Eastern Presents ‘Little Women’

"Little Women" occurred in the smaller venue of the studio theatre.

“Little Women” occurred in the smaller venue of the studio theatre.

Written by Michael Rouleau

The theatre program at Eastern Connecticut State University presented the holiday classic “Little Women” from Nov. 28-Dec. 3. The play took place in the intimate venue of Eastern’s DelMonte Bernstein Studio Theatre, with a special emphasis on being “sensory-friendly” for audience members with spectrum disorders.

Written by novelist Louisa May Alcott in the 1860s and adapted by playwright Marisha Chamberlain, “Little Women” follows four sisters with a father who is off to war during the Christmas season. The March girls face a number of challenges on their New England home front: Jo desperately wants to fill the void left by the man of the house; Beth struggles with the shyness that keeps her close to home; a secret admirer watches Meg from afar; and no force on earth will keep Amy from her destiny.

“Generations of ‘little women’ have found themselves relating to each of the four girls,” said Molly Bagley ’20, who played Beth and served as the play’s dramaturge. She explained that the play is loosely based on Alcott’s upbringing. “We find solace in their progress and struggles, and the shortcomings they must overcome in order to achieve their dreams.”

Beth, performed by Molly Bagley '20 of Glastonbury

Beth, performed by Molly Bagley ’20 of Glastonbury

Unlike most Main Stage productions at Eastern, which take place in the Proscenium Theatre, “Little Women” occurred in the smaller venue of the studio theatre. “As a family-driven script, we wanted audiences to feel embraced by the warmth of the March home, and the studio theatre is more conducive to that,” said the play’s director and Theatre Professor J.J. Cobb, reflecting on the venue with seating immediately adjacent to the stage.

“The biggest challenge was watching out for those few audience members who rested their feet on the set,” said Matthew Bessette ’19, who played Brooke (Meg’s suitor), adding that the borders of the set were less than a foot from the audience at certain points.

“An opportunity for this style of theatre was learning to adapt one’s acting style to match the space,” he added. “Because the seats are so much closer, performing becomes less about conveying emotion to someone a hundred feet away and more about toning down that emotion so that it’s more realistic when seen nearby. In other words, the dangers of overacting are much more present in such a space.”

Mr. Laurence, performed by Edwards Lorsin '21 of Hamden, and Aunt March, performed by Ashlyn O'Boyle '21 of Killingworth

Mr. Laurence, performed by Edwards Lorsin ’21 of Hamden, and Aunt March, performed by Ashlyn O’Boyle ’21 of Killingworth

For Edwards Lorsin ’21, who played Mr. Laurence (elderly, protective neighbor of the Marches), being so close to audience members and seeing their reactions felt uncomfortable at first, but the seating arrangement brought another advantage. “Positioning our bodies was easier,” he explained. “We weren’t concerned about not facing the audience correctly because they were surrounding us. It allowed for a more three-dimensional space for the action to take place in. What happens on a more traditional stage appears to be more ‘flat’; actors often have to position their bodies to face the audience.”

Eastern’s rendition of “Little Women” was meant to be accessible to audience members with spectrum disorders – any mental condition that occurs on a “spectrum” and manifests at different degrees of severity. “Often people with these conditions are unable to attend live theatre,” explained Cobb, adding that the production’s sensory-friendly components included adjustments to the lighting, sound and seating arrangements.

While the actors didn’t necessarily change their acting approach for the sensory-friendly performance, which occurred on Dec. 2, Lorsin said: “I feel that having a show that is sensory-friendly is a good way to promote inclusivity and accessibility for audiences that wouldn’t otherwise attend performances on this campus.” This is important, concluded Bessette, “especially for a play that preaches acceptance and family values.”