Northwestern alumna directs Wirtz’s main stage show ‘Machinal’


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

The cast of “Machinal.” The play, which opens at Wirtz Oct. 25, is one of the cornerstones of the expressionist theater movement.

Ahlaam Moledina, Reporter

As Northwestern University celebrates 150 years of women on campus, the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts looks forward to exploring femininity and gender roles in an electrifying new production of “Machinal.”

Directed by Jaclyn Biskup (Communication MFA ’10), “Machinal” will open Wirtz’s 2019-2020 programming season, titled “Love and Power.” It will premiere on Oct. 25 at the Josephine Louis Theater and run through Nov. 10. Written by journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell in 1928, the show is inspired by a true story of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be executed in the U.S. for murdering her husband. Wirtz’s production of “Machinal” will follow Helen Jones, a young stenographer who feels confined by the expectations of her patriarchal society and attempts to find freedom.

Communication junior and cast member Autumn Thelander said “Machinal” depicts the societal and conformist forces which trap women and the consequences of escaping. She said she hopes the audience can critically reflect on the social norms around women.

“I’m hopeful that this show will not only get women to think about how they fit into societal and gender roles, but also make other members of the audience think about how they layer these tropes and expectations onto the women they know,” Thelander said.

According to Wirtz, “Machinal” is an emblematic piece in the Expressionist theater movement. The play utilizes focuses on using physical movements to convey the emotions of the characters. Thelander is one of the “primary movers” of the show, along with another performer.

Biskup’s adaptation of “Machinal” is “considerably futuristic compared to the original piece,” Thelander added, referring to Biskup’s reimagining of the play through new staging, using physical boxes to represent the boxes people are placed into.

As an Emmy and Peabody award nominee, Biskup is most well known for her work on the web series “The Secret Life of Muslims.” Thelander said she sees “Machinal” as an opportunity to learn from the alumna.

“It’s super exciting to work with someone who has so many different ideas and experimental processes,” Thelander said. “Her experience brings a calmness to the room if problems arise, but she continues to innovate in many different ways.”

Communication freshman Clay Lawhead said he’s excited to see an accomplished alumna return to campus and make large strides.

“Even though she’s so accomplished, I imagine it’s difficult to put yourself back into the atmosphere of college kids again,” Lawhead said. “I think it’s really cool how she immersed herself in the talent here.”

Communication freshman Julia Poetzinge, who works at Wirtz’s light and sound shop, had the chance to learn how the lighting operates for the production. She said she particularly noticed how the light is manipulated to contribute to create a hollow, empty feeling for the audience.

Poetzinger added that the timing of this production, which comes just as NU celebrates 150 years since women first began being admitted to the university, is an “interesting” coincidence. The freshman said it’s important to reflect on how the notions of gender roles and femininity have changed over time.

“I think it’s impactful considering it’s now 150 years of women at Northwestern, and parallels can be drawn because women can still recognize themselves in the show, and still recognize the perceptions of femininity that impact them in their lives today,” Poetzinger said.

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