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:
- Machinal is a play about imprisonment.
- 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.
- 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.