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.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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