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Features NYC Features Published 19 March 2014

Throwing Muses

Human Fruit Bowl, at New York's Baruch Performing Arts Center, explores the complex relationship between artist and muse. Jordan G. Teicher spoke with performer Harmony Stempel and playwright Andrea Kuchlewska about the logistics of nude performance and the show’s collaborative writing process.
Jordan G. Teicher

Photo: Brittany Brett

The minds and lives of artists are often the subject of inquiry, studies of their muses are less common. Human Fruit Bowl stars Harmony Stempel as a nude model who, over the course of a modeling session, alone and naked on stage, explores the story of Renee Monchaty, the muse of French artist Pierre Bonnard whose suicide in the 1920s is the stuff of artistic myth and mystery.

Jordan G. Teicher: The idea for the show actually came from Harmony. When did she pitch the idea to you, Andrea, and how did it evolve from there?

Andrea Kuchlewska: It was May 2010 and Harmony was in Prague at the time acting in the Fringe Festival. She emailed me saying she was thinking about next year’s Fringe and she wanted to bring a solo show to Prague. I had just had a baby at the time so we actually didn’t get to talk about it for three or four months after that. When we started getting together it, all she said was she wanted to do a show inspired by fine art modeling. I knew nothing about art but I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ Eventually, we found where my interests and her interests intersected and ran with them. At one point, she said, ‘Well, there’s this artist called Bonnard.’ I, of course, knew nothing about him, but Harmony told me the story that he had a model who killed herself in a bathtub. I said, ‘Let me do some research.’

Jordan G. Teicher: Tell me about that research process. Was it frustrating reading so deeply into an incident whose facts are so murky?

Andrea Kuchlewska: I was mostly interested in how we tell stories and what stories we tell, and how we’re using “fact” to support the story we want to tell. If I were interested in getting to the bottom of what actually happened, I think I’d have to go to Paris and start looking at newspapers from the 1920s. I don’t even know if there’s any art historian who has done that already.

Jordan G. Teicher: The play is based on some of your experiences, Harmony, as a fine art nude model. How did you get into that?

Harmony Stempel: I had just moved to the city. I got a restaurant job and like most people instantly hated it. I worked there a few months and felt I wasn’t getting anywhere, that I wasn’t meeting anyone. I had done a bit of modeling in college my senior year and it just occurred to me one day that I’d like to model and be in a creative space and meet artists and have a more interesting job.’ I just did a Google search of art schools in Manhattan and the New York Studio School was the first to come up. I called and they said they were looking for people and to come over.

Jordan G. Teicher: Is it different modeling in a theater rather than in a room full of artists?

Harmony Stempel: When I first started doing the play it felt weird and I felt nervous about it because it’s a controlled environment, not like a classroom where you’re there to do a job and everyone’s happy you’re there because they want to draw you. After the first few runs of the play it became very natural though. I haven’t had any experience where anyone’s been unprofessional to me in any way either in the classroom or on the stage.

Jordan G. Teicher: Andrea, you drew some inspiration for the script from Harmony’s personal experiences. How did that work?

Andrea Kuchlewska: It was like I was using Harmony as a research project. The play is fiction and the character is not Harmony and the story is not Harmony’s story, but the research on what happens in a room with artists is drawn from Harmony, the facts about what it’s like to be in a drawing marathon, the facts about getting your position taped and marked, all that came from Harmony.

Jordan G. Teicher: This play’s first production was in Prague Fringe, and it’s had several since then, including in New York, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. What kinds of changes came along the way?

Andrea Kuchlewska: I do small re-writes in between each production. I’ve changed maybe five lines each time, but the structure of the show has remained exactly the same. Though I’ve tried to deepen the arc each time and tried to understand the main character more each time.

Jordan G. Teicher: Harmony, did you find the play was received differently outside of the United States?

Harmony Stempel: In Hong Kong, the nudity thing was more of a question than anywhere else. Before I arrived there, the producer who brought me wasn’t even sure if legally we were allowed to have me naked in a public space. We thought maybe we’d do it in a towel or a leotard, but it turned out to be fine because it was a theater. In Prague and Amsterdam the language differences were more the issue. It was very quiet most of the time for the performances. I couldn’t really tell if people understood some of the jokes, which are very New York-centric.

Jordan G. Teicher: Harmony holds her performances for long stretches of time and doesn’t really move much during the performance. Were you concerned, Andrea, about her ability to keep the audience’s attention?

Andrea Kuchlewska: When I was writing it, I was concerned. I said to myself, ‘What kind of crazy installation performance art thing am I writing?’ Luckily, Harmony would come over and read it every week and I’d be assured that everything was fine. She is riveting. She’s incredibly present and lively and very alive in the text and her poses tell a story through the channel of the actor. It’s just an incredibly active performance even though she’s standing still.

Human Fruit Bowl will be at New York’s Baruch Performing Arts Center from 27th March – 11th April 2014.

 

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