Theater: Actress Ashley Bell on opening night breakdown at ‘Machinal’

Ashley Bell Machinal
Ashley Bell’s character, left, sets trouble in motion for Rebecca Hall’s Young Woman in “Machinal.”
Credit: Joan Marcus

Ashley Bell’s character in Broadway’s “Machinal” has so much stage presence that it might be hard to believe the flirty phone operator doesn’t even have a name. Regardless, she’s a bright spot of color in an otherwise bleak world that depicts a 1920s New York where women had little power and few opportunities. In “Machinal,” this lack of liberation leads one Young Woman to commit an atrocious act. Sophie Treadwell’s acclaimed play is based on the real-life 1927 trial and execution of murderess Ruth Snyder.

Bell (known best for her terrifying turn in “The Last Exorcism”) told us more about how she prepared for this role — which involved parental influence and learning a “hand dance.” And, because we caught her on the phone the very next morning, we got to hear firsthand tales about the near-catastrophic breakdown that almost left the “Machinal” theater dark on opening night.

Congratulations on making your Broadway debut with “Machinal.”

Last night was the opening! It was my first Broadway show, and it was an incredible adventure of a night, so I’m still buzzing.

We heard there was a big, er, technical glitch?

There was, yes. The play is set on a revolving turntable of a stage, and the machine under the stage broke right at the beginning of the show. So our director, who’s this unstoppable force, Lyndsey Turner, she came back, she said, “We got to brace up, be tough.” All of the people that built the machine, they were in the audience, they came flying backstage. The stage managers called in other stagehands from other Broadway shows. People came running. … And our director said, “We’re going to go again — we’re going to start over, and we’re going to push the stage.”

Well at least that’s an amazing story for your Broadway debut.

I have a story, and I will never forget it. It was quite an opening night. It’s already a circus back there, but the people who created and built and invented the machine, in dress shoes in dress shirts with their blazer jackets thrown aside, pushing the machine — that was incredible.

At least it happened on opening night, when the audience is all friends and family. They were probably more patient and understanding than your typical New York crowd.

That’s quite true. Somebody did say if there were a night for it to happen, tonight would be the night. The feeling in the air backstage last night was like nothing else in the world. I mean, here you have everybody who’s the best at their profession dealing with this crisis. Just the spirit in the air, it was like: “This is live theater. Welcome to Broadway.” If we didn’t have a show to do, I probably would’ve teared up.

Let’s talk about your character in the show. She isn’t a main character, she doesn’t even have a name, but she has so much to do with propelling the action of the plot.

Yes, yes, absolutely. I fell in love with the role I play in the show — she’s kind of the gateway drug for Rebecca Hall’s character, Helen. When [Helen] wants to cut loose and fall in love and explore a darker side, she calls up my character and we go to a speakeasy and she’s introduced to this whole underworld. … I took up the Charleston to kind of understand the physicality and the flair of the time, and read books and learned things that they said and explored that whole side of the ’20s. It’s so great to be in a rehearsal process, and in a play, where you’re afforded the luxury of time to really build a character and understand a speech pattern and research the time [period].

Your character comes off as a bad girl compared to Helen — but if you consider the entire ethos of the 1920s, she’s really just more like the typical young girl of that time period who wants to drink and wear flapper dresses and have fun.

Absolutely. She kind of would be considered a “bad girl,” but it’s so of that time, that Jazz Era. In comparison to the Helen character, played phenomenally by [Hall], this character is more of a champagne bubble. She’s the dancing, she’s the short skirt, the short hair — she’s all that. [She exemplifies] the freedom women were allowed to experience at the time of raiding and dating, as they say. You go out and dance, and if you dance twice [with someone], that was the dumb thing to do. You had to dance with a different guy every song. There were rules set up like that. That’s the code that was happening at the time, and I feel like she embodies that.

Your character can conform and thrive because she has no problem fitting into one of the roles allowed for women at that time — being a phone operator, a sex object. And that’s juxtaposition to Helen, who feels painfully out of place in her own life.

That’s precisely what the play is. It’s kind of what happens if maybe you’re not quite fitting in with the world, if you see things differently — if you’re artistic or just not quite getting it right. [If society is] so industrious and so strong and so cunning, what does that world do to a person like that? How does it beat down on them and how do they find a way to breathe — or not? How does the machine of the world overtake you?

Well, that seems pretty dark, but there’s also a lot of humor onstage. Has working on the show been a fun process overall?

Yeah, it’s been a blast; it’s been a lot of fun. Rehearsal’s been great. Everything that my character does has been fun, even dealing with the switchboard. We created something called a “hand dance” to figure out how to work that switchboard. I sat in front of that switchboard and cracked it over several days. I was like, “How am I going to get this working?” The director and the assistant director [and I] figured out a hand dance, and we choreographed that. It’s all been done in a tremendous amount of fun.

Did you have previous experience that helped you with character study?

Not necessarily, no. I kind of came into the audition with a little bit of that speech and little of that dialect going. I knew the character was from New York; I got that feeling from her. I knew the play was set in New York in the 1920s. We had a wonderful dialect and voice coach. They kind of very carefully and delicately guide you where you need to go, figure out a voice, figure out a pitch. I felt that this character must be seen and heard everywhere: From her lips to the way she dresses to the way she sounds, she wants to be present. So that was crafted and built. What’s so much fun about doing this is to disguise myself in makeup, in a costume, in a wig, in a different voice, and build this whole other person. It’s what I love most about acting.

What about a comedy background?

My mom is actually one of the founding members of the Groundlings in Los Angeles — the improv comedy place. So I’ve grown up going to see my mom at the Groundlings, taking improv classes. … I prayed a comedy would come along.  So when I got the chance to audition, I dove in, [thinking]: “I will fly out, I will fight for this. I love this character; I love this rhythm and this style. I’m fascinated by the play; let me fight for it.”

I see that your dad also does voice work. Did that help when it came down to mastering the accent and the delivery of the 1920s?

He does, yes. Both my parents are actors, and my dad does tons of voiceovers. He’s done “Transformers,” “Smurfs,” “G.I. Joe,” “The Rugrats.” So for me, growing up, I had the best set of bedtime stories in the world. … And my grandparents were vaudevillians. They traveled across the country in a vaudeville circuit. So my family’s always taught me about theater, and they said, “If you’re going to get into this, you’ve got to study. You have to go to NYU or a theater school. You have to study it, study the classics, where you come from. Learn how to do it right and hopefully have longevity.”

What’s next for Ashley Bell?

The busy actress has three movies releasing in the next few months: “Love & Air Sex,” a raunchy rom-com; “From Above,” a romantic drama; and “Sparks,” which is an adaptation of a noir graphic novel. She’s also an ambassador for Cruelty Free International. Her current passion project is a documentary called “Love and Bananas,” which is in the fundraising process and aims to shed light on the plight of endangered Asian Elephants.


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