Poly’s Fall Play, “Machinal” Raises Qestions from the ’20s That are Still Relevant Today
This fall’s Upper School play, “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell, is an Expressionistic play written in the 1920s. Treadwell was an early feminist and tangled with the limited options open to women in her time, using the style of Expressionism in her play to help make her point. The scenes progress through a young woman’s life, from work, to marriage, to motherhood, and then too quickly, almost inevitably, to death. Reflecting, students (pictured during rehearsal) were surprised, and somewhat horrified, at the lack of progress for women, even in 2015.
The theatrical form of Expressionism sprang out of the Visual Arts movement of the same name, in which artists distorted reality in order to reveal an inner emotional state. The look is angular and hard, also expressing the fear of the growth of technology.
The cast includes 12 Upper School actors and one student director, supported by a tech crew managing set construction, lighting design, and sound design. The students are all enjoying finding ways to make the play come alive while honoring the style. The process has been focused more on physicality than other dramatic forms the students have worked on in the last two years.
The Performing Arts Department believes it’s important that students have a variety of different experiences over the course of their high school career, so we try to vary the styles, time periods, and genres of our productions. Expressionism falls into the non-realistic style of theatre, hence the focus on the physical aspects of the performance. It also impacts the work of the technical crew, focusing their work on lighting and sound, more than on the creation of realistic settings.
All of this work must function together to create a cohesive whole, so the start of this production was spent in research and conversation about how best to communicate Treadwell’s theme through her chosen theatrical style. The actors then spent a good deal of time just moving in the space to find ways to bring a mechanical feel to their work. A critical next step was to take the text and lay it on top of that mechanical physicality, to bring the characters to life. While the goal is not to necessarily create a character that is realistic to an audience, the character must be authentic and well grounded in the world of the play. This is very much the hardest part of a piece like this.
The questions that this play raises are still quite relevant today. How much choice do individuals have in their lives? Who has more and who has less? These are questions that are about gender as well as about race, culture, and socioeconomic status. How much can we fight society’s restrictions? Are we strong enough to fight if it costs us everything? These questions have elicited deep reflection from the students involved in this production, and hopefully, will inform their thinking for years to come in a variety of milieus.
“Machinal” will be presented Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 12-14, at 7:30 p.m. in Garland Theatre. Admission is free; reservations are not required. Please note: Themes and concept are more appropriate for mature audiences.
Polytechnic School, 1030 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 396-6300 or visit www.polytechnic.org.