Laura Townsend of L’Atelier Theatre Productions stars in the upcoming production of Jean Genet's The Maids at La MaMa. This production is performed in the original French and will be at The First Floor Theatre from March 2 - March 19. 2017. Laura took a break from rehearsals to answer our 6 Questions.
1. What is the mission of L’Atelier Theatre Productions?
L’Atelier Theatre Productions supports emerging French theater artists in New York. L’Atelier Theatre Productions aims at presenting bold and inspiring French plays to a New York audience in the original language. We intend to build a New York-based community of artists, hailing from European horizons, who are ready to blend the American and European heritages here in New York.
2. Why did you choose to produce the Maids?
This production emerged from the desire to play Genet’s text in the original language, to explore the play’s psychological universe as well as its political ramifications. The play Genet wrote is full of dramatic and psychological subjects: homosexuality, criminality, guilt, deceit, treason and ultimately death. That is what attracted me to the play at first.
Playing the text in French allows the actors to recapture the inner poetry of Genet’s writing. All the play’s themes are hidden under a coating of flowers. The language is very poetic. Genet is at once a classical writer, a symbolist poet, and a revolutionary.
The relationship that links the two sisters is really the core of the play to me. I’m interested in exploring what’s hidden in those characters. What is it that they’re hiding and what is it that they’re willing to show? Madam is only ‘the pretext’ - as Claire says - for their games. What is in fact at stake for them is the torture caused by a secret that is impossible to confess and which inextricably ties them together.
And then there is the question of power. In the current political context, one cannot help but relate the brutal relationship between the Mistress Madam and the enslaved maids to the stark rapport de force we are witnessing between classes in America today. The play has something quite interesting to say about that. It shows how all the characters are in fact responsible for maintaining this co-dependence. The Maids identify to Madam, her beauty, her wealth, her prestige. She is a star. And this identification, this abyssal love for her, is what explains their inability to escape.
3. Tell us about who you play in the show.
I play Claire in the show. She’s the younger sister. The show revolves around 3 characters: Claire & Solange who are the two sisters, the two maids, and Madame who is the mistress. The role of Claire is intricate. She goes in different directions, desperately looking for a sense of self. She’s always been the underdog, under Solange, who herself is the underdog of Madam. So, she’s always been at the lower level of the hierarchy and she suffers a lot from that. Most importantly, she suffers from being stuck in an inextricable relationship with her sister that is killing her from the inside.
The two characters are inspired from the Papin sisters. The Papins became infamous in France in the 30s for committing a horrific murder. After many years in service, they killed their mistress and her daughter for a rather insignificant reason, plucked their eyes out, lacerated their legs and exposed their genitals. The murder marked the collective psyche in France for decades, inspiring many interpretations as well as multiple artistic adaptations, including The Maids.
So, in the play, we live in a disturbed psychological realm where the internal lives of these characters are projected on the outside. The world that we see is the representation of what is happening inside these women. And tragically, Claire’s world is a world that she cannot live in.
4. Who inspires you?
Sources of inspiration for this play have been various. Some of them come from the psychological field. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote an article about the Papin case in 1934 that was published in the surrealist magazine Le Minotaure. Lacan’s article illuminates the intricacies of the psychological relationships between the characters. He talks about the real sisters, the Papin sisters themselves. I think Genet was attracted to the story because he had some links to it, at least in an imaginary way. He was himself a thief, a “ criminal”, he spent most of his youth in prison. He describes himself as an outcast. He was an orphan, like the sisters. So, using that text has been very useful to better understand the characters.
In the same vein, Haneke’s movie Funny Games exemplifies the type of relationship that the sisters have. It also questions the responsibility that we all have in perpetuating and feeding representations of sadism & violence. Likewise, Genet promotes a theater where the audience is placed in front of their own hidden and violent desires.
On another note, I went to see Declan Donnellan’s version of Ubu Roi at Lincoln Center two years ago. He had cast a team of French actors who were playing Ubu in the original French with subtitles. The work was absolutely visceral. It was incredible to watch. As a French person living in NY and an artist based in NY, it was so joyful to me to see the mix of the French repertoire with the “anglo-saxon theater approach” if one may call it that. Declan Donnellan is a Shakespeare specialist. Applying the work on Shakespeare to the French canon and especially to that play created such an incredible experience. When I watched the show, I thought: “that is exactly what I want to be doing here in NY”. I am originally French; I grew up in Paris. I was raised with the French classics and I also trained as an actor here in NY at Columbia University. I feel that my mission is to bring the French texts here, the plays that vibrate with me, to an American audience. Those kinds of shows are usually imported from Europe, already made. They’re presented here, not produced here. That is really what we are trying to create with L’Atelier Theater Productions: a community of artists who are based in New York and who can use their European roots to present their own heritage here.
5. What is the last film or play or dance that you liked?
I went to see The Present with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh. It was amazing. I absolutely love Sydney Theater Company. The company’s Uncle Vanya was a cornerstone performance. The way the company approaches Chekhov is extremely exciting. It is exactly the contrary of what we usually reproach Chekhov for: it’s not boring for a second! The ensemble work is so strong. The characters are real. Its’ exciting, entertaining theater, relevant to our times. I had a blast!
6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?
Oh it means a lot. We were so grateful to Mia for inviting us to La MaMa. When I started this project, the ideal place I had in mind was La MaMa. I was wondering if we could ever do it here. We have a very strong connection with La MaMa because we are Columbia graduates. Oliver, the director, myself and the musical composer Leah Lawrence are all Columbia graduates. So, we have been trained by some of the people who started their own careers at La MaMa and who were also instrumental in founding La MaMa. That is Andrei Serban, who was our mentor at Columbia, Niky & Ulla Wolcz who are part of the Umbria project. For that reason, La MaMa was a natural place for us to present the show; and because it has a long history of presenting classics readapted and in the original language, there was really no other place we could have dreamt of to be presenting the show. This is an incredible opportunity that Mia offered to us and we could not be more grateful.
It also feels like we are part of a continuum of artists. As I said, our own teachers and mentors started at La MaMa 40 years ago and, did you know that The Maids was presented for the first time at La Mama in ’64? The work was radical, unsurprisingly, and here we are experimenting with the play more than 50 years later in the same theater. We feel very connected to those generations of artists who have made La Mama and who have been “made” by La MaMa.
I also feel grateful that there is still in the city theater that supports emerging artists the way La MaMa does. The first time we met with Mia, I was stunned by how welcoming and generous Mia was and how normal it was for her to support emerging artists. It’s not just a mission, it’s a reality. And that is pretty rare today in the current theater economy. That is very precious. We oftentimes forget the necessity of what we are doing, which is creating art, and hopefully good art. La MaMa is a place that allows for that.
La MaMa presents