in her past productions, and as a result, during the casting of Hannah Free, she was able to draw on her knowledge of actors' past performances and, in some cases, she called particular actors to let them know that the film of Hannah Free was in the works. Taylor Miller, who was a television star on All My Children for many years, had been in Allen's play Unspoken Prayers five years ago at Victory Gardens, and Allen thought she would be perfect for the role of Marge, the adult daughter who keeps Hannah and Rachel apart. "When she came in to audition I think a lot of people thought, 'Oh, she's too pretty or something like that,'" Allen said. "But she really knows how to work in front of a camera, and she brings so many shadings to that part."

Star power

The casting of a major Hollywood star like Sharon Gless for the lead role of a small film would be any independent filmmaker's dream, and especially for a lesbian film. Gless has a large and devoted following among lesbians that goes all the way back to her work on Cagney & Lacey, television's first drama series featuring two females as leads. Gless's lesbian fan base grew still larger from her work on five seasons of Queer As Folk as live-wire waitress and PFLAG mom Debbie Novotny.

Allen has known Sharon Gless since 1994, when Gless and Tyne Daly appeared in a radio version of Allen's drama Deed of Trust. Afterward, Gless and Allen stayed in touch, and Sharon returned to Chicago to appear in Allen's play Cahoots. When the Hannah Free film began to materialize, Allen asked Gless to star in the upcoming film project, and she was enthusiastic about doing it. "She felt she'd had a wonderful time on Cahoots, and in an odd way, doing Cahoots in Chicago had led to her getting her role on Queer As Folk and a bunch of other things," Allen said. "So she said she'd like to play Hannah in the film, and thought this was meant to be."

Permanence and resonance

Allen has enjoyed watching the process of making the film. "I haven't watched every minute of every day, but it was fun to sit at the monitor and see the words come alive, and to think that this—Sharon's version and Taylor's version—is going to be the permanent version of this story. And Meg Thalken as the Mail Lady is the funniest mail lady I've ever seen."

Although the play about two lesbians kept apart by prejudice takes place in the recent past, the situation raised in Hannah Free still resonates today. "Hannah Free as a play has always been, unfortunately, too topical," said Allen. "Every time it's done there are issues of lesbian and gay rights that are still not addressed in the way that they should be. And in the midst of working on this film, the whole Prop 8 thing in California, the whole anti-marriage issue, came up. So in an unfortunate way, the play, and now the screenplay, is still very topical. But then, that's important. I've always written fairly entertaining plays to keep people awake in their seats, so they pay attention to what the message is. I think the film Hannah Free has a lot of message but it's also very entertaining and pretty hot."

"Theater will always be my first love, and I'll always come back to it," Allen reflected, "but I've enjoyed working on this film. I hope I get a chance to work on several more films. Right now I have a whole bunch of things I want to write. We'll see what actually comes out." Allen is also in negotiations about the possibility of making another of her plays, Movie Queens, into a musical. "I thought, when I hit 50, that a musical was the one thing I hadn't done. I started out in high school with musicals, and I thought 'you know, I really should write one of those.'" Allen smiled mischievously, adding, "That would be singing, dancing lesbians on Broadway...think it's high time."

For the complete Claudia Allen interview, see www.windycitymediagroup.com . In coming issues, there will be more interviews and articles about Hannah Free.

Hannah Free will have a one-week limited engagement in Chicago Sept. 25-Oct. 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 164 N. State. Tickets to each screening are $10/general admission. Other ticket prices are $7/student and $5/Film Center members. All tickets may be purchased at the Film Center Box Office, 164 N. State St. Both general admission and Film Center member tickets are available through Ticketmaster, 800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Film Center and its Box Office are open 5-9 p.m., Monday-Friday; 2-9 p.m., Saturday; and 2-6 p.m., Sunday. For more information about the Film Center, call 312-846-2800 ( 24-hour movie hotline ) or 312-846-2600 ( general information, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday ) , or visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org . A special 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 26 show will feature Sharon Gless and the cast and crew, followed by a gala; tickets are $100 and can only be purchased by e-mailing info@hannahfree.com or calling 773-387-2394.

Jorjet Harper was an extra in Hannah Free, and some of her paintings can be seen in the film.

Also, read an interview with Hannah Free star Sharon Gless online.


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