Thesis Production: Isabelle Kettle '18 Directs 'Machinal'

November 21, 2017

It's Director’s season at Lenfest. The class of 2018 began to showcase their thesis productions in the new Flexible Performance Space in November with The Tempest, directed by NJ Agwuna '18. Coming up in December we have Machinal directed by Isabelle Kettle '18.


“A woman is trapped in a suffocating and inhuman world, her only choices defined by men. Desperate to escape, she dares to pursue increasingly reckless forms of protest. Sophie Treadwell’s extraordinary 1928 play insists on the necessity of conceiving a different future for women. 90 years later, the violence of that imagination remains provocative and radical,” according to the play's description.


Machinal opens December 13th.


We sat with Isabelle to learn more about her vision:



Tell us about Machinal. Why did you choose this play?


In simple terms, I was seeking a play that was expressionist, feminist and written by a woman. However, although Machinal is all of these things, I am directing it for different reasons. I chose it because the questions it asks and the human story at its heart felt like a necessary shock to my system.


Machinal is a play about the choices women have and the choices we make. It is about the difficulty of voicing pain and suffering inside an oppressive structure and how that inability to speak allows the structure to keep functioning. It asks whether anyone is capable of imagining a future that is outside that dominant system, or whether the structure is so powerful that we will never be able to escape. It is so easy to say that a play is ‘relevant to today’ and of course, Machinal speaks deeply to our current moment in America, in which the oppressive system we are in feels huge, absurd and awful, but the issues that Sophie Treadwell articulates have been dealt with for years before and after she wrote this play. I believe that as long as we experience inequality, wherever and whoever we are, we will need this play.



 What are the qualities that you look for in collaborators when building your team?


I am especially interested in finding collaborators whose brains are different than mine, and whose way of thinking will complement rather than cement my own. I know I look at work and texts in a particular way and the most exciting designer or actor will be one who responds to my thoughts and questions with images and ideas that I was not capable of imagining.


Beyond this, I look for ensemble members who are interested in being part of a company as opposed to being ‘in a production’. Building a committed ensemble whose experience of the rehearsal process is an engaged, open and hard-working one relies on this sense of community. The experience of community and ensemble throughout the rehearsal process is the foundation of my love of directing, and I look for people who will bring the capacity for delight, generosity, and honesty that will make this possible.


What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the program?


This feels like an almost impossible question to answer because I have learned so much during my time here. However, as I rehearse Machinal, I think most often of our teacher Brian Kulick's encouragement to ask the right questions of a play. He has shown us the importance of being ‘awake’ to the work, to the text, and to the room. He has taught me that if we don’t ask questions of a text, it will give us nothing back, and instead we will only deal with it in very superficial terms. Brian has shown us how to begin seeing more deeply, and I can only hope to do justice to his teaching by continuing to look ever deeper as I keep directing. 


Meanwhile, as I think about emerging from Columbia in May 2018, I hold on to Anne Bogart's insistence on the value of just making work, over and over again. The programme here upholds the notion that it is through making our own work that we learn the most valuable lessons and when I reflect on the past two years it is so clear how much experimentation, risk, daring and progress can come out of this methodology.



Who are your theatrical heroes? 


I don't think I have heroes, perhaps because I have a resistance to the idea of 'heroism' as something created to uphold a male-dominated history and culture. However, there are many theatre-makers and artists who inspire and challenge me. Emma Rice, the outgoing Artistic Director of the Globe, is inspirational to me because of the way she encourages her audience's capacity for wonder and joy, while the director Katie Mitchell is someone whose experimentation with form and text I deeply admire. Although there are so many more artists I can think of, I suppose I have to end with Sophie Treadwell, the writer of the brilliant play that I am directing now. As a female journalist and writer in the 1920s, she was pushing boundaries and thinking in ways that were radical not only for the 1920s, but also for 2017. It is this that I find most remarkable and towards which I aspire. 



You can get your tickets to Machinal here


Isabelle is a New York-based director originally from London. Working with diverse source materials, her artistic goal is to unearth how gender and the body are constructed, performed, and politicised, both historically and theatrically. Previous projects include: Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber adapted by Bryony Lavery, adaptations of Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear’s daughters) and As you Like It (Arden Creatures), as well as Chekhov’s Three Sisters (still. they keep flying). She most recently directed Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera Une Éducation Manquée with Popup Opera at London’s Arcola Theatre. Isabelle is a co-founder of Footfall Theatre company.