The Maids is a play that is based on the sensational murder case of the infamous Papin sisters, two young French maids who killed their employers in the 1930s. The play was written by dramatist Jean Genet and was originally published in 1947. Since its release, it has captivated audiences and has been revived — and artistically altered — many times. In March of 2017, The Maids returned to New York City via the famed LaMaMa theater.
From March 2 to March 19, the L’Atelier Theatre is presenting their version of The Maids at NYC’s LaMaMa. The play, which will be performed in French with English subtitles, is plotted around the shocking true story of murder and mayhem that occurred in Le Mans, France, on February 2, 1933. On that date, sisters Lea and Christine Papin murdered their employer’s wife and adult daughter in a frenzied and brutal attack. The savagery of the crime, and the sordid circumstances surrounding the Papin’s dysfunctional relationship and childhoods, made it a source of fascination to the public. Even now, more than eight decades later, the crime still holds macabre interest to many.
French actress, teacher, and producer Laura Lassy Townsend is at the helm of the current LaMaMa production. Recently, she discussed her experiences working on this play and her career in the theater industry in general.
Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to get into theater?
Laura Lassy Townsend (LLT): I started theater as a kid, in a community theater in Paris. As I was growing up, I pursued a Masters degree in Business while continuing to do theater on the side. When I graduated from Business school, I signed on for a job that allowed me to come to New York while starting professional acting classes. In that period, I took a workshop with Patsy Rodenburg on speaking Shakespeare and that really opened a whole new universe to me. The work and presence that Shakespeare requires truly epitomizes the link between the craft of acting and life. In the work, I realized there was a whole new way to relate to my body, voice, and self to the world that I had never dared to encounter before. That prompted me to apply to graduate school and later on I pursued that work, which has now become a way of living, at Columbia with teachers like Kirstin Linklater, Anne Bogart and Andrei Serban.
MM: The Maids is based on an actual murder. Can you tell us a bit of the background?
LLT: The two characters are inspired by the Papin sisters. The Papins became infamous in France in the 1930s for committing a horrific murder. After many years in service, they killed their mistress and her daughter for a rather insignificant reason and mutilated their bodies. The murder marked the collective psyche in France for decades, inspiring many interpretations as well as multiple artistic adaptations, including The Maids. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote an article about the Papins 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 Papins 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.
MM: What most interested you about the story of The Maids?
LLT: 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, sado-masochism, 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 that 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.
MM: What’s is your favorite part of the play? Why are these homicidal characters so fascinating?
LLT: I love the passage when Madame comes in. It’s at once a very tense passage and a slightly comedic one. Madame is about to drink her tea, where Claire — our name for one of the maid characters — has dropped poison. That, of course, creates a strong dramatic tension but it is written with a slight comedic tone. So, in this passage, we have played a bit with comedia physicality in order to heighten the comedy of the situation. Getting under the skin of those characters is quite a challenge. The question I found myself asking is why they become these monsters. To me, it is not so much about their relationship with Madame than it is about their own relationship, sister to sister. The sort of psychotic relationship that they have together is the root of that murderous impulse. So, the family entanglement is really the core of the play and that is where I think we can all somewhat relate.
MM: To date, how many plays have you been a part of? Do you have a favorite?
LLT: Many plays. I was part of a beautiful project last year that my husband, Torrey Townsend, who is a playwright, started with his long-time collaborator, director Knud Adams. Torrey wrote a play called A Night Out and we put it on in our own living room in Brooklyn. It was an immersive theater experience with a marvelous cast of actors. We would do the play in our home and people would flock on the weekends to see what the night out was. The writing was contemporary and ultra-realistic, which is very different from The Maids. Because of the intimacy we had with the audience, we had the luxury, as actors, to act almost like in film but with the audience surrounding us. It was a beautiful theater experience.
MM: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being a part of the theatre industry?
LLT: This play is sort of special to me because I am not only acting in it but also producing it. I initiated the project because I was really attracted to Genet’s story and seeing the whole project coming to life both from a producing and an artistic standpoint has been a true joy. I have been amazed by the incredible support that we have received, from LaMaMa and from our donors, institutions such as LMCC, and Columbia University. It really started as a love project and has turned into a full-on production in the course of the last year. I am grateful to all the people who have participated and contributed to make the play what it is now.
MM: Career wise, where do you hope to be in a decade from now?
LLT: I would love to be able to work on classical texts in the theater as well as pursue a career in film and TV. I aim to be involved in what I could call “intelligent entertainment.” I do theater because of what the writers have to say or what we can say as actors on a stage. But I am also an advocate of a lively, accessible theater. To me, theater is only successful when it reaches a wide audience and not only a closed circle of “insiders.” The projects that attract me most, whether on film or in the theater, are projects that are meaningful but that can also reach a large audience.
MM: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?
LLT: Yes, we are continuing our collaboration with Torrey and Knud, who I mentioned earlier, and I’ll be in their new play this summer. It’s called The Workshop and it will be presented at HB studios in July. I’ll be playing opposite Austin Peddleton. I think all I am allowed to say at this point is that the play will revolve around a teacher and his students. We’ll be continuing to explore the hyper-realistic style that is the mark of Torrey’s writing and we also have a wonderful team working on the project. I am very excited about that prospect.
MM: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to enter theater?
LLT: Set yourself a goal based on what you desire. Pursue it and while you pursue it forget about it and trust the process.
[Featured Image by Kippy Winston/LaMaMa Theater]