An Interview with Jess Hutchinson & Katie McLean Hainsworth

In advance of the opening of Whose Body?, dramaturg Patrick Runfeldt sat down with director Jess Hutchinson and actor/ensemble member Katie McLean Hainsworth to ask them a few questions about the story, process, and more! (Editor’s note: The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Patrick Runfeldt: We’re gonna kick this off with fun, Katie. So this is the conversation that I’ve really been wanting to have… You play a lot of [Dungeons & Dragons]?

Katie McLean Hainsworth: I do! I didn’t even know we were going to talk about this!

PR: So tell me what class of character your characters, or characters would be and why?

KMH: Oh my God! That is awesome! Old Mrs. Thipps is a retired barbarian. She is senile and has forgotten all of her ways, but she can leap into a rage without even thinking about it. And the Duchess is a lot more subtle, very warm, so she is definitely neutral good with a shade of chaotic good ‘cause I think she’d bend the rules a bit for people if she had to. I’d have to go with bard or cleric. She’s a very boosting others class.

PR: Yeah, like a bard healer.

KMH: Yeah, definitely. I could do this for the whole cast, but we just don’t have the time. You know that most of the people in the play play D&D and we even have a [Dungeon Master] in our group.

PR: That’s so awesome. I’m super happy that we led there.

KMH: Me too!

PR: This is going to be the funniest recording. So Sayers is such a powerful female author. I was writing her bio for the program the other night and I was like “oh man”. It still sticks with me that she was like, ‘I went to Oxford and I graduated but they still wouldn’t give me a degree, so I come back five years later to graduate and not only do they give me a degree but they give me a masters as well’. Like all right, that’s a good program. I think it’s interesting to me how strong the female characters in the play are and how instrumental they are despite not sometimes having as much dialogue as the male characters.

KMH: Or access. Or agency. Or any of that good stuff.

PR: Absolutely, and I think the ’20s is such a pivotal moment for women in society especially in the US and in England, as the women’s movement starts a bit later for women in other parts of the world. How significant does it feel to be able to live with this Sayers text in the societal moment that we’re in right now? [To Jess] I know we’ve had this conversation. This was the first conversation that we ever had.

KMH: I admit that I was drawn to the Duchess to play a woman of means and of relative independence considering the time period she was in and I often wonder what she would make of what’s happening today for women in our society and I think it would be the thing that would make her step up and fight. I think that she is someone that likes to watch others have their lives and do things and make differences and like I said she’s very much the bard, the healer, the encourager. She encourages that, but I think these times would have pushed her beyond that into action. That she would use her means and use her influence to try to make a difference in women’s lives.

PR: Absolutely, absolutely. And we’re seeing that with our generation of octogenarian females. RBG [Ruth Bader Ginsberg] for one, but yeah I think there’s something to be said for seeing the foundation of the women’s movement and living through its crest and now coming into almost like a second act of let’s fight for everything again that we fought for before but this time much harder and much more prepared.

KMH: Yeah, and I also just want to put out there that the next 2 plays in the series that Lifeline has done feature way stronger women than in this play and [Sayers] clearly continues to explore that idea and that perspective with I think great gusto and heart. And that probably really drew Frances [Limoncelli, adapter] to this as well.

PR [To Jess]: Anything to add to that?

Jess Hutchinson: Yeah, I mean I think it’s interesting to see. It feels subversive when you think about the time in which she was writing and especially with this being her first book it does feel a little bit like she’s putting her toes into empowered female characters and then by the time you get to Strong Poison it’s like boom *claps*. Here we go! So it’s fascinating to me that she is writing something that is subversive but it’s also sneaky. I mean there’s sneakiness in the subversion.

KMH: It’s undeniable. They’re just that way and you can’t deny the character’s doing anything wrong or weird or out of character, they’re just…

JH: Yeah… And I think humans are really fascinating in how we can hold contradictory notions right next to each other in our brains.

PR: There’s so many literary and philosophical references in the novel and also in the adapted text that I think permeate all of the scenes. Is any of those your favorite or does any stick with you the most?

KMH: I’m very keyed into every Sherlock Holmes reference whether overt or implied and of course I love this play especially because it’s the most Sherlockian before Peter [Lord Peter Wimsey] really comes into his own as his own character and so I really like that part.

JH: I don’t know if I have a favorite-

PR: Mine is definitely, “Sugg, how art thou Suggified” *laughs from the group*

JH: That’s pretty good. I mean I like – and it’s not really a textual thing so much as it is the way that partnership happens. And it is Sherlockian in that way that we get to enjoy, not just a partnership but a trio, with the way that [Inspector Parker] and Bunter and [Lord Peter Wimsey] go in together. And I love that that trio is – that there’s deep camaraderie happening across class and across, in this production, that that is happening across experience, read experience level, cause our Parker reads at – is a young man and he reads young, younger than Peter and I think there’s a mentorship between Parker and Peter. And also, so much care that goes in all of those three and I see that even in the coldness of the Cumberbatch Sherlock, you know? I still see the love that Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have. I think what draws me to the relationship in particularly that film, that TV adaptation of those stories draws me to that played sort of love. *KMH snaps*

PR: It’s unique to that more Sherlockian style in that we know more than one of the detectives in the play. Parker is catching up to us as the audience in many ways whereas we’re sharing in some of those deep internal processes which might be way more subtextual in [Sir Arthur] Conan Doyle than in our Lord Peter.

JH: Yeah, and he kind of stockpiles or hoards the information until the end in a way that I think that there’s a different kind of process for Peter. He needs the collaborative. Even when he’s leading Parker to the information, he’s leading Parker to the information because he needs the buddy.

KMH: Whereas Sherlock needs to know he’s right before he reveals anything to anyone. I don’t get that sense from Peter at all. He’s like, “I need us all to be right.”

PR: And I think it comes slightly more from Conan Doyle’s influences from the horror genre whereas I think Sayers is more taking influences from Conan Doyle. So it’s almost twice removed from that more macabre, Frankenstein type – “Okay, we’re going to keep people confused because that adds to this supernatural mystique around the mystery.” I’m thinking specifically of Hound of the Baskervilles, but it exists elsewhere in Sherlock.

JH: And I wonder too – I mean, gender is a construct – but I think about the feminine perspective even though she’s writing masculine characters that there is a traditionally more collaborative way of moving through the world that I think women have with one another. And I think that’s at work in this character structure. I think it’s in the caretaking. I think it’s in the deep love that everybody seems to have for each other. Like I would argue that Wimsey even loves [Dr. Julian] Freke in a way, like he has care for him.

KMH: I don’t think he can help but love anyone he understands or figures out.

JH: Yeah.

PR: Katie, you were pretty excited to work on accents for this play. Talk a little bit about what that has been able to add to your process.

KMH: Oh, as much as I fight it, I’m a very outward in process person. I used to think I was an inward out process person but then I would get my costume and be like “I get it now!” You know? And I think dialect is the quickest way into somebody so, I mean, I can’t remember the last time I did a play without a dialect. So, it’s very a part of working here for me and part of finding that character for me and I worked with Carrie [Hardin, dialect coach] on the last show I did, so knowing that she was our dialect coach I immediately felt very comfortable and safe to explore the very far side of RP – very far extreme – and knew that it would help me find [the character]. I also like the way the Duchess speaks *switching into accent* with all of the RP things. And yet she is…that doesn’t distance her from people. I like that despite all her elevation and speaking she is still capable of connection.

PR: This is for both of you, what’s been your favorite part of this rehearsal process?

JH: Oh… People!

KMH: This cast is so lovely in every way. Everyone has brought their A game. I go home every night and I’m like “I’m the bad one, I have to be the bad one because everybody else is so marvelous”. *Jess laughs* And it’s like when you’re the poker player…

PR: The old Rounders quote!

KMH: …and you can’t tell who the patsy is at the table, it must be you. I just have to assume that, but they’re all really nice too and friendly and interesting and smart and that’s why I do this. And so that’s been a joy – it’s not always like that and so it’s nice when it is.

JH: Yeah, I felt like I knew – I had inklings of like “I think we’ve got a pretty good thing going here.” And then when we were rehearsing – we were doing our second intensive pass at the graveyard scene this week which is like the most macabre, upsetting, gross… *Katie begins to laugh* Like we’re figuring out how Scott’s going to get in the grave and we’re all giggling through the whole thing. *laughter continues* And there was a moment where I was like, “Am I, Am I not doing my job well because this is a very-“ and then I had the little remembering of like, “No, no we should be giggling”. Like that’s a good sign if we can giggle together through the horror part then we have enough capacity as a group. Then when we rehearse it and we’re not talking about what’s grosser, like those runs that day were I think the deepest into the despair and horror that we had gotten. And I think those things are connected. If you’re doing a play that has this, that asks actors to go to some really dark and scary places and you can’t find lightness in the room, I think you’re sunk and it’s just going to be a slog. And then why are we doing it?

PR: Absolutely.

JH: Why do it if we can’t be in the room with people we will laugh with?

PR: Yeah, I totally relate to that. I came up in amateur directing, so when you’re working with amateurs you can see like moments of really great and really bright talent, I think it’s just harder for people to separate acting from reality. It can get really dark really fast.

JH: And I think there’s such a horrible misappropriation of things like method acting in this country that I – and I will go on the record to say I think method acting is total bullshit. I think that it’s damaging and it’s unnecessary *KMH snaps* and I think it makes people- it perpetuates a…

KMH: Myth.

JH: A myth that you have to be unhappy to be an artist and you have to be tortured, you have to torture yourself to make good art and I just don’t think that’s true. I think the more psychologically healthy we can be going into the process and the more we can keep each other – and not even keep each other but keep an environment in which we have the ability to keep ourselves healthy that lets us go to scary places. As opposed to thinking like, “Oh, I need to think about the time my grandpa died, and I went to the funeral to be in a scene where I’m in a graveyard.” Absolutely not! I think there can be some- that’s one of the other advantages of working with a team of like goddamn professionals like these folks are.

KMH: And good humans! It’s your humanity that lets you be in that graveyard without being in a graveyard in your mind. And your humanity allows you to be open to someone else who’s in a graveyard.

JH: Yeah, and I think for me the reason I do this work is because I think we have the opportunity to foster empathy and create the kind of empathy that leads to change. And I think that that empathy, you know, change starts at home! And if we don’t have empathy and compassion in the rehearsal room then how can we ask our audiences to have any of it when they come and see the work. And then I think it’s…Then you’re not making something for an audience, you’re making something that serves ego or boredom or-

KMH: Yeah, exactly, something selfish.

JH: You know, there are a million reasons that are not that that people make plays and…

KMH: I don’t want to see those plays.

JH: I certainly don’t want to make ‘em.

PR: This one’s for you, Katie.

KMH: Uh oh…

PR: In revisiting this play, some years later-

KMH: Some. Seventeen. *laughs*

PR: -what has been the most unique part of this production as compared to the last go ‘round?

KMH + JH: Ohhh.

KMH: I think we’re all just a little bit more, we’re all just a little more confident. I think Lifeline has changed and grown tremendously over the years that we’re ready to take on… I think this felt really big and a little bit scary last time and now it feels like we have a handle on who we are and how we do things. And for me, I was a total newbie then, it was only my second show, I knew nothing. I was just here to learn from all the ensemble members who were in that show and [to understand] how you’re supposed to stand on a Lifeline stage and to look up and out and make sure you’re heard and all that stuff. And to me, I was a kid and a student, and I spent all my time backstage in a slip and combat boots reading Harry Potter and all my onstage time soaking in everything. So personally, I feel like this is my chance to give back to a lot of people in the cast who are new to Lifeline and make them feel as at home as I was made to feel when I came here. That wasn’t your question though, but- 

PR: No, that was absolutely my question! That was what my question became and I’m okay with that. [To Jess] So I told you it’d be humorous, it’s the question that’s on all of our minds: how did you establish blocking before our first full run of the show [in the rehearsal room]?

JH: How did we…what?

PR: This was a joke from before our design run-

JH: [remembering] Oh!

PR: -where it was like “You have blocking already!” *KMH laughs*

JH: Oh, I mean it’s just like-

KMH: What else were we going to do?

JH: I mean, when you-

PR: It’s a throwaway. You don’t have to answer that.

JH: Great. But I will… But I will! Because… But I have an answer. Because one of the delights for me of this process is working with Alan Donahue. He is a scenic designer who knows this space like the back of his hand. He’s been in this ensemble for a really long time and he knows this space really well and he was so thoughtful about story and dramaturgical resonance of place and about flow. Like he knows exactly how long it takes to get from one door to the next door to the vom [shorthand for vomitorium] door. So, when he created this ground plan and then walked me through where he thought everything would go. It was like, “Oh, oh! Great! Yes, and…” It was so specific that I was able to go to the actors and say here is a specific and real feeling and recognizable environment that I would like you to live in for the following fifteen pages. 

KMH: Yeah…

JH: Right? And you probably come in here and you probably leave over here and now what happens? And the actors came in so prepared that the combination of preparation meeting preparation in that way meant that we were able to sketch through the play in like rocket fast, lightning speed at the time. Which means that we were able to spend our time since then digging into and refining that work, but hasn’t really often felt like we’re staging a play-

KMH: It feels like we’re moving into a space where the play already happened and retracing the steps of that play.

JH: Yeah.

KMH: I don’t always feel like that but that’s how this one felt for me.

JH: Yeah, and we’re discovering… Not having to think about the environment in a way that feels laborious allows the actors and me to think about character and relationship and how to intensify those things with little – like the adjustments that we are making are tiny little tweaks that make a slightly different picture that has a slightly different status relationship but we’ve been given all of this really incredible groundwork because Alan is so thoughtful in his design. And I’m really grateful for that. So… I answered your question anyway. 

KMH: Hah, your “throwaway question”.

PR: If you had to give the audience a one-word summary of the play, what would that one word be?

JH: Like a “this play is about” summary or just one word. Like this play is about word or just-

KMH: I’m just gonna say delightful.

JH: Oh, that’s good.

PR: Ooh, good word. I’ll let you interpret it however you felt.

JH: Ugh, what a dramaturg.

KMH: [laughing] Nobody can get anything to one word! That’s a fantasy.

JH: [long pause] Intrigue.

KMH: Mm…

JH: So… I think if you put our words together-

KMH: Delightful intrigue. You definitely have Whose Body? *laughs*

JH: I think that’s right.

PR: That’s great. That’s so great. I’ll close where we opened. At our first-

KMH: D&D?!

PR: -our first rehearsal. At our first rehearsal, the icebreaker. So, we talked about who our favorite detective was, so I will now ask you: what detective or detective stories have you used to inform your understanding of the play and genre for this production?

JH: I mean, definitely Holmes and Watson…

KMH: [long pause] Hmm, that’s hard. I watched all of Veronica Mars except for season three right when we were starting and while she’s not any kind of parallel to the Duchess at all, the construction of those first and second season mysteries are so rich and not formulaic like a House episode would be. You know, another Holmes influenced procedural. That made it really exciting to come here and be like “how are we weaving this story together?” It was pretty cool.

JH: This is not at all a detective story and I’m not sure why I think it feels relevant but I’m going to talk through it and see if there’s anything that is not garbage in what I am going to say. But I’ve been pretty obsessed with Fleabag as is so much of my friend and peer group. But there’s something in the construction, specifically the second season where she knows- at the beginning of the second season she knows where we’re going. Structurally, you know I haven’t done a time analysis on it yet but I’m enough of a nerd that I might because she looks at us in the first episode and says “This is a love story.” And there’s this sort of like leaning forward of like “what? You have a bloody nose in a bathroom, what are you talking about? And you just met a… like what’s happening?” But that sort of like idea of starting with an image and then using compelling characters who love each other to unravel what’s at the heart of their relationships. And doing it in a way that has deep love for one another and also deep love and care for the audience. Like that’s the kind of art I want to make. I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a goddess *KMH snaps* and I think she’s so smart in how she has constructed that narrative and how she cares about everything. So I think just from the point of what’s the kind of art I want to make and how do I want to make it, I think Fleabag is the faintest match for me… and What the Constitution Means to Me that has absolutely nothing to do with this play other than the fact that it was clearly crafted with deep love.

PR: Awesome, well thank you both. I hope this was “fun”!

Whose Body? runs through October 27 at Lifeline Theatre.