The Maids at Belvoir's 25A

Hamish spoke this week with Skyler Ellis who is currently starring in Glitterbomb's production of the The Maids as part of Belvoir's 25A Program. Although written in 1957, Skyler describes the show's maintained relevance and the importance of a work such as The Maids in encouraging conversation about the struggles for and inequalities of privilege. Have a read below:

The Maids is an incredibly deep and complex play that tackles many themes. What is the play primarily about for you?

You’re absolutely right- it’s undoubtedly one of the most incredibly complex plays I’ve ever had the joy of working on. There are so many things to extract from it, it’s almost overwhelming to try and distill it into a few thoughts. For me, what is very relevant for us today, and what our production is aiming to dissect, is how privilege is distributed within our society, and how inimical the employment of inherent privilege can be to those who don’t have it. When Genet wrote The Maids, he was primarily exploring privilege that arises from class. This is still incredibly relevant, and we’re also exploring how privilege lies within gender constructs. The exploration of power imbalance on a systematic level is what undercuts the struggle of all of the characters in the play, and this is what causes the maids to resort to escapism in the form of fantasy. Their fantasies are the only place where they can hold power, autonomy and control, and even then, it is limited and damaging.

The characters’ extremism and madness in language, action, and thought is jarring, but of course that is part of playwright Genet’s genius. What do you think is the effect on the audience? What does it allow you as actors to say/portray?

Early on the rehearsal process, we all tried so many different ways to access the logic of the text. We tried to engage with the psychological through lines, the switches between performative artifice vs. reality, etc, but nothing really covered all bases. Thinking on it now, I think that’s Genet’s exact point. I think he is trying to argue that ‘success’ is a performative construct accessed by the privileged. At the end of the day, all we can do as actors is to play each moment with the knowledge of what we’re trying to do to the other characters. Once we started to use the language like a ‘game’, it unlocked a whole level of artifice and performativity that would be very hard to find by trying to only play it as psychologically ‘real’. The genuine psychology often sits just under the heightened language through the ‘act’ of performing your role in society. The maids’ escapism isn’t portrayed through realistic language, but usually as very poetic, aggrandised language. This is definitely Genet attempting to have the maids transcend their social placement to appear as aristocratic. When Madame appears, she uses language as a declamatory tool of privilege, and so it makes sense for the Maids to try and adopt that language in their fantasies. The effect as a viewer is quite confusing. A lot of people that have seen the show have said that they felt overwhelmed in trying to keep up with the quick switches of thought and style, which is interesting. The moments of artifice allow the moments of verisimilitude to really kick in, but the writing never allows the audience to get comfortable in either state. As a viewer, you can start to almost viscerally feel the oppressive emotional forces that the maids go through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are a man playing Madame, a usually female role. Why do you think the director chose to cast a male, and what does it add to the production?

Yeah, it’s a really interesting thing to play with conceptually. When Genet wrote The Maids, he actually wanted the maids to be played by teenage boys in drag, and for the production to hold placards up, indicating the artifice of the characters. Arguably, that is a slightly outdated concept, because relying on the default placement of men playing roles doesn’t inherently make it work. The artifice can be explored with women playing the women. Instead, Carissa, our incredible director, was interested in casting a male as Madame, who holds the most power of all characters (that are seen, at least). For us, what that allowed us to explore was the added dimension of gender privilege, along with the class struggle that is very evident in the play. Having Madame cast as a man, shows the effects of toxic masculinity and the unrealistic expectations of the male gaze, through the man’s performativity of the ‘ideal woman’. Having the ‘straight-white-hetero-male’ gaze lying just below all of Madame’s choices of physical and vocal performance, shows the stereotyped projection of women that the male gaze manifests. Having Madame use his maleness as a weapon whenever he likes, also steers us clear of Madame being a representation of queer identity, which is something I found incredibly important in the playing of it- that his rendition of her wasn’t commenting on trans-identity or sexuality. The undercurrent of violence (both physical and emotional) by a man in the room, is a notion that I think would be sad to miss when dealing with the oppression of women, particularly in our current social climate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You perform with two incredible performers in Alexandra Aldrich and Amanda McGregor. What was it like working with them and how did it shape your performance?

Holy moly. Aren’t they absolute powerhouses? I am so grateful to work with such experienced, knowledgeable, sensitive and curious actors. Working with them has been an absolute joy, and one of the advantages that we have had as a collective is to experiment with drastically different conceptual ideas of what our production is trying to say. We went through some pretty hectic stylistic changes, and to see those two have the ability to seamlessly play in those different worlds is a rarity. One rehearsal, we are playing the text with absolute sincerity and truthfulness, the next day, with complete artifice and performativity. Not many actors have the tools to be able to make drastically different styles work so well. Every night that I listen to them, their performances are different, varied, impacted by the other so intensely, that I have no choice but to go out and listen to them and act accordingly. It’s so nice to work with peeps that are so holistically focused on the work. Every conversation is about making the work better, interrogating things we are unsure about, and giving ourselves the freedom to affect the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your production is part of the 25A program. For those readers who do not know, that means that the Belvoir tasked the production team to create a show for less than $1500. What challenges did that present? Are there positives that come from having a small budget?

Our production and creative team worked tirelessly to make this show under budget, yet still look a million bucks. It’s hard to do a show with little money, especially one that spends a LOT of its dialogue referring to the grandeur of the set and costumes. I think the result is beautifully simplistic. The creative team wanted to make the space quite ‘masculine’, and by stripping the props, set and costumes to its bare necessities, it really allows the impact of the show to rely heavily on the relationships and grandiose performances. Audiences are smart, they get the concept of wealth held by Madame, and you don’t need a room full of flowers and expensive gowns to show that. The 25A initiative encourages the shows to rely on performance, and that’s why the ‘extravagance’ that Genet has written into the text is being executed through stylistic performances with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is it important for audiences to see The Maids?

Even though this play was written in 1947, it’s amazing to see how relevant the oppressive forces of privilege can be today, as it comes in varying shapes and forms. Come and see our production for the intense, nuanced performances, our exploration of masculinity/femininity and the expectation placed on women. It’s sometimes comedic, sometimes heartbreaking. Everyone that I’ve spoken to that has seen it, has had different things that resonated with them, and I think that is rare for us in theatre. I’ll see you after for a drink and see what resonated with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS

Favourite production you have ever seen?

Little Mercy by Sister’s Grimm @ STC

You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?

Japan!

Dream show to direct?

I would love to make an adaptation of the novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and direct it

Plays or musicals?

It’s mean to make me choose, so I’ll say ‘plays that have singing’.

A hobby you have beyond the theatre?

I’ve recently gotten into acrylic painting. It’s so incredibly meditative.

What’s next for you after this show?

I’m doing a national tour of the kids show The Gruffalo’s Child over the summer. It’s a super fun show!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here to get your tickets to The Maids at Belvoir before it closes on September 15th

Skyler Ellis

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

The Maids at Downstairs Belvoir Production Image

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