Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Muriel Romanes - On Leaving Stellar Quines

Muriel Romanes is not retiring. This is something the outgoing artistic director of the female-focused Stellar Quines theatre company wishes to make abundantly clear as she steps down following her forthcoming production of Rebecca Sharp's The Air That Carries The Weight, which opens in Edinburgh this week. As she takes a break from rehearsals of what she describes as more communion than play, Romanes is frank about her reasons behind leaving a company she has led for the best part of two decades.

“The temperature doesn't suit me anymore,” she says. “I hit seventy this week, so maybe that's got something to do with it, but I'm also actually really tired of sitting at the computer. It's very stultifying imaginatively, and I think things are changing so much in theatre. I've had such a wonderful time with the company. It's been magnificent, but I need to step away from that.

Romanes' decision was also prompted in part by the death of her father.

“I realised that if he's gone,” she says, “then I'm going to go as well, so I better get on with it.”

Romanes has been getting on with it since she first became involved in Stellar Quines acting in the company's first show, Night Sky. That was in 1994, shortly after the company was founded by a loose-knit collective of female artists led by actors and directors Gerda Stevenson and Irene Macdougall, director Lynn Bains and administrator Morag Ballantyne.

Romanes' first production for the company as a director was Helen Edmundson's play, The Clearing, in 1998. She followed this in 2000 with a translation of Quebecois writer Jeanne-Mance Delisle's The Reel of the Hanged Man. Controversies around the play caused a rift in the company, which she has remained at the head of until now.

“I wasn't particularly interested in doing a feminist theatre,” she says. “I just wanted to do great plays by great women and with great artists around them.”

Since then, Romanes' has developed a body of work which has evolved stylistically into more magical realist territory. This is as plain to see The Air That Carries The Weight as it was in The List, The Carousel and The Deliverance, the Herald Angel winning trilogy of plays by another Quebecois writer, Jennifer Tremblay.

“I've become really interested in the breadth of what you can do with poetry rather than dialogue,” Romanes says, “and I'm hungry for work like that. There's more opportunities for that sort of work, and Rebecca's piece is so rich. I love this idea of archeology that's in it, and uncovering layers, because that's what we do in the theatre.”

Romanes' own archeology saw her hooked on theatre while a pupil at convent school, where she became transfixed by religious ritual. She studied acting in America, and on her return to Edinburgh played small parts at the Royal Lyceum.

For several years Romanes was a regular on STV soap, Take The High Road, and she appeared briefly in Gregory's Girl as the teacher who has her glasses cleaned by her window cleaning ex pupil.

A turning point was appearing in Michael Boyd's Tron Theatre production of The Guid Sisters, Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay's Scots adaptation of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay's play. The production toured to Canada, where Romanes was exposed to more Quebecois writers, and it is arguably Quebec's dramatic sensibility that has fuelled her increasingly adventurous aesthetic.

“I wanted to dare,” she says, “and sometimes that's really hard. I could see all these wonderful writers and artists in Quebec and Scotland, but in Scotland, artists at the coalface are on flat fees, but the whole infrastructure around them are all salaried with pensions. That's totally wrong, and artists have to take control of things.”

Romanes became an associate director at the Royal Lyceum during the late Kenny Ireland's tenure. Her productions here included notable versions of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Anna Karenina.

More recently Stellar Quines collaborated with the Royal Lyceum on a production of Linda Griffiths' play, Age of Arousal.

“They were supported,” she says. “It's so hard for young companies now, because it's all about money, but there are still wonderful young artists coming up, and they need to be at the centre of everything.”

Romanes' successor as artistic director of Stellar Quines, Jemima Levick, is one such artist. Currently in charge of Dundee Rep, Levick's early career included a stint with Stellar Quines as an associate director, so for her to be already steeped in the company's work is something Romanes clearly relishes.

“It couldn't be better,” Romanes says of the appointment. “It's the best of all possible outcomes. She will give the company more breadth.”

While there are no firm plans in place for any new productions from a soon to be freelance Romanes, she has plans to open a residential centre for playwrights in a highland house left to her by her father. As for the last twenty years with Stellar Quines, her response is as magical-sounding as her work.

“I'm amazed,” she says. “It's as if I've been asleep, and all these wonderful things have happened, and I hope they continue to happen.”

The Air That Carries The Weight, Traverse Theatre, March 24-26.

The Herald, March 22nd 2016


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