Tag Archives: Theatre P’Yut

Adrian Curtin: Recomposing Genet: Analysing the Musicality of ‘playing The Maids’

Playing The Maids

In 2014/15 I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Gaitkrash, Theatre P’Yut, the Llanarth Group and independent artists Jing Okorn Kuo and Adrian Curtin on playing ‘The Maids’, a response to Genet’s Modernist play. Our process was fully documented on this blog, and my co-creators have been reflecting on our process since, publishing articles in various journals and on-line platforms. The following is the opening to a fascinating essay by cellist and co-creator Adrian Curtin, with a link to the full text, below.

With thanks to Adrian and Contemporary Theatre Review/Taylor and Francis Online. 

Recomposing Genet: Analysing the Musicality of ‘playing The Maids’

by Adrian Curtin

Track 01: Prelude

In 2012 Deutsche Grammophon released an album entitled Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Max Richter, Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, André de Ridder, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, Daniel Hope. Part of their ‘ReComposed’ series, which includes electronic remixes of classical recordings, this album features a ‘recomposition’ of Vivaldi’s score rather than a remix of a prior recording of the work. Richter explains:

I wanted to make the piece because I loved the Vivaldi. So it was my way of having a conversation with Vivaldi. I decided to rewrite the score on a note level, which meant re-recording it with an orchestra. [That] let me […] get inside it and […] start to work with the alchemy of the material itself, and […] gave me much more scope in terms of what I could do with it. I […] went through [Vivaldi’s score], picking my favourite bits and kind of ‘turning those up’ and making new objects out of those. It was […] like a sculptor having fantastic raw material and just putting it together in a way which kind of pleased me.

he Four Seasons, which has become depressingly familiar through tinny reproductions heard on the telephone, in shopping malls, and on elevators and airplanes, gets a new lease of life courtesy of Richter’s recomposition. Richter abstracts elements from Vivaldi’s concertos (about 25 per cent, in his estimation) and gives them a new spin, looping and collaging fragments, creating new textures, recasting the patterns of baroque music as electronica-inflected post-minimalism. Richter’s version provides an uncanny listening experience. It sounds both familiar and unfamiliar; the composer deliberately subverts expectations in places. The effect is disconcerting, but intriguing – rather like overhearing a delightfully skewed mental rendition of Vivaldi’s iconic work.

Musical recomposition is not new. As Joseph N. Straus observes: ‘[t]he desire to recompose the works of one’s predecessors seems to be almost as old as Western music itself’. Straus argues that twentieth-century composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern were prompted to recompose the work of earlier composers as a result of ‘anxiety of influence’ (Harold Bloom’s famous phrase). ‘In their recompositions’, Straus writes, ‘[these twentieth-century composers] reinterpreted the past in order to avoid being crushed by it. They attempted to neutralize significant or characteristic works of the past by imposing upon them a new, distinctively twentieth-century musical structure’. Richter’s statements about his recomposition of The Four Seasons suggest that he was motivated, not by a struggle for artistic autonomy, but by a desire to enter into dialogue with Vivaldi and create something that would complement this canonical work and allow it to be heard differently.

It is commonplace for playwrights and theatre-makers to adapt existing dramatic material and present it in an altered, updated form. This can involve deliberate subversion of the source material. For instance, Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s score is suggestive of contemporary ‘Regie’ approaches to theatre and opera, as undertaken in continental Europe. Regie ‘plays’ with the text in an often overt, directorially provocative manner. It can lead to the ‘recomposition’ of a text for performance.  To my knowledge, the term ‘recomposing’ has not been used to refer to the creation of new theatre that directly draws on an acknowledged ‘primary’ source (i.e. an existing play). Yet, it is an apt term to use, I suggest, when discussing work that borrows from the dramatic canon but eschews the conventions of dramatic theatre in favour of alternative ‘compositional’ methods. Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner have proposed the term ‘composed theatre’ for work that, in Roesner’s words, ‘[brings] the musical notion of composing to the theatrical aspects of performing and staging’. This aligns with ‘recent developments towards postdramatic forms that de-emphasise text, narrative, and fictional characters, seeking alternative dramaturgies (visual, spatial, temporal, musical), and focusing on the sonic and visual materialities of the stage and the performativity of their material components’. Composed theatre does not simply refer to the use of music in theatre; rather, it is a way of conceptualising theatre made using compositional strategies and techniques that are ‘typical of musical composition’. Recomposed theatre, I propose, may denote theatre that explicitly reworks pre-existing source material from theatre history in a musically compositional manner. The term provides a new way of thinking about adaptation.

An example of recomposed theatre is playing ‘the maids’, a co-created piece made by an international ensemble of seven artists working with Kaite O’Reilly (dramaturg) and Phillip Zarrilli (director) that premiered at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in February 2015. playing ‘the maids’ previewed at the Granary Theatre in Cork, Ireland as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival on 20–21 June 2014. It was performed at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on 19–21 and 27–28 February 2015, in Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon on 26 February 2015, and at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 6 March 2015. A 14-minute promotional video is available here. 

Three theatre companies collaborated on this project: The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash Theatre Company (Republic of Ireland), and Theatre P’yut (South Korea). Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (from Singapore) and I (also from Ireland) worked with these companies as independent artists (Okorn-Kuo as an actor/devisor, I as a cellist/devisor). As the title suggests, playing ‘the maids’ relates to Jean Genet’s classic drama Les Bonnes (The Maids, 1947). However, it was not a production of that play. This was stated in the programme. There have, of course, been many experimental stagings of Genet’s texts. For an account of key productions of The Maids, see David Bradby and Clare Finburgh, Jean Genet (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012). Rather, it used Genet’s text as creative inspiration, focusing on its character relationships and power dynamics as part of an oblique investigation of modern servitude, wealth-as-privilege, cultural notions of guilt and oppression, phantasms, and the politics of intimacy. It took themes from Genet’s play and recomposed them via a montage of newly written, found, and adapted text (primarily English-language, with some Mandarin, Korean, and Irish), psychophysical scores, choreography, and sound compositions that Mick O’Shea (a sound artist) and I performed onstage. The production featured two sets of maids, one Irish (performed by Bernadette Cronin and Regina Crowley) and one Korean (performed by Sunhee Kim and Jeungsook Yoo). Okorn-Kuo played a Chinese ‘madame. I will refer to Okorn-Kuo’s character as ‘madame’ rather than ‘Madame’ to differentiate her from Genet’s creation. The idea of using lower-case spelling for this purpose is Zarrilli’s. Similar to Richter’s recomposed Four Seasons, playing ‘the maids’ appropriated a canonical work for the artists’ own purposes, mining the source-text for raw material, re-contextualising it, and playing it anew.

In this article I will outline how playing ‘the maids’ functioned as a stage composition, and more precisely as recomposed theatre, by analysing its musicality. I will consider the sonic/musical components of playing ‘the maids’ as well as musically inflected aspects such as its dramaturgy and performance style. In this, I follow Roesner’s lead in treating musicality as a ‘perceptive quality that goes beyond the aural sphere’ to attend to ‘musical qualities or relationships of non-auditory events, such as silent movement, gesture, or even colour schemes’. David Roesner, Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making(Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 14. Analysing playing ‘the maids’ using this theoretical lens illuminates various aspects of contemporary theatre-making and demonstrates the significance of their inter-operation here. These aspects include the creative re-use of canonical source material, international collaboration, intercultural dramaturgy, musicality as process and paradigm, the continuing relevance of Genet’s work, and the vibrant legacy of theatrical modernism. My analysis of playing ‘the maids’as an example of ‘recomposed theatre’ is not meant to foreclose other ways of conceiving it. I primarily situate the piece in relation to western concepts and cultural traditions because of my background and knowledge specialism. I recognise that the piece might be interpreted outside the context of modernism, for instance. My collaborators Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim have co-authored their own scholarly account of this piece. See Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim, ‘The Actor’s Process of Negotiating Difference and Particularity in Intercultural Theatre Practice’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7.3 (2016), 417–37. I develop these motifs in the following ‘tracks’.

The rest of Adrian Curtin’s essay can be accessed here.

 

playing ‘The Maids’ video – Wales, Ireland, South Korea, Singapore, Austria….

Earlier this year I was dramaturg and co-creator of an intensely exciting intercultural production between The Llanarth Group (Wales), Theatre P’Yut (Korea) and Gaitkrash (Ireland): playing ‘The Maids’. Documented elsewhere on this blog, we responded to issues in Genet’s ‘The Maids’ in the contemporary global context of austerity and boom.

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Whittaker of Hide Productions documented several performances, and I’m really thrilled to be able to post the link for a stunning film he has made of the work.

You can see the work here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing the Maids: Austerity, Inequality and the Tyranny of Glamour: Wales Arts Review

In the week that the excellent Wales Arts Review relaunches with an improved website and more in-depth analysis, I’m delighted to see my last production, ‘playing The Maids’, an intercultural, international collaboration with Theatre P’yut (Korea). Gaitkrash (Ireland) and The Llanarth Group (Wales) is prominently featured. At a time when theatre reviewers of national newspapers are no longer supported to go outside the capital to see work, initiatives like Wales Arts Review become even more the life blood of cultural engagement and analysis. What is particularly gratifying is the joy with which the talented writers of Wales Arts Review undertake this serious task. It is a pleasure and relief to have the journal back and I highly recommend it, whether you are based in Wales or not. You can find cultural commentary, arts coverage, reviews, commissioned new fiction and a whole lot more at http://www.walesartsreview.org  Subscribe. Remarkably, it’s free, and feels like a gift dropping into your email in-box.

What follows is the insightful and informed essay by Phil Morris. The full copy, with images, can be viewed at: http://www.walesartsreview.org/playing-the-maids/

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT

PLAYING ‘THE MAIDS’: AUSTERITY, INEQUALITY AND THE TYRANNY OF GLAMOUR by Phil Morris for Wales Arts Review

When theatre occasionally wriggles free from the straight-jacket of linear narrative there is, perhaps, no more effective art-form for interrogating the contingencies and potentialities that surround a single moment of space-time. In such a moment, charged with the twin forces of past and future, it is possible to feel the weight of history upon the present while, simultaneously, being able to intuit the profound consequences of events that are still in flux. The considerable achievement of playing ‘the maids’ – a dazzling intercultural collaboration from the Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland) and Theatre P’yut (Korea) – is that our contemporary moment of global economic crisis is explored, with great clarity, purpose and theatrical power, from the multi-perspectival viewpoint of nine creative collaborators from four countries, working in four different languages and from a variety of theatrical and musical traditions. The intellectual rigour of the piece is impressive, in particular its meta-theatrical treatment of Jean Genet’s modernist masterpiece The Maids, but crucially at the heart of the piece is the stark reality that the product of economic and gender inequality is only human suffering, rage and despair.

The choice of The Maids as source material for a piece about inequality seemed particularly apposite for the creative team, as cellist Adrian Curtin – who provided the musical accompaniment and vocalised stage directions in performance – explains: ‘In Genet’s play, servitude is toxic and corrosive; it ensnares all involved and is perpetually dynamic.’ The mutual entanglement of mistress and servant in a dynamic of power infuses Genet’s work with a disturbing atmosphere of menace, eroticism and exploitation, which remain relevant to modern audiences. Curtin adds, ‘Where is power located? What guises does it take? What are its effects? Genet’s text provided an excellent framework with which to explore these questions’. However, the globalisation of the world economy in the past thirty years, and in particular the ‘rise’ of the Asian economies; coupled with decades of feminist and post-feminist thought, have complicated the question of economic and gender inequality beyond the rigidly class-based politics of Genet’s play. Director Phillip Zarrilli says: ‘[W]hen we initiated our collaborative process, we agreed to use Genet’s play as a ‘foil’ – a beginning point for responding in new ways to the powerful issues that underlie the play’. The result is a performance piece – it resists simple definition as a play – that responds to the complexities and nuances of modern globalised capitalism and the legacies of imperialism.

This collective decision to use The Maids as an inspirational source, rather than as a primary text that the production might serve, was not only important in terms of liberating the nine creative collaborators to explore beyond Genet’s analysis of power, it also meant that a fully intercultural collaboration between them was made possible. The aspirations of multiculturalism are laudable and desirable with regard to militating racial discrimination and encouraging religious tolerance, but in practice it too often works to eradicate genuine cultural differences in pursuit of its aims of social integration or assimilation. Interculturalism is concerned with dialogue and exchange, it recognises and insists on difference but does not recognise the dominance of one culture over another. In Cultivating Humanity Martha Nussbaum observes that interculturalism recognises ‘common human needs across cultures and of dissonance and critical dialogue within cultures’. With the intention of creating a performance piece that would question, criticise and satirise the power interests of global capital, neo-imperialism and the super-rich oligarchs of East-Asian economies, the imperative of finding some ground on which an intercultural dramaturgical dialogue could take place was clear to all involved in playing ‘the maids’. Genet’s play was therefore situated as a meeting point at which each creative collaborator could engage as theatre artists, all incorporating their own cultural-specific responses to the source play within the process of play-making.

Writing in Exeunt, Irish-born Wales-based playwright, Kaite O’Reilly, describes how intercultural dramaturgy makes particular demands of its collaborative creative partners, in that the customary defined roles of ‘director’, ‘writer’ and ‘performer’ become somewhat opaque, as each member of the company is required to introduce material of some kind toward the development of the piece.

‘In other productions, roles have been clear and the lines agreed and drawn … 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.’

Allowing typically prescribed creative roles to become ‘porous and overlapping’ can liberate and empower individual performers to coalesce as a richly-textured ensemble, equally, it can also threaten unnecessary confusion and chaos in the rehearsal room. It is therefore essential that working relationships of deep mutual trust be established when creating work in the open and inclusive manner described above. Happily, playing ‘the maids’ benefitted from what O’Reilly describes as ‘the firm foundation created by previous collaborations between the various artists involved.’ Crucially, Zarrilli has worked for a number of years with all five actors involved in the project, who have each received training in the director’s psychophysical training.

The psychophysical process has been developed by Zarrilli from the mid-seventies, with the purpose of preparing and awakening the ‘bodymind’ of the actor. It incorporates physical, mental and spiritual exercises drawn from Chinese taiquiquan, yoga, and the Indian martial art Kalaripayattu. It must be stressed that Zarrilli’s techniques are not designed to produce a specific movement-centred style of performance, nor does it reject the ideas of Western theorists including Stanislavski; rather it would be more accurate to characterise psychophysical training as a pre-performative approach that enables actors to become more aware of their energy, and, as a result, more capable of deploying it effectively in performance. It is also a means of sharpening the actor’s mental focus. Jeungsook Yoo, who plays one of the maids, Claire, values the approach as a means of delving ‘into wider possibilities of their bodymind and acting beyond the conventional mode of actor training and mainstream acting style where words, narrative and psychological character approach occupy the central position.’

The fruits of Zarrilli’s methodology are clear to see (and hear) in playing ‘the maids’ – it has been a long time since this critic has observed a cast that is so evidently and intensely listening to each other. They make the act of listening palpable, and imbue the performance space with a concentrated energy that is utterly riveting, especially during moments of silence and stillness. Given the nature of intercultural exchange, it is of critical importance that each onstage performer fully commits to each act of speech and of listening, so that surprising and provocative relationships between different cultural traditions might emerge and engage meaningfully with each other. A good example of such a relationship developing in performance comes as Jeungsook Yoo performs a dance called Salpuri. The dance derives from Korean Shamanistic tradition and it is purportedly meant to release Han, which roughly translates to English as an expression of deep collective or personal suffering. The dance is accompanied by Irish actor Regina Crowley, who sings a song of lament, in Gaelic, which references that painful time in Irish history when its indigenous language and culture was banned by the occupying British Empire. Of course, Salpuri and Irish folk songs are highly individual products of separate historical processes that are unique to Korean and Irish culture, and are therefore not necessarily expressions of the same thing. Yet when they are juxtaposed next to each other in performance certain resonances are made available to an audience, as respective national memories of imperial oppression, famine and war are communicated to offer tantalising new meanings.

Complex cultural inter-relationships find witty expression during what is perhaps the most entertaining passage of playing ‘the maids’, when Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo, playing Madame, sings a pop song in mandarin. The Singaporean actor performs this high-camp number with gestures that quote from the performative traditions of Beijing Opera and Chinese soap operas. At the same time, the two Korean actors dance Gangnam style while their Irish counterparts do a jig. In counterpoint to the Chinese music Adrian Curtin starts to riff on the theme tune of popular sitcom Father Ted on the cello. Each of the performers appears to delight in sending-up the clichés and stereotypes of their own cultures. The effect is to balance the more challenging explorations of dominance and exploitation explored elsewhere in the production.

The nine collaborators who devised playing ‘the maids’ create a richly textured and multi-layered examination of global capitalism at a pivotal moment in history. They do so by realising a multi-perspectival vision that is of particular interest because it reflects the experiences of so called smaller nations, from which they each originate. It is exciting to find that Wales, as the host of this stimulating collaboration, is making a timely contribution to the global discourse on money and power.

It is also worth noting that playing ‘the maids’ examines gender inequality as poignantly as it does economic inequality. This quality is enhanced by the presence of five female actors in the cast, who bring their respective histories as women to the piece. As Jeungsook Yoo explains, there exists a ‘Korean obsession with ideal beauty’ that has fuelled a ‘boom of the plastic surgery and cosmetics industry’ in the country, which ‘resonated with the maids’ aspiration towards Madame’s beauty and wealth’. Both Korean actors satirise this yearning fascination with a highly-westernised concept of femininity in one short devastating scene that epitomises the tyranny of glamour.

Whereas, near the end of the play, Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo as Madame, immaculately dressed and poised, embodies the glamour of tyranny as she pronounces: ‘While in Hong Kong, or Singapore being served canapés and champagne by white-gloved waiters in white and gold uniforms, have you ever selected your next London apartment just for the view along the Thames?’ It is in moments like these, contrasting the vast wealth that is accumulating within narrow sections of the Asian economies with the new paradigm of austerity that is plaguing the West, that you can sense just how the tectonic plates of the world economy have discernibly (and possibly irrevocably) shifted.

Another source material for playing ‘the maids’ is Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century. The book’s central thesis is that wealth is increasing becoming concentrated in the hands of tiny moneyed elites as the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic global trends in economic growth. The resulting unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability, what Piketty calls the ‘endless inegailitarian cycle’.

Piketty’s phrase inspires the final image of playing ‘the maids’ that sees the entire cast running round in circles, holding aloft a puppet effigy of Madame, which represents their hopeless lack of agency in a world in which finance has become a self-feeding malignant force that devours the future. They spiral into complete darkness – the clatter of their shoes beating an insistent rhythm.

The image disturbs and saddens, as it should, but the creative ambition and intercultural reach of this extraordinary company provides sufficient inspiration to offer some consoling light.

playing ‘the maids’ is a collaboration between nine multi-disciplinary artists:

Director: Phillip Zarrilli

Dramaturg: Kaite O’Reilly

Cellist: Adrian Curtin

Sound: Mick O’Shea

Actors: Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo, Jeungsook Yoo, Sunhee Kim. Bernadette Cronin, Regina Crowley

(c) Phil Morris. Wales Arts Review.

‘Stunning..’ 5 Star Review for ‘playing The Maids’

 

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, 'playing The Maids'

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, ‘playing The Maids’

The Public Reviews

Reviewer: Denis Lennon

http://www.thepublicreviews.com/playing-the-maids-chapter-arts-centre-cardiff/


If you are looking for a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids when you come to Chapter to watch Playing ‘The Maids’ you will find something else entirely, and may not get what you came for. What you will get, however, is a performance that engages and interrogates the notions of servitude within Genet’s world – a world where two sister maids play out fantasies to kill their Madame. For an audience, this production raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. It poses a challenge for the audience to scrutinise the power dynamics present within the 2015 zeitgeist. This is a refreshing break from the patronising didacticism we are all too often privy to in theatre today.
With this intercultural collaboration between the Irish Gaitkrash Company, the Korean Theatre P’yut and Wales based Llanarth Group, something of rare complexity, beauty and conviction has been created under the guidance of director Phillip Zarrilli and dramaturge Kaite O’Reilly.
“You look at me as if I am moving, it’s not me moving, I am being moved.”
The piece situates itself in a metatheatrical limbo: one minute we have one of Genet’s maids in front of us onstage, the next the same actor speaks her own name as stated very clearly in the programme on our laps. These transitions, from one reality to another, are not always obvious, leaving the audience in a constant state of questioning who exactly they are looking at, at any one moment. The way the company play with this ambiguity is inspired and had me (at times, literally) on the edge of my seat and still has me questioning the power dynamics present within the piece and, now, wider society.
All performers, including the musicians, in this production show a seamless cohesion with one another which creates an atmosphere and necessary moments of tension so palpable that the audience on the night held tightly onto any tickles in their throats to the end.
Apart from this wonderful production’s existential qualities, it serves the audience with an aesthetic feast from the belly-butterfly inducing crescendos created by cellist Adrian Curtin and sound artist Mick O’Shea, to the hilariously jarring Chinese night club karaoke of the Madame (Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo).
All this is interwoven by, sometimes subtle, humour throughout, for example when we hear the Irish sisters (Bernadette Cronin & Regina Crowley) threaten each other with a tirade of violent imagery, whilst always remaining sisterly or when the Korean sisters (Jeungsook Yoo & Sunhee Kim) display their fascination with the Madame’s beauty products with a hilarious, but poignant, childishness. These performances are all stunning.
If there is anything amiss in this performance, so much is the level of engagement that I did not notice it. Even the times I started to question any particular choice, such as the use of a distorted microphone to read stage directions, these choices were always justified later –it turns out the distortion of the voice serves a wonderful disembodied quality necessary for the metatheatricality of the piece.
This performance is something that will stay with me for some time and I urge you to see.

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Thurs-Sat 19-21 February and Friday-Saturday 27-28 February, all at 8pm

02920 304400 / www.chapter.org

 

Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon

Thursday 26 February at 8pm

01874 611622 / www.brycheiniog.co.uk

 

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Friday 6 March at 7.30pm

01970 623232 / www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk

Intercultural Dramaturgy – playing The Maids

Playing The Maids

What follows is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Exeunt magazine on Intercultural Dramaturgy. For the full article, including reflections from Adrian Curtin, please go to: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

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.

For the full article, please go to http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

Turning and turning in the widening gyre – Adrian Curtin on ‘playing The Maids’

Adrian Curtin, co-creator of ‘playing The Maids’ with The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland), Theatre P’Yut (Korea), and Jing Okorn-Kuo (Singapore/Austria)  reflects on the final part of our collaborative process. What follows are his thoughts on process, form, and dramaturgy:

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT

‪One of the fascinating things about this exercise in collective creation is the way 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 it’s an illusion. 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 how we might improve upon it. And I, for one, am wondering about what it is that we have made, and what it might mean. I’m reminded of one of Goat Island Performance Company’s maxims: we have discovered a performance by making it. Effect, cause. Creation, retrospective understanding.

So what is this thing we have (un)knowingly made? I notice that we tend to call it a ‘piece’, 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 (escalation, conflict, resolution or schism). There’s a scenario. There are characters, but they’re not 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, gestures, 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 (in)action 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 a much less orderly state of affairs–mutual entanglement and complicity. 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 altogether more disturbing, arrangement of subjects. It replaces structure with anti-structure (choreomania?) and suggests that personal agency is a whirligig, a canard.

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 situational chaos and barbarity is almost a hundred years old. Thinking about it in relation to the final scene of playing ‘the maids’, which one might read as a oblique commentary on capital in the twenty-first century, are we still “turning and turning in the widening gyre”?

Western Mail interview: Taking a Welsh stage drama about a Mexican artist to Taiwan

Karen Price of The Western Mail interviewed me on the cusp of ‘The 9 Fridas’ opening in Taipei.

Original interview can be read at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/taking-welsh-stage-drama-mexican-7679916

 

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Q: How did the Taiwan project come about?

A: The Taipei Arts Festival has been trying to get director Phillip Zarrilli over from Wales to Taiwan to train and direct a production with a Taiwanese company for some years. He put forward my performance text, The 9 Fridas.

The theme for the festival this year is ‘ways of looking’ and my text invites us to perceive this famous artist in a different way from the usual representations of her.

Q: What is ‘The 9 Fridas’ about?

A: It is a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the nine hells of the Mayan Underworld.

‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life – the betrayed wife, the political activist, the disabled radical, the fashion icon, the struggling artist and so on.

Q: Where did you get the idea from?

A: I’ve been obsessed with Frida Kahlo since I was a teenager, and this will be my third project in 20 years about her.

I love the fact she’s a disability icon (I identify as a disabled person), and didn’t let the perceived limitations of her gender or impairments impact on her creativity, political activism, or emotional life.
Q: The Sherman Cymru/Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru production Llwyth was previously staged at the festival. What does it mean to have productions with Welsh connections shown in other countries?

A: This text for ‘The 9 Fridas’ originated in Wales but it isn’t a Welsh performance per se – it’s about a German-Mexican artist written by an Irish playwright living in Wales, directed in Mandarin by an immigrant Wales-based director, acted by performers from Taiwan and Hong Kong!

I’m grateful for the interest in my work across the world. This September I will have three productions on simultaneously (in Taiwan, Estonia and England). I can but hope it will be seen one day in Wales. Most of my work is currently produced outside Wales.

Q: What has been the reaction from people there ahead of the premiere?

A: We sold out all performances several weeks ago and don’t open for another fortnight, so there’s been a buzz.

We’ve had a lot of TV and media coverage and three cultural commentators/critics attending rehearsals and writing various long articles about the production as a focus for the unique actor-training approach developed by Phillip Zarrilli, using Asian martial arts.

There’s a lot of excitement around the production largely owing to Phillip finally being here.

Q: Personally, what do you think you’ve gained most from this project?

A: It’s been wonderful working across cultures, with so many collaborators working from rich traditions.

I’ve particularly enjoyed observing, during the past six weeks, the training process Phillip has led the actors on – a psychophysical approach does not work from psychology, and it’s been fascinating watching the actors learn and adapt performance techniques to suit this non-naturalistic play text.

I’m always so excited and grateful to be welcomed into a different country or culture and learn how to communicate and collaborate in new ways.

Q: Any plans to stage it in Wales?

A: I can but hope…

Q: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

A: My new play, ‘Woman of Flowers’, a reworking of the Bloudewydd myth from the Mabinogion, tours nationally with Forest Forge Theatre from September and there will be just one date in Wales – Aberystwyth Arts Centre on October 29.

In the longer term, I’m working on a new Arts Council of Wales-funded production of ‘Playing The Maids’. It’s a collaboration with Gaitkrash from Ireland, Jing Hong Okorn from Singapore and Theatre P’Yut from South Korea. It will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in February 2015.

9 Fridas is being staged at the Taipei Arts Festival from September 5 to 7. For further details about Kaite O’Reilly’s work, visit http://www.kaiteoreilly.com