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On the set: 'Hannah' stars talk about the film
by Jorjet Harper
2009-09-23

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Hannah Free, the new Chicago-produced film, is a lesbian love story spanning two women's lives.

"Like so many good stories, Hannah Free is about people who forge a relationship without the benefit or burden of a roadmap," said Elaine Carlson, who plays the day nurse. "At a point in history where there isn't hope of anything resembling a traditional marriage, Rachel and Hannah form a bond that weathers the storms that come with age, conflicting interpretations of responsibility and difficult family members."

Jacqui Jackson, who stars as Greta, described the main characters as "a pair of soulmates who love each other their whole lives. Hannah won't stay in one place, much as Rachel would like her to, and Rachel won't give herself over to publicizing her feelings, much as Hannah would like her to. We follow them as they grow from children to adults, and grow together as a couple, finding their medium and compromise. Until late in life, the two only need each other, but when Rachel falls into a coma, family jealousy keeps them apart."

As Carlson explained, "Hannah has spent a lifetime railing against restrictions, routines and schedules. How awful that age forces her into this small rectangle of a hospital bed! She has to endure the loss of her privacy, her independence, even control of her own bodily functions. The forced pleasantries of the nursing home staff infuriate her almost as much as the physical indignities. And as sympathetic as her caregivers are, when push comes to shove, schedules and regulations always seem to be the priority. The staff and volunteers at The Home—including my character, the Nurse—represent some of the last irritating obstacles that Hannah faces in her life-long struggle to have things her own way. But while she may lose a battle or two, Hannah does win the war."

Kelli Strickland plays Hannah as a young woman. ( Sharon Gless plays older Hannah. ) She agrees that the film is "a love story certainly, but that special kind of love story that spans decades and manages to survive the greatest of obstacles, including great distances, societal intolerance, and in many ways two very different world views—the kinds of obstacles that would have kept two people who were anything but soul mates apart."

Ongoing connections

Hannah Free is based on a stage play by award-winning playwright Claudia Allen. Allen has been prominent in the Chicago theater community for many years and so was able to tap a lot of Chicago talent for the film. "I loved seeing how many people have gathered around Claudia, how she is a collector of people," said Taylor Miller, who plays Rachel's daughter Marge, the character who prevents Hannah from seeing her life partner in their old age. "I am a relatively new addition. Maybe five years have passed since I first met Claudia. I had done one of her plays, Unspoken Prayers—another lovely piece fraught with the human condition—at Victory Gardens Theater."

Some of the camaraderie on the set occurred because so many cast members had worked on Allen's plays before. Maureen Gallagher, who plays the older Rachel in the film, had played Marge in 1996 at Victory Gardens—where Allen is a longtime playwright-in-residence—and had also taken Allen's playwriting classes. Elaine Carlson, playing the nurse in the film, was Rachel in Bailiwick's stage production in 1992. "I'd met Claudia Allen earlier, when I went in as a replacement in the Chicago production of her Gays of Our Lives. That little romp proved to be just the beginning of an ongoing working relationship and a continuing friendship," recalled Carlson. Pat Kane, who plays the minister in the film, was also in the Victory Gardens production, playing multiple roles.

The film's younger Hannah is played by Kelli Strickland, who had never acted in one of Allen's plays but had directed Allen's Dutch Love as part of the annual Pride Series at the Bailiwick: " [ Producer ] Tracy Baim called me the day before auditions and asked me to come in the next day and read. Initially, I thought she was asking me to come in and be a reader for the actors who were auditioning. I hadn't acted in a few years and was just happy to do what I thought was a favor for Claudia and Tracy. Little did I know that the favor was being bestowed upon me."

Strickland recalled her feeling at the first read-through with the cast: "looking around the table at all of the women who had been connected to Claudia's work over the years in so many ways. Laurie [ Attea, the second assistant director, who had directed the original stage production of Hannah Free ] , Maureen, Pat, Elaine, Meg [ Thalken ] , Bev [ Spangler ] , Sharon [ Gless ] , Taylor and myself have either acted in or directed her plays over the last 20 years. It made me feel like a part of a legacy, and it made me supremely proud of Chicago theater."

Common ground

Another shared experience for many of the cast members was a feeling that working on this film has changed them in some significant, positive way. Taylor Miller, who is probably best known for her long tenure on ABC's All My Children, reflects that she had never played a character who is not likeable before, yet "there is stuff in me that is just like Marge." Being able to understand the character sympathetically was useful to her to "not try to control those around me as a reason for how I act. It was not just this role that has sparked this, but a series of things that have been happening—kind of great that it is all changing me!"

Anne Hagemann, a straight actress who plays Rachel as a young woman, felt that she grew closer to her sister, who is a lesbian, during the filming.

"I was able to draw on my experience with my sister," Hagemann said. "I'd leave the set and call my sister every night and share my excitement about the film with her. She lives in a very conservative, smaller community that doesn't always embrace her lifestyle."

Being surrounded by a cast and crew that was largely lesbian and gay gave Hagemann a sense of the LGBT community she hadn't had before. It was, she said, "very enlightening to me. You can stand on the outside and say, 'oh, everybody's the same' but when you're actually in the inner circle and live and breathe and work daily with everyone, I felt like this light was around me all the time. And the beauty of this story is that we get to see the humanity of everybody. My character, Rachel, for much of her life, carried on this facade, and it wasn't till later in life that she embraced who she was. So it was cool for me to be among so many people who could be who they are."

Hagemann had not seen the play before auditioning but was familiar with Allen's work: "I knew the nature of the script. I went into this looking for a job, and came out if it knowing I'd had a life-altering experience."

Strickland was very aware, during the filming, of her character's place in time: "Hannah is a very specific character, but for me, as a lesbian, she also represents a generation of women to whom I am personally indebted for my freedom and the ease that I can walk through the world as an out lesbian. I felt an obligation to my community and to an audience to share my respect for her."

Social relevance

Pat Kane, who is also a lesbian, plays the self-righteous minister whom Hannah encounters. Kane emphasized the importance of the political connotations of the story: "These days, it's about having all our full rights. Access to your loved ones in hospice or medical care is a very prevalent issue for me and my partner, seeing the kind of hoops you have to go through." That aspect of the story has clarified the issue and thrown it into strong relief for Kane: "How love can be maintained despite obstacles that are put on us by our family, our society, and ourselves."

Kane also noted that there is a dearth of stories about lesbians in movies, especially about older lesbians: "I'm absolutely thrilled that Tracy, Sharon, and Claudia were able to put this together. This is an important and ongoing story."

Jacqui Jackson—whose character, Greta, helps Hannah in her quest to be reunited with Rachel—saw Greta as "an advocate, and I really latched on to that idea. I am, like Greta, a queer woman who believes in human rights, and that helped fuel a lot of the scenes. Hannah's story is a perfect case of human rights denial: why should the life partner of a dying woman be denied access to see her in her final moments? I feel as strongly about the issue as Greta does in the script. The hardest part was the scene between Greta and Marge. It takes a lot of guts to stand up to a family member and tell them they're wrong. I hope that many people see it and are inspired to take steps toward putting some more understanding in the hearts of their friends and family."

Star shines

The story of Hannah Free revolves around the title character, and Chicago cast members had many words of praise for the film's lead, television star Sharon Gless. Considering the reputation that many Hollywood stars have for being difficult, it was a pleasure for cast and crew to find Glass so genuine, warm, and easy to work with.

"Sharon was a lovely, generous scene partner—one of the best," said Carlson. "I assumed we would approach our scenes as routine exposition. Goodness knows, Sharon had meatier scenes later in the story! Instead, I got to enjoy her full attention and creativity during those little opening scenes. I'm very grateful for that."

"It was great to work with Sharon, she was very open, very easy." agreed Gallagher, who, as the older Rachel, had some poignant scenes with Gless. "She had an understanding of the nuances of the scenes that I really appreciated."

For Kane, the entire shoot "was an absolute delight. Everyone was a delight, and working with Sharon was a blast. She's so easygoing, everything went so smoothly."

Strickland, as the younger version of Gless's character, had no scenes with Gless, "but my first meeting with her was one of the most memorable of the entire process," she said. "At our first rehearsal, the adult Hannahs and adult Rachels met. Sharon had laryngitis and had absolutely no voice. She came into the room that would eventually be transformed into Hannah and Rachel's living room, took my face in her hands, looked into my eyes and whispered 'I see me in you.' The generosity and intensity with which she met me gave me goose bumps. But while all of that was going on, there was this small voice in the back of my head thinking 'Cagney is smooshing my face!!!'"

Keeping it real

Strickland also had much praise for the film's director, Wendy Jo Carlton: "To be honest, I was incredibly nervous at first. Wendy Jo was great about keeping things specific. Before we began filming, Wendy Jo called me just to say hello and ask me if I had any questions. I think I unleashed on her this torrent of anxiety. Just expressing all of that nervousness seemed to be enough to calm those fears and Wendy Jo, in her very unflappable, calm way, was able to remind me that we are just storytellers, telling this one specific story. Once I got back to that, it was a joy!"

Strickland had some lingering concerns about her character's sex scenes: "Does it need to be said that all of the sex scenes were nerve-wracking?? The scenes with Rachel and Hannah earlier in their lives are the manifestation of that magnetic pull, the intense physical attraction, the emotional intimacy that Hannah shares with no one but Rachel. But once again, Wendy Jo created an environment that was so supportive and calm. She and the crew were remarkably kind and respectful."

Gallagher had similar praise for the positive tone on the set in general: "As an actor, I thought it was a delightful experience, a great shoot, because being in that house [ the South Side Chicago home where the interior scenes were filmed ] was so cool. Just to go there every day was so unique, and to have us all in there together, the cast and crew, was a very supportive, happy atmosphere all around."

Miller said she feels fortunate "to be part of a project as important as this one—one that shows so clearly the love these women had for each other, putting a human face on the gay-rights issue."

"The main message is the power of love," reflected Hagemann. "Love is not judgmental; it's not always kind, but you cannot deny it when it's there, and Hannah Free reveals the true humanity in all of us."

"Wendy Jo, Tracy and the entire production crew were warm and professional," added Carlson. "I'll hold fond memories of the Hannah Free shoot for a long, long time."

Hannah Free has 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 emailing info@hannahfree.com or call 773-387-2394.

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


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