When Laudiceia Calixto and Rita Oliveira step onto the stage of the Abrons Art Center this week they will gain a new kind of visibility, as these professional house-cleaners become actors. They are part of the cast of The Maids’ The Maids a new performance piece by Sister Sylvester, the company behind the recent Dead Behind These Eyes.
Director Kathryn Hamilton is the driving force behind Sister Sylvester with Jeremy M. Barker on board as dramaturg. Hamilton and Barker have worked over the past six-months with a company of professional housecleaners and professional actors to experiment with Jean Genet’s play The Maids and execute something truly unique. Genet’s play is about two sisters who are maids in service to a spoiled, rich woman and the sisters ritualistically enact fantasy scenes between the Madame and her maid. The sisters switch between the roles of mistress and maid and they plot and execute their revenge upon the mistress.
The concept behind The Maids’ The Maids sprung from Hamilton meeting Lau Calixto, a house-cleaner who was working in the apartment building Hamilton was staying in. Calixto is from Brazil and Hamilton’s family lives in Portugal and this Portuguese language connection led to their friendship. One day when Lau was cleaning an insanely decadent apartment in the building she invited Hamilton inside to see it. Hamilton recalls that they sat “down on the sofa and [Lau] says ‘Let’s pretend we live here. Let’s pretend we’re rich.’ And I realized that we were basically acting out Genet’s The Maids. So I got really excited about this. And I was like, ‘Lau do you want to be in a play?’” Lau coaxed two friends, Glenda and Rita, to be in the show as well and as Hamilton notes, “Lau cast half the play. And I cast the other half.”
The Sister Sylvester company has taken Genet’s play as a starting point but has blended in personal stories of the housecleaners. “The play is very much inspired by the power issues that exist in Genet’s play and takes the idea of role-playing as a way of talking about those [issues]. But it’s based on the lives of the housekeepers that we’ve worked with. Everyone will sit down at one point and actually introduce themselves as who they are. And then it goes through a series of scenes based on their stories and experiences,” Barker explains. The personal stories “are about these massive status shifts which happen crossing borders, changing lives, changing countries,” says Hamilton.
Through exercises and discussions about Genet, stories emerged about how the housecleaners knew so much about the people they work for but no one they work for ever takes any notice of them. Hamilton points out “but no one also asks. Lau sings in choir. She’s a student. She’s a really fascinating person to just sit and chat with, with tons of interests. And none of the employers know.”
I sat down with Rita and Lau after one of their long rehearsal days and they bubbled over with excitement to talk about this play and how this experience is changing them. The show is performed in Spanish, Portuguese, and English and the interview was a multilingual experience as well. Translator Emily Wright provided Portuguese translation at times and the women expressed themselves in a mixture of Portuguese and English. What follows is an edited account of that conversation with these fascinating women.
What brought you to New York from Brazil?
Lau: I came here just for working. But I never thought I would stay here. I thought just for a few years maybe.
Rita: I came here to work. I thought I’d be here a little while. But I stayed on.
And how long have you been here?
Lau: 19 years
Rita: 13 years.
What do you in here in New York?
Lau: I am a house cleaner.
Rita: I clean but I also am a babysitter.
Do you have a performing background?
Lau: Not theater. My thing is music. Like my family, everybody was musicians. So I learned music very young. I was going to the music school for a while…for 6 years. I studied classical piano. And then I used to play in church. And in school that’s when I started to do choir. When I come to America I stay in choir but in church. So I’m always in music.
Rita: This is my theatrical debut. My thing has always been dancing. I go to Brazilian bars and places that play music from my country. I don’t stop one minute. People say, “Sit.” I say, “I don’t want to sit. I sit at home. I come [to] dance.” (Note: At this point, Rita starts dancing in her chair). I dance by myself. People’s looking at me. I don’t care. I love that. It’s my day to enjoy.
What did you first think when Kathryn Hamilton proposed doing this play?
Lau: I looked at her like “Oh my god. Theater! That’s not my thing.” But inside, I thought “Yes! That’s great.” It’s something that I always wanted to be involved in. One time I went to audition when I was 19 years-old in Brazil. But when I come in front of the three people–the judge[s]–I couldn’t say one word. Was a disaster. And then I give up.
Now you have a second chance?
Did it take a lot to convince you to do the play?
Lau: No. I accepted right away.
What did you first think when Lau mentioned it to you?
Rita: I didn’t think much about it. I’ll just give it a go. Now since working in the theater here, since I’ve rehearsed, I watch television programs with a different eye. I’m looking at the creativity of them, how they are being conceived, the timing and the delivery of them. To learn as well.
There are pieces of your personal stories involved. Did you think it was important to share that part of your life?
Lau: It’s a great idea because most people have one idea of who we are and why [we] came here. I think most people who come to America like me are similar. The play can show the people who the maids [really are] here.
Rita: [It] shows how our life was back there. It’s is really interesting and cool.
You are still working as house-cleaners as you rehearse this play. It’s a huge time commitment. Do you feel this is a big sacrifice?
Lau: It’s a good sacrifice. I [used to work] seven days a week (a long time ago) because I needed the money. And now, it’s not because I need the money. I feel like at my age, right now I have the opportunity to do something that I really like. That’s why I’m doing everything that I can to come to the rehearsals. I know I have to keep some of my [cleaning] jobs because that’s what I need for me to pay my bills, but I need to do something that I like for me too.
Rita: It’s a huge sense of responsibility; because you make a play together and you need to be united with [the group] otherwise the play’s not going to be very good.
What are you most looking forward to when the show opens?
Lau: My expectation is people [are] really going to like [it]. And they gonna [say,] “Oh my god. That was amazing. Real maids become the actresses!” They are gonna [say,] “Are you sure they were housekeepers? No. I think they were actresses. Kathryn you faked that.” We are excited about that.
Rita: My friends always tease me, because I make a lot of jokes.
Emily Wright: She’s like the comedic genius, isn’t she.
Rita: So they’re all saying to me, “Why the hell would I go to the theater, I get to see you all the time.” But everyone does want to really come and see me. I’m a little bit nervous, a little bit restlessness. I’m even dreaming about it.
There’s a very strong sense of power and powerlessness in the play. How have those feelings come up for you?
Lau: I know [the play is set] in the old times. But actually society stays the same. It’s like the power is in a few hands. We always going to have the power people and the bottom people. You know. I don’t think things [are] going to change.
What has been the hardest part for you?
Lau: I was feeling a little out of my place because I needed to strip one of my friends in the play. I think that was the [hardest] part for me. And I felt ashamed. Now it’s like putting the clothes in the laundry. It’s regular for me now.
Rita: Seeing the other actress take all her clothes off in one of the rehearsals. There’s no way I could do that.
Kathryn Hamilton (overhearing the conversation): Oh Rita.
Rita: When I take my clothes off at home, I make sure all the curtains are pulled!
What is your favorite part of doing the show?
Lau: I think when [Rita] dances and sings.
Rita: It’s a part where I show about my life in Brazil when I worked at a casino and I dance the samba. I really enjoy that part because it’s natural to me. It’s like it’s me who’s up there at that moment. Totally me.
Lau: There are parts where we’re not in that action. But we feel so touched. Like there is a part after [my friend] gets naked, gets stripped, [and it’s] the worst. You don’t know what you really feel–if you feel sad or if you feel anger. I don’t know how the public will feel. It’s very strong part.
What do you think your friends will say when they see it?
Rita: People tell me, “You’re going to be good actress? I don’t think so.” But I [will] show you. “Wow my friend’s [an] actress.” I worked so hard for that. It will be worth it.
Lau: The Kathryn idea about [using] real housekeepers is making all the people want to really see. They’re com[ing out of] curiosity, I know. They want to know who is this crazy director.
You’re going to show them she’s not crazy.
Does doing this make you want to do another play?
Rita: I think so but I’m going wait and see what I feel like when I’m on the stage proper. Then I’ll make up my mind.
Lau: I wish Kathryn comes up with something new. And I’m still [in the middle of] doing this [play]. I feeling sad already when I think about the end [of this play].
Kathryn: No we’re going to do more!
Sister Sylvester’s The Maids’ The Maids runs from 31st October – 8th November, 2014, at the Abrons Arts Center, New York.