Claire Spence is a whirlwind of charisma, charm and talent. Her performance as the Madame in “The Maids” at Greenwich Playhouse was a perfectly timed, fabulously frivolous portrait of a spoilt, rich bitch. But feather boas and lofty airs and graces couldn’t be further removed from the real Ms Spence who is Mother Earth bursting with volcanic energy and ambition. As the play draws to a close we reflect on the dominant themes which resonate strongly with today’s celebrity culture and Claire tells me of her desire to earn her place in the hall of fame of great black actors. With future theatre projects with her company Nomads of Bazar firmly on the cards as well as the impending release of her feature film “Grovetown”. I can happily predict the Spence star is on the rise.
Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” is rarely performed why did Nomads of Bazar decided to take it on?
By the end of 2008 Emilija Ellen and Irena Grgna the founders of the company had grown tired of waiting for the phone to ring and decided it was time to make things happen. I auditioned later and was invited on board as Madame. So they booked the Etcetra theatre for a week, brainstormed some ideas in the space then decided on The Maids. Being a three hander it was an economical choice and it also features some great female parts which gave us the chance to showcase our skills as actresses and go to places we’d never been to before as well as thrilling the audience.
What was the process involved in creating the piece for the stage?
Our director Gael Colin and our designer Roberta Bratovic had very specific ideas in terms of the staging and how they actually wanted the piece to be presented. Initially when we started out in the rehearsal room we were going to have all these props, the Madame’s dressing table, and her gown and so on. But lack of funds forced us to get creative and make it about the acting and the ideas that lie beneath the richness of the text rather than having fancy costumes and sets. The three of us also follow an acting process called the Meisner technique and one of the theories that Stamford Meisner emphasised was “living the truth under imaginary circumstances” so it was really about stripping away all the flouncy stuff and getting down to the nitty gritty.
Who are “The Maids” and what are they motivated by?
They are motivated by a belief and dream that they will be free, that they will one day have the life of the Madame and be treated like superstars. That’s where the element of role play and make believe comes in, it’s almost like they’re desperately trying to imagine what it would be like to be famous and fabulous.
It’s interesting that you chose to subvert racial stereotypes by casting the Madame black and the maids white what made you come to this decision?
Initially it was a case of colour blind casting because the director saw a number of actors for the role but decided that my abilities matched the character of the Madame. Also who’s to say that the Madame couldn’t be black in the 21st century? With the ascension of President Obama as well as the rise and rise of megastars like Beyoncé it’s perfectly fitting that the subject of envy in the play could be a wealthy black woman.
The Maids, Greenwich Playhouse Theatre
Claire SpenceThe interesting thing about the Madame is that she embodies many things people desire like power, wealth, status but yet Genet shows us that the maids have power over her because they do ultimately bring her down. Do you think this resonates with today’s celebrity culture in the sense that the “little people” like the maids have the sway to topple the big ones?
Absolutely, they have the power to make or break you. You can be the best singer in the world but if no ones buying your records your invisible. The Madame is who she is but she relies on her maids they are her support mechanism so when she’s out there she’s wonderful but when she’s in the house she needs them which is why they have the ability to ruin her. But at the same time the Madame’s not stupid she somehow knows there’s a game going on around her.
Why did you decide to become an actress?
I remember being in my room aged four lining up my teddy bears and doing little plays and escaping to this world of make believe a bit like The Maids! Except naturally I’d always be the star of the show. Buts it’s something that I have wanted to do all my life and it’s funny because I grew up being really shy and I also had a lisp which kind of made me a late developer. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I went to speech therapy but I always had my family behind me and slowly but surely I’ve been plugging away because acting is definitely my calling.
Are you happy with the way black actors are portrayed in the entertainment industry?
I think whether an actor is black or white I think it’s important to have courage in your convictions so if the role goes against ones principles for whatever reason, it’s important not to do it. Having said that I think it is time that black actors started to be included in television costume dramas because it would encourage us to reassess our preconceived ideas about some of the key themes in Austen and dickens and so on.
What would be your ultimate ambition as an actress?
I would love to tour with the RSC but also with the all black production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” coming to town soon I have to say that Maggie (the cat) would be the ultimate role for me.
Obviously you never ask an actor what they are you doing next but what is the plan for Nomads of Bazar?
Watch out is all I can say because this is our first production and the interest and all the energy which we are receiving is amazing. After the play we will have three days off then we will regroup and work out what we are doing next. There is talk about maybe taking the play to Croatia and possibly some other countries in Europe and see where we can go. It’s important not to limit yourself with small dreams when I was a skinny little black girl in Nottingham with a lisp I never thought I’d ever be an actress and now here I am.
The Maids, Greenwich Playhouse Theatre
ATN review: The Maids by Lindsay Johns
Genet’s The Maids was at the Greenwich Playhouse from 9 June to 5 July.
Nomads of Bazar official website
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof