Review Fix chats with theater director Ashley Adelman, who breaks down the thought-provoking production that is “Nellie and the Women of Blackwell” and why it deserves your attention this theater season.
About Nellie and the Women of Blackwell:
The event runs through March 7 at Wildrence, 59 Canal Street between Allen and Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.https://www.wildrence.com/nellie-and-the-women-of-blackwell. This is based on a True Story
In the tradition of Sleep No More, Infinite Variety Productions, dedicated to spotlighting women who have gone unnoticed in history, and Wildrence, a dynamic New York’s storytelling space and immersive design studio collaborate to present a unique and powerful experience for its audience.
Based on Ten Days in the Mad house, Nellie and the Women of Blackwell follows 23-year-old journalist Elizabeth Cochran (whose penname was Nellie Bly) as she goes undercover into one of New York City’s most notorious “insane asylums” in 1887. Bly saw firsthand unlawful and unsanitary living conditions; harsh and brutal treatment by an unfeeling and tyrannical staff; and even discovered that many of the inmates were not insane at all! Immigrants who could not speak enough English or poor souls who fell through the cracks of a flawed and uncaring system were all-but-buried there.
Placed in a cage simply for being an immigrant. Sound familiar?
Infinite Variety has created an experience where the audience (a select number each night) walk with nellie Bly and interact with the inmates – who whisper secrets to them and learn about this horrible chapter in history. Each audience member will essentially be an inmate in the asylum and experience what the women of the Blackwell Asylum endured.
In the spirit of immersive theater, each ticket holder will have a fully unique perspective and relationship with the women of Blackwell. Each performance only allows 16 audience members so expect a very personal experience. All are encouraged to explore the space, either on their own or in groups, and ask the inmates questions to help further Nellie’s quest. Through audience participation and interaction, theatergoers will gain a better understanding of women’s lives in this period of history.
“The play is based on history and based on a true story, but what the play is really about is human connection through generations and moments of time” explains Ashley Adelman, founder of Infinite Variety Productions. “What will our audiences see? Who will they meet? And more importantly, how will they get out?” she continues; “we quickly realized that this was a story that is still necessary to hear today,” she concluded.
Review Fix: What was your inspiration behind this project?
Ashley Adelman: The Smithsonian Magazine wrote an article about stunt reporters. I was in awe of what these women had done. Nellie was the inspiration for the stunt reporters after her. At first I wanted to pay homage to the incredible things she had done. Then I read Ten Days in The Madhouse- her undercover expose of Blackwell Lunatic Asylum. I read about the women she met there and found it wasn’t just Nellie’s story I wanted to tell but all the women she met and wrote about. All the women whose stories and voices never got out of Blackwell.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Adelman: As my pieces are documentary theatre it always starts with the text. I find the primary documents. Then I do research to make sure I understand and am being accurate in how I plan to proceed in telling this part of history. Then the production is created in the rehearsal process. Usually with my pieces the set becomes a part of the play. My last play used 5 blocks that became helicopters, benches, bunkers and more. The sound effects were made with the use of props and the talent of the actors on stage. Nellie was a bit different. The set still changes as the play continues, rooms evolve and the props are used to make audiences feel what the patients themselves felt. However this play I had to rely on technology in the sound effects to compliment the feeling that the audience has truly gone back in time and are in the actual asylum.
Review Fix: What did you learn/are learning about yourself through this process/production?
Adelman: I’ve learned so much about Elizabeth Cochran, aka Nellie Bly. About her bravery and the importance of her work. I’ve also realized we have to pay attention to how we treat those considered “insane.” This term has been used continuously throughout history to take power from some and gain control by others. It’s important to pay attention to what rights are being taken away from others and how it’s being done and why.
I’ve also found myself wondering about how we can help our homeless. It is easy to look the other way when we see someone on the streets. Or like what happened to the women who were brought to Blackwell – commit them. Put away those who society doesn’t know what to do with or those who go against the status quo. However many are dealing with mental illnesses or have developed them from time spent with cold and harsh conditions. I don’t know what the answer is but it definitely isn’t to ignore it.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this for the future?
Adelman: My goal for this piece is to share this story to as many people as I can. To also create an immersive experience at Roosevelt Island at some point or in one of the many abandoned hospitals around the globe as many are still around just abandoned and ignored. Just like those who were once locked inside.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Adelman: IVPs next work is called Displeyst. Displeyst tells the true story of a well-to-do Jewish family, headed by matriarch Margaret Welish. Fleeing Nazi persecution, Margaret took her family from Austria to the Philippines, only to have their life ripped apart again by the invasion of Japan.
Using Margaret’s 1981 diary and oral histories from her daughters, Infinite Variety Productions has created a script that examines what happens when power and corruption breaks apart an entire community. As well as trying to answer the question: what defines a home? What do people do to keep it, take it away or to find it?
These primary documents are used as the script with luggage, fabric and shadow work build the world around these stories.
The show will open at The Kraine Theatre as part of the Estrogenius Festival this spring.