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COCA’s ‘Big Machine’ tells the true story of a toxic workplace — with song and dance

041222_COCA_BigMachine.jpg Big Machine premieres at COCA on April 14, 2022. This photo shows a rehearsal.
Center for Creative Arts
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Actors in "Big Machine," in an early rehearsal, spent months workshopping the piece with director Nancy Bell and writer Colin Healy.

The new musical debuting this week at the Center for Creative Arts grapples with an ugly and important history — the tetraethyl lead poisoning that sickened dozens of workers, and killed five at a Standard Oil plant in 1924 New Jersey.

And if that sounds like an unusual topic for a musical, well, you might want to consider the genre.

Listen to Colin Healy and Nancy Bell on St. Louis on the Air

“If I came to you and said I was going to write a musical about a barber who slits people's throats in order to get his daughter back from an ill-repentant judge, you'd say, ‘That's a terrible idea for a musical,’” observed playwright Colin Healy on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But it's ‘Sweeney Todd.’ The musical art form has been allowing this sort of storytelling forever.”

In Healy’s hands, the real-life story of what happened in Bayway, New Jersey, has become “Big Machine,” a critique of capitalism that just so happens to have rousing song-and-dance numbers — and a sympathetic family at its center.

“It’s always about finding that human element,” Healy said.

Healy workshopped the play for the past year through the COCAwrites program, working alongside director Nancy Bell. Like most COCA shows, it involves young actors (both in middle school and high school) working alongside professional actors.

“It's really a different model of thinking about how you create a show, that involves a lot more people and a greater diversity of people,” Bell explained. “And it's a really beautiful way for young people to learn the craft. They have a safety net around them so they can take big risks.”

041222_KD_colinhealyandnancybell.JPG Playwright Colin Healy and director Nancy Bell
Kayla Drake
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St. Louis Public Radio
Playwright Colin Healy, left, and director Nancy Bell

For Healy, the process of helping to shape the play is essential to understanding theater’s ephemeral nature. The play they’ll put on Thursday is the product of months of labor — but it’s still not finished. Healy believes a play is never finished.

“I think one of the beautiful things is that it teaches these kids at such a young age that theater as an art form is not static,” he said. Of “Big Machine” in its current state, he added, “I think they know this is an elaborate first draft.”

Both Bell and Healy have gotten used to the excitement of shepherding new plays into being (even if, as Healy acknowledged, it remains a frightening high wire act). Both transplants, they see St. Louis as unusually receptive to new plays.

“I often say that theater in St. Louis is St. Louis’ best-kept secret,” said Healy, “but new theater, within theater in St. Louis, is the St. Louis theater scene’s best-kept secret.”

Bell suggested it had to do with the space available to create. “There's a lot going on, and not as many people trying to do it,” she said. “And it's not as competitive. It's more cooperative. And so you have this opportunity to develop your talent.”

Related Event
What: “Big Machine”
When: April 14-16
Where: Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA, 6880 Washington Ave., St. Louis, MO 63130

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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