Episode 1 of the Director’s Desk Series: James Nelson on Machinal
M.F.A. James Nelson returns to the blog with a journey into the world of Sophie Treadwell’s MACHINAL.
“So, what I’m hearing you say is that my proposals have all been thrown out?”
It was fall of 2016 when I met with my advisor to check in about the 2017-2018 IU Theatre season. As a MFA director, I’m slated to direct a production in the mainstage season during my second year, but the process of selecting which show that might be is rather complicated. A committee of about a dozen people from across the faculty (with representatives from the student body) assembles weekly for nearly the entire fall semester and starts vetting all the submissions they receive. Each director is asked to propose three shows they would be interested in, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be selected, and there’s plenty of suggestions from the different areas and directly from the students to consider as well.
I was feeling pretty confident with the three shows I put forward in my proposals, so I was quite surprised to hear that they had all been shot down for various reasons. “I just don’t think it’s a good play,” my advisor told me frankly about one of them. For another one, “We don’t think we should be doing as many plays with music”. The third – my favorite play of all time, a play that’s been close to my heart since I was young, a play that ruminates on the loneliness of displaced souls – was dismissed with “it just feels dated”.
Compounding my disappointment was that it was too late in the process to come back with new proposals, so I had to look at titles that were still under consideration and had some momentum from the committee. The first couple things I was asked to look at weren’t promising, and it was time for my own blunt feedback. “I don’t feel any sense of joy in the play, it’s very humorless and bleak”, I wrote about one of them. “I think the direction of this play would be largely figuring out how to make the tech work, which arguably isn’t the most inspiring challenge for a student director,” I stated about another. And, more straightforwardly, “I can’t believe this is in consideration for our season. Can you imagine putting our audiences through this?” about a third.
Then I was asked to look at Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, a play I had heard of but had never read or seen staged. I sat down with the text, desperately hopeful that I would like it. The entirety of the first scene of the play is fragmented non-realistic dialogue delivered in a spitfire sequence that only makes a glimpse of sense in the first pass, ending with a two-page stream-of-consciousness monologue, delivered one or two words at a time, reminiscent of something out of a late Beckett play (which postdates Machinal, to be fair). It was exactly the kind of material that I struggle to like, as a director or an audience member.
But there was something very different about the first scene of Machinal. There was a piercing voice of despair silently crying out for help between the words on the page, a palpable helplessness that underscored the action. I was a bit confused, but I was more intrigued and excited. As I continued to read the rest of the play, Treadwell’s world revealed itself in surprising and disturbing ways, and my mind was racing with theatrical possibilities. There is so much here, I thought. You can do so much with this play.
When I finished reading the play, I turned back to the first page and began again. The first reading pulled me in, the second one gripped me. I became instantly and deeply compelled by the work and wanted the chance to explore it further. It was far out of my comfort zone as a director, but the challenges the play presented were exactly what I wanted to take on during my graduate training. I met with my advisor the next day and pleaded that he express my interest in the play to the committee. After a couple more weeks of silence, it was confirmed for the season, and would be the first main stage show I direct at IU.
I probably whispered “yes!” to myself a hundred times. Maybe I cried a little too.
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.