MACHINAL: Living in the Machine. An interview with directing MFA Jess K Smith, SoA ’11

Do you ever feel like you are going through your daily routines like an automaton? I do! And so does the leading lady in Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist drama, Machinal. From March 9th – 12th, you have the opportunity to watch directing MFA Jess K Smith’s new production of Machinal at Columbia Stages. Featuring aerial acrobatics, typewriters and live music, this production may drag your soul from it’s mechanized shell, and catapult it into the stratosphere of emotional living.

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Smith about her production and creative process. This interview, along with the Machinal trailer (see below) may give you a better idea of her theatrical vision of what living inside a machine looks like in action.

1) What is Machinal about?

Machinal is an every woman’s story. It is about a woman stuck in a world that feels like a machine, in conflict with the mechanized societal expectations she finds herself enacting. She is expected to go to work, bring the money she makes home to her mother, get married, have a baby… and she is expected to feel good about all of these things. Instead she feels like she is drowning. Then she meets a man with whom she feels free with for the first time, and she falls in love with him. The beginning of their romance is like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet – everything works perfectly for a moment. But as soon as that moment passes, she spends the entire play trying to recapture the perfection of their initial romance.

But she falls so far from that pinnacle of romance that she goes to horrifying extremes to recapture her ideal. Ultimately, Machinal asks us, “how should we live,” and “how do we figure out how to interact with something that feels mechanized?”

On a larger scale, the story is based on a famous crime case from 1928, about a woman named Ruth Snyder, who was the first woman to be electrocuted in Sing Sing prison in New York for attempting to murder her husband.

2) Why did you choose to direct Machinal?

I have wanted to direct this play for a long time. It is a play that is often read in academic settings, but it is not produced very often. I was drawn to the content of the story and how language can help paint the expressionist world the play is set in. The language is really exciting and is a great challenge for actors and directors to take on. In the first scene for example, all of the text sounds mechanical – it is rhythmic and clipped – the language sounds like music. But the next scene’s language is totally naturalistic. The focus on language makes it feel like a musical piece. My challenge was to find a physical performance style that could help tell the story just as much as the text does.

There are also many structural questions to be asked – the play is divided into 9 episodes, so it is the director’s job to decide how to treat those scenes and what the journey through these 9 scenes represents.

Finally, I am fascinated by the question: what is the language of expressionism today?  I did Machinal because I wanted to interrogate that question.

3) Machinal was written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928. As such, it has an extensive production history. What did you learn from your dramaturgical research? How does your production differ from previous productions?

Expressionism has evolved since Machinal’s first production in 1928. Though a production in 1928 looks very different from a production in the 1960s, the story itself is still very accessible. And people still feel confounded by machines all the time.

For me, it has been a question of how to translate this problem for today’s audience. For this production, we kept fairly close to the period in terms of the container of the piece, but we experimented heavily with staging and movement. I have been working with the young woman playing the lead from the beginning of the process, investigating what release really looks like in this play. She has some background in aerial acrobatics, so we started exploring that, and asked, “Could this be the vehicle for expressionism in our piece?”

Another issue every director has to face in this play is that, all the characters other than the lead could be two-dimensional stereotypes: the nagging mother – the disconnected husband. But it is up to the director to decide how much to push that. We have had to figure out what the balance is – how can the audience feel connected to the mechanized world through these characters, and whether there is room for us to have sympathy for them as well.

4) Machinal is characterized as an Expressionist play. Why were you drawn to an expressionist piece? Did the script’s focus on subjectivity and emotional effect give you more freedom as an artist, or did it make it more challenging to clarify your artistic intent and the message you wanted to deliver?

I am drawn to expressionism as a genre, because I think it is a really open form for artists to experiment with. My professor, Anne Bogart, came to see a rehearsal the other night and said that she thought expressionism was about compression and expansion – physical containment and emotional expansion. One thing I like to consider is how contained and compressed a world can feel, so that in a moment of release there is an explosion of understanding. Additionally, expressionism requires figuring out an exciting way to show what’s on the inside, which is really exciting for a director. I have a particular interest in movement-based theatre, and expressionism is a great medium for physical exploration because it requires figuring out how to show the internal emotional landscape through bodily expression.

5) Do you think this play has any larger social message that relates to current socio-political dynamics in the United States?

Yes. I mean at base, it is asking us how we live and how we should live. At the very first rehearsal, we went around and asked each person how they felt most connected to the play and one of the actors said, “I’m trying to figure out how to live in my own mechanized world.” And I thought – yeah! We all are. Ultimately, Machinal asks the audience who they are in the story – how they are a part of the machine – how they relate to the machine – or how they are a spectator of the machine and what that all implies. All of a sudden, at the end of the play, the audience is witnessing the execution of a woman, and they are forced to ask themselves a series of questions: what is worth fighting for? How did this moment happen? Who are you in relationship to what is happening on stage? In terms of larger socio-political issues, I think that these types of questions fold into every part of the socio-political world.

6)    What do you hope the audience will take away from this experience?

I hope it is exciting for them. I hope they see themselves somewhere inside this world, or see the reverberations of this play’s themes in their own world – that it’s not just 1928, it’s every day. And from a performative stand point I hope the language we have chosen for expressionism in this play is one that resonates with the audience. That they are able to see inside this woman’s journey through aerial work and ensemble work and I hope that reveals something more about this woman’s journey to the audience. I hope we go away asking what we want our relationship to the machine to be.

Machinal performs March 9-11, 8 p.m. and March 12, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Talk Forward event on Friday, March 11 at 6:30pm

The Riverside Theatre
91 Claremont Avenue
(btw 120th and 122nd Sts.)
New York City

$15 general admission; $5 seniors; FREE with any valid student ID For more information visit

Rosie duPont BC ’10
ArtsLink Associate

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