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Machinal

Interview with Actress, Rebecca Hall

Posted on: December 17th, 2013 by Ted Sod

 

Rebecca Hall

Ted Sod:  Where were you born and educated? Your father, mother, and some of your siblings have worked in opera and theatre—did your family influence your decision to become an actress?


Rebecca Hall:
I was born and educated in the UK and went to university to study English Literature at Cambridge. The question of whether my family influenced my choice of career is a bit which came first, the chicken or the egg? Of course they have shaped who I am—there isn't a parent who doesn't! However, they never encouraged me to do anything that wasn't what I wanted.

 

TS: Why did you choose to do the play Machinal and the role of Helen Jones?

RH: it is an extraordinary piece of writing that needs to be voiced and take up more than a footnote in America's theatrical history. It was as simple as that really—being a part of getting it performed felt like reason enough.

 

TS: Can you share your initial thoughts about the play after you first read it?

RH: I have never had a more visceral response to anything. I felt like I couldn't breathe for a minute.

 

TS: What kind of preparation and/or research do you have to do in order to play the role? Is the fact that the play was inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial important to your process? The play is often described as “expressionistic” – is that valuable to you as an actor?

RH: The preparation and research is always extensive for anything set in a period. How one goes about doing that for a play is very much determined by the company and director. We all have to do it together, so we know we are all existing in the same world. That is the work of rehearsals. But there is always a lot of reading and immersing, whether it’s films, photographs, music...whatever sparks one’s imagination about the era and the part.

 

In rehearsal for Machinal. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

In rehearsal for Machinal. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

 

I don't believe Sophie Treadwell meant the play to be about Ruth Snyder. I believe it is an emotional response to witnessing that case and processing the feelings that it generated, but it is not about her specifically; it is about a society in a much broader sense. If she wanted to write the Ruth Snyder story, I doubt she would have so pointedly called the character I play “young woman” or occasionally “Helen.” So, no, I've deliberately chosen not to think about Ruth Snyder too much. Helen is and should be an ordinary woman, like any one of us, an every woman.

Lyndsey said in rehearsal once, "No writer writes to an ‘ism.’ I thought that said it all really...it’s interesting to know what expressionism is and what is meant by that - but you can't really let an “ism” take precedence over the humanity of a story. In that sense you can't act an “ism” either.

 

TS: Can you share some of your thoughts about Helen’s relationship to her husband, mother and child with us?

RH: That is a complicated question. I think right now my thoughts are that none of these relationships are really hers, as it were. She didn't choose any of them and is oppressed by each one in different ways as a result.

Rebecca Hall and Edward James Hyland. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

 

TS: What do you look for from a director?

RH: Clarity, taste, honesty, vision, the ability to make an actor feel safe to be their bravest, and a respect for the material -- not much then really!

 

TS: Do you think the author, Sophie Treadwell, was writing from a feminist perspective?

RH: I think if you are a woman, it is impossible not to write from a feminist perspective.

 

For more information about Machinal and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Machinal, Upstage


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Interview with Jerry Dickey, Sophie Treadwell Expert

Posted on: December 17th, 2013 by Roundabout

 

Sophie Treadwell

Ted Sod: What can you tell us about Sophie Treadwell’s life and career as a playwright? like Mary Chase, she began as a journalist—correct?

Jerry Dickey: Actually, Sophie Treadwell’s interests in theatre and journalism developed simultaneously, especially while she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley between 1902 and 1906. After a short stint as a vaudeville performer upon graduation, she was hired as a journalist for the San Francisco Bulletin, where she met her husband, William O. McGeehan, a noted sports writer. They were married in 1910, and Treadwell continued writing plays as she rapidly made a name for herself as an investigative journalist and serial writer. McGeehan moved to New York in 1914 to write for the New York Evening Journal, and Treadwell followed the next year when she was hired as a journalist by the New York American. She had her first play produced on Broadway in 1922, the first of seven of her plays to reach Broadway stages, with Machinal being by far her most critically successful.

Treadwell led a remarkable life that fueled much of her playwriting. She marched for women’s suffrage with the feminist Lucy Stone League; during World War I, she was one of the first state-accredited female foreign war correspondents; she collaborated with Marcel Duchamp on a work of modern art; she had an affair with the painter Maynard Dixon; as a journalist she covered the tumultuous events of the Mexican Revolution, including a first-hand account of the assassination of Mexican President Carranza and the only western journalist’s interview with Pancho Villa at his post-Revolution hideaway in Canutillo; she studied acting with the Moscow Art Theatre-emigré Richard Boleslavsky; she sued John Barrymore for plagiarism; she wrote, produced and acted in her own plays on Broadway; and at age 64—sixteen years after the death of her husband—she became a single mother when she adopted a German baby boy. When the Royal National Theatre in London produced Machinal in 1993, the critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote that “Treadwell is one of those fascinating people whose life was full of adventure but about whom little was ever recorded. […] Inexplicably, there is no biography of her.”  Only now are the details of her life becoming better known.

 

TS: Machinal had a brief run of 91 performances on Broadway in 1928. Was the play ahead of its time? Were audiences not ready for what was described as its “expressionistic” style? It seems the play was given new life after the Public Theatre’s 1990 production—is that true?

JD: The expressionistic style of Machinal would not have been altogether unfamiliar to New York audiences in 1928. Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, and several expressionistic plays by Eugene O’Neill had previously received critical acclaim in the New York press. But what was different about Treadwell’s use of expressionistic techniques was her blending of them with moments of intimacy that seemed more like domestic American realism. According to stage directions in an early manuscript, Treadwell hoped the unique style of the play—inner monologues, an expressionistic soundscape of the world around the Young Woman, and the quieter moments of intimacy—would create a suggestive atmosphere that would encourage the audience to fill in the gaps and complete the narrative for themselves. As Treadwell wrote, she hoped these effects would quicken “still secret places in the consciousness of the audience, especially of women.”  The play never received a fully expressionistic staging until it was produced by the famed Russian director Alexander Tairov at the Kamerny Theatre in 1933.

 

Original Production Photo, 1928

The appearance of Machinal in a couple of drama anthologies kept the play alive for critical study in colleges and universities and probably facilitated an off-Broadway revival in 1960. But, yes, it was Michael Greif’s Public Theatre production featuring Jodie Markell in 1990 that accelerated interest in the play and Treadwell.


TS: What are the challenges of producing and directing Machinal? How have you noticed that contemporary audiences relate to Treadwell’s play? What do you feel resonates for people when they see a modern production?

JD: One of the greatest challenges I’ve noticed is that Treadwell does such a remarkable job of dramatizing the various social and economic factors that have shaped the Young Woman’s circumstances and attitudes that it is sometimes easy to dismiss her as a victim. Our contemporary society is also more open in sexual matters than it was in the 1920s, so some audience members may grow slightly impatient with the Young Woman’s sexual anxieties in the first part of the play. The actions that Treadwell presents as “prohibited” in Episode 5—homosexuality, abortion, extramarital affairs—don’t possess the same aura of taboo they did during the play’s premiere. That said, I have seen that the play’s depiction of our society’s unequal treatment toward women, the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, the seeming anonymity of existence in urban cities, and biases in our media coverage and judicial system—including the issue of capital punishment—all have a powerful effect on contemporary audiences.

 

TS: How do you pronounce Machinal and what does it mean?

JD: I should have mentioned earlier that the play’s title is also something of a challenge in producing the play!  Whenever Machinal has been produced, playbills and reviews offer a guide as to the meaning and pronunciation of the title. The title is a French word meaning mechanical, automatic, or involuntary; its pronunciation is “ma-SHIN-al.”  The playbill for the original Broadway production at the Plymouth Theatre identified the pronunciation of the play as “MAK-i-nal.”  Other Anglicized pronunciations of the title have appeared in print as “MA-shin-al,” “mock-en-AHL,” and “MAK-in-al” (long A).

... Read More →


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Machinal, Upstage


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Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, directed by Lyndsey Turner, the second production of the 2013-14 season at the American Airlines Theatre begins previews December 20.

Interestingly, like The Winslow Boy, its predecessor at this theatre, Machinal is also a play inspired by true events, though in this case the events were far more salacious than the potential theft of a postal order. Machinal takes its story from the trial of Ruth Snyder, a seemingly ordinary wife and mother from Queens, New York who, in 1927, was arrested for the murder of her husband, Albert. While Ruth initially played off Albert’s death as part of a robbery, police quickly realized that the break-in had been staged and that Snyder and her lover, Henry Judd Gray, were responsible. In fact, Gray later indicated that this murder was the eighth attempt that Snyder had made to end her husband’s life. The trial of Snyder and Gray became front page news, with the public fascinated by the question of what could possibly lead a woman to take such extreme actions. That question would never be answered, as both Snyder and Gray were put to death by electric chair in January of 1928. Although no cameras were allowed at the execution, one Daily News reporter managed to sneak one in, leading to one of the most infamous photos of the 20th century: a dead Ruth Snyder still strapped into the chair, there for millions of readers see.

It’s easy to see why a story like this one would capture the imagination of a playwright. Treadwell began her career as a journalist and had covered many sensational trials, and she was in attendance at the Snyder hearings. But what she chose to do with this sad and strange tale is far more interesting than a standard reporting of events. Influenced by the increasingly popular theatrical form of expressionism, Treadwell takes us deeper into the story, giving the audience access to the inner workings of the mind of a desperate woman. The play is stylized to let us see not the world as it is but the world as it appears to a woman in conflict. She also strays from the exact events of Snyder’s life, making that original question of motivation both broader and more penetrating. It’s no longer a question of what led Ruth Snyder to kill Albert Snyder, but of what could make any young woman so desperate to change her life that she would take the life of another in her own hands.

In this way, Treadwell is questioning the whole function of women in the quickly-shifting America of the late 1920s. The play’s title, Machinal (or The Life Machine, as it is known to some British audiences), directly references the mechanization that was taking place at the time and that swept many women into new and uncomfortable workplace roles. As industrialization and assembly lines took over, what was happening to people who went from being individuals to being cogs in a vast machine they could barely understand? Treadwell asks us to look at the bleak options in front of the Young Woman we follow throughout the play: Should she remain a cog, settle for a loveless marriage, or seek happiness in whatever way she can? Will society judge her if her own happiness comes at the expense of others’?

This play, an endlessly fascinating trip down the rabbit hole, has been out of the spotlight for far too long. While Machinal was a major success for Treadwell in 1928 (she wrote a first draft within four months of Ruth Snyder’s execution), it has not been seen on Broadway since that time. The play has remained popular in academic circles, but it is rarely staged professionally, and I’m honored to be giving it the chance to be seen by a large audience for the first time in 86 years.

I think you’ll find this play to be both deeply emotional and hugely provocative. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And with a piece that will evoke strong reactions, I am quite eager to hear your thoughts. Please share them with me by emailing artisticoffice@roundabouttheatre.org. Your feedback is always welcome and is something that I greatly value.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Sincerely,

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, From Todd Haimes, Machinal


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