New works take center stage with “At First Sight” festival

By Peter Gil-Sheridan

Peter Gil-Sheridan, Head of IU’s Playwriting MFA program

Whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, our young people are raising their voices and speaking truth to power. They are asking for equity, for greater representation, for justice, for safety. While those voices are important on social media, it is as important for our young writers to be contributing to the conversation that is happening all across the country on the American stage. The theatre is our seeing place, where we go to see ourselves reflected back, to contemplate, to change, and deepen. While seeing the great classics of of our form is important, it’s vital to remember that those works wouldn’t be known to us if those writers hadn’t been supported by teachers, audiences, and resources. This year, we offer a program of new works that offer you fresh perspectives on what it means to be an American.

Playwright Aaron Ricciardi

Aaron Ricciardi, our 2nd year MFA Playwright, has been working on his brand new play Nice Nails since he arrived in Bloomington in the Summer of 2016. Aaron has worked and reworked this script, a workplace comedy about a nail salon owned by a Korean-American family, intensively. As playwrights, we are all in the business of writing people who come from very different experiences than we do. The challenge of creating fully-formed characters that are funny and full and true is our work. So we take our risks. We succeed. We fail. We offend. We rewrite. We grow. While new work seeks to deepen its audience, it especially deepens our storytellers. For Aaron, Nice Nails has opened his eyes to a world he didn’t know much about and through it, he has found a way to ask his audience whether the best of intentions have a cost to those struggling most.

Playwright Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin

On April 7, we will be treated to reading of a new play, Well-Tempered Clavier, by our first year MFA Playwright Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin. In her play, we come to know a Chinese-American family as they move through milestone weddings and one funeral, expanding and contracting, loving, fighting, falling apart, and coming back together again. At the heart of her play, Elaine, the family’s powerful matriarch, maintains the traditions she grew up with while raising a very American family that is growing by the scene. It’s a bold, funny and moving play that is so reflective of the spirit that Kaela has brought to this community. As a dramatist, Kaela is deeply interested in focusing our attention on stories not often told. Her characters are not onstage in service of a white or male narrative but to establish and explore their own narratives as they intersect with a mercifully intercultural world.

Our undergraduate writers will also be represented for the second time in our At First Sight Festival. All year long, Aaron, Kaela and I work with our talented undergraduates to give them a space to express their hearts and minds. I’m certain you’ll be as dazzled and delighted by their work as much as I am.

My heart is full of admiration and pride for IU’s writers. I thank you for your continued support of our efforts. And hey, who knows? You may well be the first to witness the classics of tomorrow.

“At First Sight”, IU’s annual festival of new plays, culminates April 7th with full day of new works written and directed by IU graduate students and undergraduates. A schedule will be posted on our website as soon as the information is available. If you would like the schedule sent to you, please contact us and let us know!

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The Salon Story behind Aaron Ricciardi’s “Nice Nails”

Playwright Aaron Ricciardi

By Aaron Ricciardi

I love salons. My earliest memory is of three- or four-year-old me at Salon Aromatique in Coral Springs, Florida. As my mother’s hair was getting cut and dyed, I’d hang out in the back, making myself coffee with so much sugar and so much cream, trailing packets and stirrers in my wake, driving the staff crazy. I felt like royalty.

Flash forward about twenty years, and I’m living in New York City. Every day, on my way to and from the subway, I’d pass a cheap, rundown nail salon, a tiny place with about a half-dozen employees, but I’d only ever see one customer in there at a time—always a variation on the same elderly white woman. How does this place stay in business? One day, on my daily walk past, I noticed a new hand-written sign in the front window. It read, “Bunny Is Back.” Beneath the sign sat a forty-something Asian woman in a manicurist’s uniform, looking out at the street, forlorn.

This woman started to obsess me. Was she Bunny? Why was she back? Where did she go? Then nail salons started to obsess me. I’d imagine the life of a New York City nail technician—manual laborers (literally) who are almost exclusively immigrants from Asia. I’d think about their every day, cleaning the fingers and toes of privileged, mostly white women, suffering through their stories and insignificant tales of woe.

I’m a pretty bad nail biter. My most reliable prevention strategy is to get a manicure once a week. It keeps me in check. So there I’d be, sitting in a New York City nail salon for my weekly pampering, watching the workers, judging the customers, judging myself, seeing clearly the messy politics charging through us all.

Then the New York Times published “Unvarnished,” a two-part series by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir which exposed gross labor abuses at New York City nail salons. It blew up my Facebook feed. Every good liberal I knew was enraged by this news, me included. How could they pay their workers so little? They’re exposing them to deadly chemicals! This is horrible! We wanted something to be done—though we never thought about our part in all this. Thanks to the law of supply and demand, manicures in New York City are shockingly cheap. If customers paid more, those workers would likely make a higher salary. But who doesn’t love a good deal?

While we (mostly white) liberals were taking to the metaphorical streets of social media, there was a group of people who were taking to the actual streets—one specific street, 8th Avenue, to be exact. A group of (mostly Asian) nail salon workers and owners picketed in front of the New York Times building, protesting Nir’s article with posters saying things like “NYT: RIFE WITH UNTRUTHS” and “New York Time Cost our Jobs.”

New York City liberals clamored for the state to take legislative action, and Governor Cuomo answered those calls with a new law to protect nail salon workers. The law upped fines and gave the state freer reign to shut down salons found to be in violation. It also mandated that salon owners provide workers with gear to protect them from dangerous chemicals, and it streamlined the training and licensing processes for nail technicians. It usually takes many months or even years to write and pass a bill. This time, it took just ten weeks from the day the Times published “Unvarnished.”

I’m a proud, outspoken Democrat. I believe that an active, progressive government is a force for great good. I believe that the Republican party is a white supremacist organization that is out to get marginalized people in this country, and I find it baffling how an immigrant could possibly support their agenda. But, reading those Times articles and watching the backlash—seeing this whole situation from the perspective of these workers and business owners who feel victimized by a predatory bureaucracy—I can’t help but see the allure of conservatism. I get it.

I’ve been a nail biter since I don’t know when. I imagine myself gnawing on my cuticles in utero. I bite my nails because I want them to look pretty. Like a kind of oral manicurist, I use my teeth as makeshift nail file, as a makeshift cuticle clipper, but then I take it too far, and my finger is bleeding, and I need a Band-Aid. It starts out well-intentioned, but it ends in destruction. What a metaphor.

Nice Nails runs March 30 through April 7th in the Wells-Metz Theatre. Tickets available at Ticketmaster and at the IU Auditorium Box Office.

Read more:

  1. Original New York Times articles: “The Price of Nice Nails”and “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers”
  2. Real violation letters sent by labor department
  3. NY Review of Books’ criticism of original Times article:“What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons”
  4. NYT response to NYRB’s criticism: “Rebuttal to The NYRB’s Article on NYT Nail Salon Series”
  5. NYRB’s response to NYT’s response: “Nail Salons: A Reply to the ‘Times’”
  6. From NY Times Opinion pages: “Criticism of ‘Unvarnished’ Brings a Strong Times Defense” and “New Questions on Nail Salon Investigation, and a Times Response”
  7. critique: “What The New York Times Gets Wrong About Cheap Nail Salons,”
  8. Another critique, in three parts: “The New York Times’ Nail Salons Series Was Filled with Misquotes and Factual Errors. Here’s Why That Matters.”

Aaron Ricciardi is the 3rd-year playwright in the program headed by Peter Gil-Sheridan in Indiana University’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. We invite you to read more about the playwriting program on our website.

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Talking Tech: What is a Technical Director??

By Sara Cruz

Have you ever wondered what the job of a “technical director” is? All the other production jobs seem to be self-explanatory, lighting designer does lighting, scenic designer designs the set, costumes, props, and stage manager, we all have an idea of what their contributions are.

But what about technical directors? What is that? What do they do?

Chip Davis, TD for MACHINAL

After talking to Chip Davis, the Technical Director of our production of Machinal, I discovered that a TD is the person responsible for making the scenic design come to life on the stage. They are in charge of figuring out how the set will be constructed, what materials will be used, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build, and problem solving when it comes to the specific needs of a show. They are also “Captain on Safety”. It is their responsibility to make sure that all the props and scenic elements are safe for actors to be on or around.

There is no rule book for every possible situation. TDs have to be prepared for each production’s specific needs, and Davis said the set for Machinal (designed by M.F.A. Jeremy Smith) involved a unique challenge: more than a mile of string.

“I had to call textile companies, sewing companies, friends that work in yarn construction, to figure out what to use. It worked out really well that I came across this elastic that is used in some winter coats and we were able to get it from the catalogue used by the costume designers. We ended up using over 6 thousand feet of string, so over a mile,” said Davis.

Scenic elements from Jeremy Smith’s design for Machinal.

Associate Professor of Theatre Technology Paul Brunner shared why Technical Direction is an exciting career. “A technical director must have a design sensibility, but today they are well-versed in structural design, mechanical design, management, advanced materials, electronics and automation, and all facets of health and safety and standards for our industry.” It is also important that the TD has knowledge of new technologies that emerge every year and can be advantageous to their productions. Technology’s role should be to support the storytelling and help illustrate it in ways that were not possible before. “It should never be a distraction to the audience,” said Brunner. Even though technology is advancing quickly there are still many things that have stayed the same. Broadway scenery built with classical platforms and soft covered flats is still constructed the same way as it was back in the 30s and 40s. In Julius Caesar (Ryan Miller, Scenic Designer and CJ Sneath, Technical Director) for instance, a lot of traditional platforming ideas were used, as well as pneumatic wheels so they can be easily lifted and move freely as necessary.

Coming out of school, there are a lot of opportunities for a M.F.A. in Technical Direction. This is Davis’s last season at IU Theatre & Dance and he already has a job lined up after graduation! He will be a technical director and a professor at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.

“For large theatres you can start as an assistant. Going in as an assistant is still a very demanding job and it’s a great entry level position. You can also TD at a smaller theater company or higher education institution, which is what I am doing,” said Davis. “Also, there is an area outside theater that is called ‘theatre project planning’, which is helping build a new theater as a consultant, and we are all qualified for that too.”

Davis did his undergraduate degree in Arts and Education at University of North Carolina – Ashville. He was an actor in one of their productions, when one day the Technical Director brought the model for the set and asked for help painting it. Davis was the only person who showed up to help! He got a job there the following semester, and started doing more and more of it, and eventually it became a passion. “I think what is most exciting about my job is that I get to work with incredibly creative people all day, I enjoy making their ideas happen on stage.”

Machinal is on stage from Feb 23 through March 3 in the Wells-Metz Theatre at Indiana University.

Sara Cruz is a graduate student in the Arts Administration program in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is a Marketing Assistant for the Theatre this year, and brings great talent and enthusiasm to the job.

Sara is from Brazil and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC before coming to IU.

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H-T Review: Black and white bring color to play about women’s oppression

By Connie Shakalis | H-T Reviewer

Machinal HT

Abby Lee portrays Helen, a woman “stifled” by her controlling husband who finds freedom in a relationship with another man (Joshua Smith). Photo by Evan DeStephano

Friday night, I saw a live performance — in black and white. Even the bouquet of roses was gray. I used to believe that what plays really needed was good plots, direction and acting. Special effects, elaborate costumes and expensive lighting were superfluous. How wrong I was.

“Machinal,” playwright Sophie Treadwell’s masterpiece performed by IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance, and directed by James Nelson, is indeed well acted and directed, and the plot, hauntingly expressionistic, is powerful and pertinent, even these 90 years later. But what everyone seemed to be talking about after the show was Jeremy Smith’s sets, Tony Stoeri’s sound design and Darrian Brimberry’s lights (wait till you see the last five minutes!).

The set consists of white strings making parallel lines at various angles, gracing ceiling, floor and open space. Every element, including Justin Michael Gannaway’s costumes, is black, white or gray. Only during the hospital birth scene do the strings turn color, red. Tightly strung, they relax and sway in one scene only, a love affair.

Throughout the play, as is typical in expressionism, we are startled by sounds: a train, subtle, anxious pounding, riveting, jazz music. Haze billows from upstage, creating not just gloom (as though this play needs more gloom?), but additional gray, contributing to the black-and-white scheme.

Treadwell, a feminist, playwright, actor and renowned journalist (foreign war correspondent in World War I, reporter in World War II, and interviewer of Pancho Villa after the Mexican Revolution), wrote “Machinal” about women’s oppression in society. In an industry dominated by men, especially in 1928, this play by a woman enjoyed a remarkable 91 performances on Broadway.

Two themes are submission and figurative suffocation. “I’m stifling, I’m stifling!” Helen (Abby Lee) tells her controlling husband (Jay C. Hemphill). “Must I always submit?” she cries at the sad finale.

Her character, a kind of everywoman, is naive and vulnerable, has never tasted the sweet life. Instead, she operates an office machine (machinal is French for mechanical), “lives alone with her mother” and supports both on her salary.

But the (semi-) sweet life appears a few years later in the form of a sexy pickup (Joshua M. Smith), arranged by her coworker, a very appealing Ellise Chase. Trouble is, Helen is now married to her old boss and has a little girl with him.

The breath has been sucked out of her by having lived with her clueless mother (Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz), her insensitive husband, a difficult childbirth and unwelcome motherhood. Lee makes a beguiling Helen, and the audience seemed to love her, giving her a standing ovation.

I wish Hemphill, commanding and a little scary, had been more detached and less aggressive as her husband. One of the play’s points is that none of the characters is intrinsically bad; they are just ordinary people doing what people do: looking out for their own interests. OK, ordinary dissatisfied wives don’t smack their boorish, cheated-on hubbies in the temple with a pebble-filled bottle, but Helen has issues. The story itself is a loose translation of the true murder case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in Queens, New York, in 1927.

Additional highlights are the two lawyers (Felix Merback and Nathaniel Kohlmeier), who adamantly, in their own ways, defend and prosecute Helen. Reid Henry is a convincing older man trying to seduce a teenager, a vignette during the married Helen’s pickup scene in a speakeasy. In keeping with expressionism, Treadwell breaks the one hour and 45 minutes into nine separate episodes. The difference in tone — and content — between numbers one and nine grabs us by the nape of the neck and shakes. Unusual for me, chills rippled over my body after the curtain call. Women and men — both — know the pressure of helplessness, of struggling against the intractable. It comes to terrifying life here.

Ninety progress-driven years have passed since Treadwell wrote this treasure. Although to some it may not seem as though society has changed much, it has, and it is worthwhile to reflect on some of those changes. Yes, our lives are mechanized, they revolve around machines, women and women’s work are still undervalued, but we have made headway.

Helen begins the play working with her stenograph machine, and she closes the play with a different machine.

“What if the machine doesn’t work?” a character asks. (I just got those chills again.)

If You Go

WHAT: “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell, directed by James Nelson.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.

TICKETS: $10-$20. 812-855-1103,

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. For more local arts news and reviews, visit
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The J-Files: Designing Machinal

Episode 3 of the Director’s Desk Series: James Nelson on Machinal

First impressions are important. When you’re directing a play, it’s important not to say too much to designers until you have something to say – most designers begin their work after a short conceptual meeting with the director, so the best chance to have the whole design team working on one cohesive approach to the show (as opposed to many different approaches within the same production, which in theatre terms we call “a hot mess”) is to choose your words carefully and present a focused approach to the designers in your first conversation.

My attempt to do that with Machinal boiled down my three main findings from my own pre-production work:

  1. Machinal is a play about imprisonment.
  2. We experience the play through the eyes of the Young Woman. Any distortion of aesthetics or acting style is because that’s the way she experiences the world.
  3. The fundamental design question is “How do we create nine unique prisons?”

I also try to start thinking about the audience right away, and how to give them an access point into the play. Machinal is a challenging play, and I personally hate watching theatre I don’t understand, so I wanted to minimize the chance of our audience having that experience. Nobody is going to understand everything, but everybody needs to understand something. One strong association with “expressionism” that I think a lot of people have is with German Expressionist films of the 1920s: Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, etc. These films have iconic imagery which they build from a very specific toolkit: the use of light and shadow, sharp or high angles, distorted spatial relations, and exaggerated or impossible scenic elements. We also think of this imagery in black and white, since the films predate color cinema. Ruminating on these films led me to two more findings:

  1. The imagery from German Expressionist films can be a jumping off point for the aesthetics of Machinal
  2. The play should be in “black and white” by default, with color used only when absolutely necessary to the storytelling.

At IU, the current production model allows for three “Design Conference” meetings in which the whole creative team and most of our faculty are in attendance. In the first design conference, the director shares their approach to the production and the designers talk about any ideas they have in a relatively unsolidified way. In the second meeting, the designers present their preliminary designs, and in the third meeting the final designs for the show are revealed. I’m a huge fan of the process – it’s great to have the opportunity to get on the same page so early and make sure everyone’s ideas will play nicely with each other. It’s also quite exciting to finally get a sense of what the show will look like.

Before the first design conference, I met with Jeremy Smith, our scenic designer, and Justin Gannaway, our costume designer, to check in about the play and share some thoughts. In those meetings, it was fun to see where our mutual excitement was – Jeremy and I were both really taken with Expressionism as an art form and loved the German film imagery, and Justin and I thematically and emotionally responded to the play in very similar ways. Both of them were on board with the common theme of imprisonment, even if they didn’t know exactly how that would show itself in their design yet.

At the first design conference, Jeremy showed his research images: he was drawn in by expressionist imagery, but he also wanted to pursue the idea of imprisonment through the use of string. Actual, literal string. He showed the team images of artwork made through stretching string in particular ways to create a powerful visual effect. Justin’s research was more period specific – he is the main link between the audience and the literal setting of the play (which takes place in the 1920s), but he was already toying with the absence of color and the ways in which his costumes could represent the way the world felt to the audience. Darrian Brimberry, our lighting designer, showed research images of different stylized effects, illustrating how imprisonment can be shown through lighting, and she had ideas of how that would play into Jeremy’s set through the ways that string can be lit. And Tony Stoeri, our sound designer, confirmed that “there will be sound”.

Between design conferences, we had a smaller, offline meeting with the design team as well as assistant director Corinne Florentino and dramaturg Joseph D’Ambrosi and we started to tackle my initial question: Through the nine episodes of the show, how do we depict nine unique prisons? We went to the text and broke down each episode: what is happening to the Young Woman and what particular oppression is she confined by in that episode? Is it a common occurrence for her, or something brand new? Through a rigorous and fascinating discussion, we created titles for the “prisons” (as we now referred to the episodes) that would function as tags to clarify the design of each one.

Our final list, after lots of debate, was as follows:

Episode 1: To Business – “The Prison of Automation”

Episode 2: At Home – “The Prison of Maternal Absence”

Episode 3: Honeymoon – “The Prison of Forced Consent”

Episode 4: Maternal – “The Prison of the Female Body”

Episode 5: Prohibited – “The Prison of Social Pressure”

Episode 6: Intimate – “The Prison of False Hope”

Episode 7: Domestic – “The Prison of Everyday Life”

Episode 8: The Law – “The Prison of Word”

Episode 9: A Machine – “The Prison of Mercy”

Our team had created a common vocabulary. We knew what we were trying to thematically depict in our production, we had defined the identities of our episodes, we knew why we were straying from realism and how to do it, and had ensured that the many ideas that would come to us afterward would have common roots.

James Nelson is a second year M.F.A. student in directing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, James has directed for Custom Made Theatre Company, Ross Valley Players, Masquers Playhouse, FaultLine Theater, Dragon Productions, Novato Theater Company, and others. He was previously the artistic director of the Anglo-Irish Theatre Group in Tübingen, Germany, where he directed productions of Equus, Translations, The Pillowman, And Then There Were None, Black Comedy, and Romeo and Juliet.

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SPEA Insights: Orishas from Africa to Brazil

By Sara Cruz

“Healing at the Source” Choreographer Dr. Nyama McCarthy-Brown

As I sat in to watch one of the rehearsals of this weekend’s Winter Dance Concert, I took interest in the original work choreographed by Professor Nyama McCarthy-Brown about water conservation and inspired by the Yoruba Culture of West Africa. Each dancer represents an Orisha, which are entities from Yoruba that represent elements of nature. I wondered if people in North America recognize that word like I do. Do you know what an Orisha is?

The Yoruba are a diverse group and are bound to each other by their language, religion, history, and culture. They are one of the largest ethnic groups south of the Sahara. Their traditional art practices include sculpture, mask forms, pottery, weaving, bead-working, and metalsmithing.

“Healing at the Source”, from BODIES OF LIGHT rehearsal

Yoruba culture was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, and their descendants kept the Yoruba traditions. Even through years of strong repression, their culture ended up having major influence on many other ethnic groups and religions in the Caribbean and South America, including Christianity.

In Brazil, Yoruba originated Candomblé, Ubanda, and Santeria; which are religions that were repressed for many years but eventually became a major source of cultural exchange for the country, even influencing the Catholic faith in Brazil. Having grown up in Brazil, I understood what this dance was trying to communicate. Orishas are spirits that represent nature, they have power over the Animal and Plant kingdoms and all 4 elements: water, air, fire, and earth.

One of the most recognizable Orisha (Orixás in Portuguese) in Brazil is Iemanjá the Goddess of the Sea. Every year the faithful from all religions give offerings to her for protection. In these cultures, every person is assigned one or more orisha as a protector, based on a specific combination of year of birth, month, date, and day of the week.

In researching for the Winter Dance Concert, I found out that this is not the first time that Orishas have visited IU Theatre.  A couple years ago IU Theatre presented In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by David Koté, whose characters are based on and named for Yoruba Orishas. I recognized some of the Orishas that were represented in the play. Shango (Xangô) spirit of thunder and fire, Ogun spirit of the earth and labor, Shun (Oxun) for rivers, creeks, and waterfalls.

It is amazing to see how how much African culture has influenced the Brazil that we have today.  If you want to know more about Yoruba and Orishas or Iorubá and Orixás here are some places you can find more information!

Understanding Religiosity in the African Diaspora: How Orisha Worship Survived in Brazil [Huff Post]

Orixás: The Divine Forces of Nature [Soul Brasil Magazine]

Countries and Their Cultures: Yoruba []

Art & Life in Africa [University of Iowa]

Sara Cruz is a graduate student in the Arts Administration program in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is a Marketing Assistant for the Theatre this year, and brings great talent and enthusiasm to the job.

Sara is from Brazil and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from East Carolina University in Greenville, NC before coming to IU.

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The J-Files: Forming an approach

Episode 2 of the Director’s Desk Series: James Nelson on Machinal

Often, when you pitch a show to a theatre, you already have a strong idea of your conceptual ideas for the work, and you’re selling the producer on not just the material but your approach to it as well.

In the case of Machinal, it happened the other way around – I was asked to direct a play that I still was very new to, and it was clear from the style of the play that a strong directorial hand was required. I needed to do some work.

Directors are very different animals in their pre-production process. For me, I start by trying to answer the question “What is this play about in a single word?”. I brainstorm a number of possibilities and then try to imagine the production design that might come from them. A version of Hamlet as a play about revenge looks and feels very different than a Hamlet about self-doubt, or a Hamlet about duty. What production would I most like to see? What are the most compelling ways that word could reveal itself to an audience? To me, it’s more than just identifying a central theme for the play – it’s creating a root idea that will ground the ideas of the design team in one cohesive world.

For me Machinal is a play about imprisonment – a word that literally means to confine in or as if in a prison. In the play, a Young Woman (she’s given a name halfway through the play, but expressionist plays don’t usually refer to characters by name) is taken through nine episodes that depict the various ways in which she is subjugated and marginalized by a patriarchal society in which men render her voiceless and rob her of her agency. What resonated about the idea of imprisonment for me is imagining every situation in her life – work, marriage, childbirth, even socializing – as a different kind of prison that she lives in. Of course, the play eventually leads the Young Woman to a literal prison by the end, but it’s chilling to think she was actually in prison from the day she was born.

Machinal is one of the flagship examples of American expressionism. I’m embarrassed to admit that previously to reading the play, I didn’t even know what expressionism was. Doing some research into the movement helped tremendously with understanding and analyzing the text. A lot of the motifs: repetitive language, nameless characters, and distorted sounds and imagery were indicative of the style, but the most illuminating discovery was the importance in expressionism of having a singular voice through which the nonrealistic elements are viewed – in painting, it’s often the voice of the artist (think Munch’s famous painting The Scream), but in the case of Machinal, that voice was clearly the Young Woman. The breakthrough realization for me was this: everything that the audience sees or experiences in this world, they see or experience through the Young Woman’s eyes. She is the lens through which we watch the play.

The second major finding from unpacking expressionism was the reliance of “episodes”, rather than scenes. The words aren’t synonymous. Episodes have a more self-contained quality, even if they are intended to be part of a larger narrative. They stand alone, but have a further impact in their relation to other episodes. In our case, we have nine different episodes, each of which needs to have its own clear identity and reveal itself to us slightly differently.

Blending the idea of imprisonment with findings from examining expressionism, I had my approach, as simple as it was:

  1. Machinal is a play about imprisonment.
  2. We experience the play through the eyes of the Young Woman. Any distortion of aesthetics or acting style is because that’s the way she experiences the world.
  3. The fundamental design question is “How do we create nine unique prisons?”

It was time to start talking to designers.

James Nelson is a second year M.F.A. student in directing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, James has directed for Custom Made Theatre Company, Ross Valley Players, Masquers Playhouse, FaultLine Theater, Dragon Productions, Novato Theater Company, and others. He was previously the artistic director of the Anglo-Irish Theatre Group in Tübingen, Germany, where he directed productions of Equus, Translations, The Pillowman, And Then There Were None, Black Comedy, and Romeo and Juliet.

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