Columbus theater company wants to inspire the community to act

Jess Hughes and Sean Ryan Naughton launched the Sound Company with the idea of spurring theatergoers to action on weighty issues ranging from gun violence to the ongoing erosion of women’s rights.

"Machinal"Courtesy the Sound Company

Inspired by the true-life case of convicted murdered Ruth Snyder, Machinal premiered on Broadway in September 1928, with the New York Times writing, “In a hundred years it should still be vital and vivid.”

As the play nears this benchmark, the NYT review increasingly reads as prophetic. Journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic masterpiece has maintained its relevance to a remarkable degree, owing to a focus on the intense societal pressures placed on women to conform.

Actress Jess Hughes, co-founder of the Sound Company, first performed a scene from the play while in college at Ohio State, recalling how readily she identified with the various weights shouldered by its central character.

“I had the scene where she murders the husband, and I just remember her saying that she doesn’t feel heard or seen, and she keeps trying to express herself. And he keeps telling her she’s imagining things, and he’s gaslighting her,” said Hughes, who will revisit the play in a new production from the Sound Company opening at MadLab Theatre on Thursday, May 18. “And I felt this expectation to exist in the world a certain way, as she did: to marry, to have children, to suppress her feelings, to not express her emotions. Obviously, in that scene, there’s this unexpressed rage that ends up exploding out of her, leading to the murder.”

Hughes and Sean Ryan Naughton landed on Machinal while hatching plans for the Sound Company’s 2023 season – their decision informed by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022, ending a right to abortion upheld for decades. In the months since, the public rollback of women’s rights has only intensified, with Republican legislators in Ohio recently approving an August election for a ballot measure that would increase the threshold needed to change the state constitution from a simple majority to 60 percent of voters. The proposed change is widely seen as a way of undercutting an anticipated November ballot initiative that would guarantee abortion rights in the state if passed.

Machinal follows a February production of On the Exhale, about a woman who loses her son in a school shooting, performed in the wake of the violence that unfolded in Uvalde, Texas, where a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in May 2022. 

“We both love theater for theater’s sake, but with this company, we’re using theater as the tool to have the conversation,” Hughes said. “And the conversation is where we actually come together and start creating, using our voices and thinking about what’s possible as a community to respond to these big issues. … For theater to be relevant, I think it needs to be leading these conversations.”

In the discussion that followed one performance of On the Exhale, Jennifer Beard from Ohio State’s College of Public Health asked attendees to envision that the year was 2033 and that gun violence in the United States had decreased by 75 percent. “And then she asked them, ‘How did we get there?’” Hughes said. “And then they started to talk about the different things that might have led to that outcome. And then they all came up with two concrete solutions, and then wrote down one thing they could do upon leaving the theater. … I think it’s becoming important for us to not only ask the audience to be in conversation, but to express something, to create something, to get them out of that role of spectator.”

Following each performance of Machinal, the audience will be invited to participate in a group discussion, led in the first weekend by the Ohio Center for Sex Education and in the second by the Returning Artists Guild, a network of formerly incarcerated artists co-founded by Columbus painter Aimee Wissman.

Hughes and Naughton launched the Sound Company during the pandemic with the idea of confronting these massive societal issues, returning to in-person performances in 2021 with a production of Gruesome Playground Injuries, a play that finds its two central characters unpacking childhood traumas that continue to resonate and shape behaviors decades later. “We also teach theater, and one of the things we noticed in our classrooms after the pandemic hit is that everyone had experienced this traumatic event,” Hughes said of the decision to revisit the 2012 play post-COVID.

Beyond getting audiences to engage with subjects such as trauma, gun violence and the steady erosion of women’s rights, Hughes said the company's productions have also become a way to hold onto at least a degree of hope amid the steady flow of bleak headlines. “It’s a reminder that this doesn’t have to be the nightmare we exist inside of,” she said. 

When Hughes and Naughton discussed the idea of creating a new company in 2020, Hughes said she was initially skeptical of the impact the two could have within the form.

“Theater resonated with us in certain ways, but we couldn’t pinpoint a moment where theater made us do something,” said Hughes, who brainstormed with Naughton on ways the two might chart a different course, beginning with a play centered on the opioid epidemic. “We wanted people who saw that play to vote differently, to have more empathy for people in the community with substance-abuse disorders. We wanted it to lead to action. And it was really from that experience that we were inspired to think about what our company might look like into the future.”

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