Immersive Theater Brings Legendary Nellie Bly Back to Life

Remembering a period of history that was downright cruel, especially in regard to women's health -- and the woman who exposed it all.

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Nellie Bly
Kate Szekely in a scene from "Nellie and the Women of Blackwell." Photo: Samantha Szekely.

Genealogy is my hobby. My interest began when I was 10 or 11, and then in full-throttle starting from the age of 12, after the death of my grandfather. Today, with various of the mysteries of the family solved (and still others unsolved), I know a fair amount about my forefathers — sometimes important things about their lives and sometimes more mundane things, like where they lived, particularly in Manhattan in the late 19th century.

It was during this period — 1887, to be exact — that a 23-year-old journalist calling herself Nellie Bly (she was born Elizabeth Cochran) published Ten Days in a Mad-House, an expose of one of NYC’s most notorious insane asylums. More than three decades before American women won universal suffrage, Bly’s investigative skills exposed and revealed the unlawful overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions of Blackwell Asylum, along with the beatings and sexual assaults by asylum staff and, perhaps most alarming of all, the fact that many of the inmates weren’t mentally challenged at all.

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Many of my ancestors lived at the same time Bly, and while I’ll never know what it was like to live then — actually to be the mothers and fathers from whom I am descended — in my imagination I can only wonder what they might have thought of this genuinely audacious and groundbreaking heroine. Nellie and the Women of Blackwell, which runs through March 7 at Wildrence, an experiential performance space and consulting studio, is an innovative channel for that imagination. It is mounted by Infinite Variety Productions, which the CFR wrote about back in 2018 during the run of a documentary play called In Their Footsteps, about the women who served in Vietnam. Then, as now, Infinite Variety’s commitment is to examining women who have gone unnoticed across history — and demanding awareness of women’s roles in historical, current and possible events. (Speaking of the possible, let’s recall that Bly, in an echo of Jules Verne, circumnavigated the globe in 72 days as well.)

Nellie and the Women of Blackwell is an “immersive non-fiction” production that “breaks the barrier between history and present day,” and, in this case, “provides a space for the lives and words of the Blackwell Asylum’s lost women to live on in a purposeful way.” Just 16 audience members are accommodated at each performance.

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Nellie and the Women of Blackwell is written by Ashley Adelman. Performances are set for Thursdays at 7pm, and Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and 9pm. For tickets, click here. And actor Kate Szekely plays Nellie Bly.

And now, 5 questions that Kate Szekely has never been asked: 

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Yes, but where are you in it?” (in regards to creating a character)

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“How do you memorize all those lines?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

One time I was asked if I’d be willing to play an alien in this downtown theater production. The alien would be dressed in a “naked human” suit. But then, at the end of the play, the alien takes the naked suit off and then the actor would just be naked underneath. And then the two naked alien-actors (one of which was the director-writer of the show) would have simulated sex onstage. Oh yeah, and all rehearsals would be at the director’s apartment — in Yonkers. I had a good laugh and sent the email to spam.

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Nellie Bly
Kate Szekely. Photo: Noelle Fair Photography.

Playing Nellie Bly seems tough — there’s so much to live up in terms of the facts of her life as well as her legend. Add that to the fact Nellie and the Women of Blackwell is presented as an “immersive, guided theater experience” with just 16 audience members at a time. How do you ensure that Nellie, who was certainly driven and righteous, isn’t over the top or overly aggressive in your portrayal?

There’s a lot of Nellie in me: her temper (especially in regard to blatant injustice), her commitment to truth, her ambition and her desire to walk the unknown path. She lived and spoke from her heart — even when it got her into trouble. So the ultimate thing the role requires from me is just that: speaking from my own heart. I really try not to push or perform, but just speak. Most of the words in the show are hers anyway, so I let their vibrations resonate within me. The emotion tends to just follow.

What stops the Nellie Bly of 2020 from coming to the fore, from agitating for real social and political change? Or do we, in fact, have plenty of Nellie Blys today and do we not recognize them as such? If so, who are your favorite women journalists today? Why?

I think there are plenty out there today: Bari Weiss, Ana Kasparian and Caitlin Flanagan are the ones that jump out immediately. Like Nellie, they don’t shy away from controversy in their pursuit of getting to the truth of the matter. We are living in a time when there is a lot of thought-policing happening on both poles of the political spectrum, and these reporters aren’t afraid to speak their mind, even if it goes against the tide.

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There are three ghosts at Blackwell Asylum. Who do you imagine they are the ghosts of, and what will finally release them from their purgatory?

One is the ghost of one of the nurses that tortured their patients; another is one of the named women, like Sarah Fishbaum, Anne Neville or Tillie Maynard; and the last is one of the unknown souls that perished, nameless, in that black hole of a place. All of these women were just victims of circumstance. They were in a period of history that was downright cruel, especially in regard to women’s health. The nurses were abusers because they themselves were abused by an oppressive society. And the institutionalized women, known and anonymous alike, were ailing physically, mentally and/or socio-economically and were basically disposed of in Blackwell. I think the only way to liberate them is with compassion. We try to share their stories so that others may empathize with them and their plight, so that their history doesn’t have to repeat itself.