'Human Fruit Bowl': The naked play comes to Hong Kong
"What is the power of the naked person in the room?" asks a one-woman play, "Human Fruit Bowl", which opens at the Fringe Club on October 18 as part of Hong Kong Microfest.
Written by Andrea Kuchlewska and performed by Harmony Stempel, the piece explores the relationship between artists and models and is inspired by the actress' real-life experience at the New York Studio School in Manhattan, where she met her painter boyfriend Samuel Levy.
Microfest is a showcase of experimental theatre from around the world founded in 2009 by Giles Burton, who worked for 12 years at the celebrated Edinburgh Fringe Festival and co-founded the Prague Fringe Festival in 2001, before landing in Hong Kong.
Two years on, Microfest has struggled to get funding from the Arts Development Council and Burton has had to shift his focus to bringing over individual plays.
Aside from the usual run of issues involved in staging a small play, in a city notoriously ill-equipped for this kind of artistic endeavor, "Human Fruit Bowl" presented its own set of challenges as a show that involves full-frontal nudity throughout.
"It's not illegal," Burton says, suggesting that a naked woman's presence on stage may not quite be legal in Hong Kong either. "Certainly people have done it before, and we couldn't find anything in the ordinance against it as such."
The play's structure, he explains, should help to dispel the discomfort of more conservative theater-goers.
"It doesn't worry me at all because of the way it's done. I think very rapidly, the audience will not be offended or concerned."
"I think people will actually come and see it. As long as they're not expecting a Wanchai show, because they'll be very disappointed."
But New York-based Stempel admits she is nervous. "I've never been to Hong Kong and I don't know how audiences will react ... it was interesting for me to even think about [nudity being a problem]."
The actress says she has never been shy about taking her clothes off in public. "I like being naked. I love it. In fact, I would rather be naked in front of strangers than singing in front of them [fully-clothed]."
Just as well, because for a year and a half after she moved to New York City, that is how Stempel earned her living. "I wasn't finding a lot of acting work I wanted to do," she explains, "I got a restaurant job for three months and hated it. I wanted to find another [source] of income, and I wanted to be around creative people."
Having Googled "artist schools in Manhattan," Stempel called the New York Studio School and got a job right away.
"I had a lot of time sitting, doing nothing," she says, "I realized I wanted to create a piece that had something to do with modeling and painters."
In 1920s France, artist Pierre Bonnard's muse and lover Renée Monchaty killed herself in a bathtub where he had regularly painted her. The facts are blurry, but the myth is that she took her life after Bonnard married another woman.
Using this as a springboard, Kuchlewska and Stempel, directed by Liam Billingham, have created a non-linear play that asks about the role of the model in the life of the artist, and vice versa.
"I met my boyfriend at the Studio School, so I understand that model-painter relationship and how it can be a very intimate thing, how you can become very attached to the people who find you inspiring and that it becomes a mutual exchange," Stempel says.
"What I think people don't think about is what models are doing when they're standing there and how they are being treated," notes Burton. "Part of the play is that she's not treated very well, but it's not a sad story."
"Human Fruit Bowl" won the Creative Award for the best production at this year's Prague Fringe Festival as well as the Best of Prague Fringe at the Amsterdam Fringe Award, which was a bursary to fly the show to Amsterdam in September.
While Stempel recognizes that not everyone will like it, Burton says it is an enjoyable, intelligent and captivating play. "I think people will actually come and see it," he says. "As long as they're not expecting a Wanchai show, because they'll be very disappointed."
Human Fruit Bowl