The notes of an unexpected duet fill the studio. Ku-eum, literally ‘mouth-sound’, imitating traditional Korean instruments,and ‘old style’ Gaelic Sean Nos furl about each other like rising smoke. It is an astonishing aural collision, a resonant meeting of two diverse vocal traditions, and part of an international encounter initiated by theatre director Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group.
Playing ‘The Maids’ is a new performance created between languages, cultures, and art forms; a collaboration between nine multidisciplinary artists, three performance companies (Llanarth Group – Wales, Gaitkrash – Ireland, Theatre P’yut – Korea), and four languages – Korean, Gaelic, Mandarin, and our shared language, English. I am one of the nine co-creators in this complex, culturally diverse production.
Although it name-checks the classic modernist text, playing ‘The Maids’ is not a production of Jean Genet’s play. Rather, it is an intercultural exploration of the themes, relationships, and power dynamics offered in the source text from the different social, cultural, aesthetic, and artistic perspectives of the creative team.
First produced in 1947, Genet’s The Maids was reputedly inspired by the real life story of the Papin sisters, French maids who killed their abusive mistress and her daughter in 1933, claimed by the Communist Party as victims of both labour and gender oppression. Genet’s text seethes with working class discontent, and created a scandal when first produced with its dark portrayal of sibling dynamics, gender constructions, and ritual.
Playing ‘The Maids’ moves beyond Genet’s meta-theatrical text to create a layered and textured set of dynamics between ‘Madame’ (played by Chinese-Singaporean Jing Okorn-Kuo), and two sets of Irish and Korean sister-maids. Performatively, it interrogates who creates and controls whom using a broad palette of styles and approaches – improvisation, physical scores, choreography, a live soundscape, satirical observation, and economic analysis.Sibling rivalry and the related intense love/hate dynamics are universal, and in this time of European austerity, and what the media has termed ‘the Asian boom’, the source text’s themes of wealth, privilege, and service have an obvious resonance for us all.
‘A lot of people are suffering in Ireland through no fault of their own, but because of a corrupt banking system,’ Bernie Cronin of Gaitkrash says. ‘I think people feel very helpless and stuck – and Genet’s maids are stuck… They’re marked by their lack of agency; they’re marked by their lack of means. I think in this aspect, what we’re exploring has a very real relevance.’
What follows is my reflection on the process as production dramaturg, with end-notes by my fellow company member Adrian Curtin.
An International intercultural interaction.
The prefix ‘inter’ refers to the space between, where there is the potential for things to happen – good or bad. In my experience as a playwright and dramaturg, this space between has never before been so populated, and alive.
I have many metaphors for the job I do, and these shift according to project, company dynamics, and the actual tasks at hand, which are dependent on where we are in the process. I sometimes think of a dramaturg as the oil that swirls around all parts of the mechanism/body/engine, ensuring it moves in synchronicity and harmony (even if that ‘harmony’ involves deliberate counterpoint) and at its peak performance. A dramaturg ‘tunes’ the engine/body, ensuring all aspects are working together and doing the job in hand, moving in the same direction, with the same destination, with a consistency and ‘logic’ (even if that is illogical) flowing throughout.
Playing ‘The Maids’ has been a constant negotiation of a potentially contested territory – the areas of overlap between the work of the director, dramaturg, choreographer, and devising performers, what Eugenio Barba called ‘the dramaturgy of the actor’, what I consider the task in the moment. In other productions, roles have been clear and the lines agreed and drawn – for example, I work as a playwright with a director, or the singular dramaturg with director and performers. In this fascinating collaboration roles have deliberately been as porous and overlapping as the creative process. All nine company members have taken equal part in proposing material, leading exploratory material-generating workshops responding to the source from our particular cultural and artistic perspectives, and creating structures (or scenes/beats). Although I am the ‘official’ playwright in the company, the director (Phillip Zarrilli), and cellist (Adrian Curtin) have also written dialogue, with additional text contributed by all performers.
As an international ensemble we have been aware of and critical of the oversimplification of intercultural performance as presented in the Patrice Pavis model of the hour glass: source and ‘target’ culture – as if the process was the simple binary of material pouring from one receptacle into another.
Rather, our studio process has been closer to the one described by Tian in his book, The Poetics of Difference and Displacement. The place in between is a site of negotiation. Notions, forms, and assumptions normative or usual to one culture or individual will be disturbed, challenged, or displaced by encounter with difference, and often replaced with something else. In our studio space we have been interrogating this space between, navigating complex territory.
It could have been fraught were it not for the mutual trust and respect between all collaborators, and the firm foundation created by previous collaborations between the various artists involved, such as the five female performers having trained (at times extensively) with Phillip Zarrilli in his psychophysical approach to acting, using Asian martial arts and yoga. These experiences have provided a common ground in approach and theatre language for the ensemble, enabling what at times feels like magical shortcuts in process for those outside this shared practice. It is a pointed lesson in efficiency and quality-management in times of funding cuts and squeezed rehearsal processes. For example, although the five women performers have never worked together before in this conjunction, sharing Zarrilli’s psychophysical approach to acting serves as ‘a grounding, a mode of being, of operation we all share,’ Sunhee Kim of Theatre P’yut explains.
Gaitkrash is a Cork-based company comprising of Bernie Cronin, Regina Crowley, and sound artist Mick O’Shea. The company are interested in the ‘liveness’ of performance, and new forms of theatre and sound. Together with cellist Adrian Curtin, Mick provides an improvised sound environment for the devising performers to respond to, exploring servitude and privilege. This creates another strata for the layered performance score, another framing device that ‘holds’ the action, yet as Mick and Adrian are in dialogue with the performers in the moment, extraordinary flexibility is possible, and space for something else to emerge.
Such dialoguing and encounter allows unexpected moments of resonance and complicity, which we then superimpose, juxtapose, or bind together dramaturgically.
Much of my time has been spent documenting and keeping track of the raw materials generated in workshops and improvisations. Structures ‘offer’ themselves into sequences and others need to be sliced into or interrupted, to create counterpoint and dissonance.
In the studio it is often impossible to say whether the work is ‘instinctive’ or ‘intuitive’, or whether knowledge and experience has become so ingrained as to become ‘second nature’ – and so options and opportunities ‘reveal’ themselves or ‘emerge’ rather than being consciously assembled. It is part of the pleasure and apparent ‘magic’ of being together in the moment: ‘something happening all by itself’.
An Example of Practice:
Jeungsook Yoo performs an adapted form of Salpuri, a shamanistic dance for the release of Han – a uniquely Korean concept and national cultural trait which has no English language equivalent. Han is collective and personal, a deep sorrow or grief connected to suffering which finds expression, explicitly or implicitly, in every aspect of Korean life and culture. Sunhee Kim describes Han as ‘a lens through which we see things.’
As Jeungsook Yoo moves through the dance, we plait in Sean Nos: Regina Crowley sings a Gaelic song dating back to the Penal Laws in Ireland in the seventeenth century, when the colonizing British passed laws prohibiting Catholics from buying land, owning property, entering certain professions, and practicing their faith. All Irish language, culture, music, and education was banned, leading to the Irish being impoverished, landless, and leaderless by the time of the 1841 census.
Suddenly through our interweaving in this space between, Sal Puri from Korean Shamanic practices finds its echo in Sean Nos – solo Irish vocal traditions whose roots are in the oppressive period of imperialist rule – connecting with the ‘fermented grudge’ of Han, in Jeungsook Yoo’s description of this particular Korean sentiment. Sunhee Kim completes the moment with Ku-eum, the ‘mouth-sound’ mingling and making counterpoint with the lamentation of the traditional Gaelic song. ‘Madame’ watches, as Bernie Cronin in her maid’s outfit kneels, her lips submissively smiling, but dissent and rage blazing in her eyes.
These ways of seeing and being can be shared and explored collectively in this space between, not through the appropriation or dilution of cultural form, but from each artist offering cultural, aesthetic, or artistic perspectives as resonance or counterpoint. Something shifts and is changed by this encounter, and collectively, without taking from the other, or insisting on one culture’s dominance, something else emerges – a poetics of difference, a moment of complicite.
Some thoughts on playing ‘the maids’
One of the fascinating aspects of this exercise in collective creation is the way in which the piece has taken shape. I use the phrase ‘has taken shape’ deliberately. It is not quite the same thing as ‘we have shaped the piece’. It’s a subtle semantic and grammatical distinction.
Maybe I’m being silly. We have shaped the piece, obviously, and we continue to do so (having a dramaturg embedded in the process has been invaluable), but in a way it feels like the piece has taken shape without our complete or conscious understanding. We’ve proceeded intuitively. We’ve made something, and now we’re trying to figure out what we have made, what it might mean, and how we might improve it. I’m reminded of one of Goat Island’s sayings: we have discovered a performance by making it. Effect, cause. Creation, retrospective understanding.
So what have we (un)knowingly made? I notice that we tend to call it a ‘piece’ and not a ‘play’.
It’s certainly not a ‘well-made play’ in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. There’s no plot or narrative as such. It isn’t linear. There’s dramatic tension, but it’s not shaped in a conventional fashion. There’s a scenario. There are characters, but they aren’t stable characters. There are various modes of presentation.
Genet’s The Maids plays with a variety of scenarios, rehearsing action, and moves towards a violent conclusion. playing ‘the maids’ inhabits stasis for a lot of the time, like symbolist theatre (silence, stillness, waiting, inaction, whispers, listening, apprehending), though it resembles expressionist theatre too (phantasms, ciphers, chiaroscuro, unconscious desires, ecstatic self-abandonment). Things are perpetually put into potential, or actual, flux. It does not move toward violence but instead moves in on itself, both literally and figuratively. The inaction is not resolved (shades of absurdism?); rather, it’s deepened, and what appears to be an intractable status quo, a permanently settled hierarchy, is revealed as mutual entanglement, a much less orderly state of affairs. Genet’s play rehearses and performs role reversal. One of the maids might ‘become’ Madame, taking her place, but that will not alter the system of power. The final scene of playing ‘the maids’ presents a more complex, and arguably more disturbing, arrangement of human and non-human (or inhuman?) subjects. It replaces structure with anti-structure (a kind of choreomania, or dancing plague) and suggests that personal agency, which is perhaps ever only illusory, has been put into perpetual motion and free flow.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats’ articulation of modern chaos and barbarism is almost a hundred years old. Thinking about it in relation to the final scene of playing ‘the maids’, which one might read as an oblique commentary on capital in the twenty-first century, are we still “turning and turning in the widening gyre”?
Playing ‘The Maids’ premieres at Chapter Arts Centre on 19th February and then tours Wales.