Sylvia Dow says she’s categorically not a hoarder. Muriel Romanes disagrees. She’s seen the outhouse where Dow keeps her things. Romanes herself happily admits to being a hoarder. She still has her mother’s coat and her father’s gowns from his university days. Whatever the pair do or don’t have in storage, both of their experiences should filter into Stuff, Dow’s new play directed by Romanes. The play looks at a woman called Magda’s coming to terms with the physical totems of lifelong memories she’s carried around with her as she waits for the local council to take it away.
“I saw a poster with the word ‘mess’ on it,” Dow explains of the roots of the play, “and I started to think about hoarders, and what how being a hoarder might affect their lives. The play that came out is really about the relationship between a mother and daughter, but seen through the prism of being a hoarder. I’m not a hoarder, though everyone says I am, but a real hoarder is someone who has a hoarding disorder and takes things to extremes. For a hoarder, everything has equal value, so they hold on to everything.”
In looking into background material for her play, Dow, Romanes and their cast spoke with psychologists and psychiatrists to try and understand where the disorder comes from.
“The need to hoard can start with a trauma,” says Dow. “During rehearsals we had a consultant psychiatrist in who has experience with hoarders running a self-help group for them. He spoke about the social consequences of hoarding and the effect it has on people’s lives. It creates so much isolation, because you can’t have people in the house, but you need to have people to deal with it.”
In Stuff, Dow not only looks at the effects of hoarding on a mother and daughter, but how the lingering presence of the central character’s own mother continues to make its mark. This is done by having the grand-mother played by opera singer Rosemary Nairne, who appears alongside Carol Ann Crawford as Magda and Romana Abercromby as her daughter. As her mother’s arias haunt Magda, all this baggage is navigated by an embattled social worker played by Pauline Lockhart.
“It’s social workers who get stuck with it,” says Dow. “Their help is required to deal with it, but they don’t have the resources.”
Stuff is the first outing by Sylvian Productions, an informal artistic alliance between Dow and Romanes rather than a company per se that aims to clear out some of the excess baggage required in running a company. As one of the co-founders of the female-led Stellar Quines Theatre Company in 1994, Romanes became the company’s driving force for almost two decades. During that time her production of Quebecois writer Jennifer Tremblay’s play, The list, won a Herald Angel Award before Romanes stepped down as artistic director of Stellar Quines in 2016.
It was during her time with Stellar Quines that Romanes first collaborated with Dow on a show called Threads, a dramatic collage that wove together historical verbatim stories of nineteenth century women mill-workers with latter-day knitting clubs. It was during the creation of that show that Dow first raised the possibility of doing what has become Stuff.
“I’d just cleared out all my father’s stuff,” says Romanes, “and when Sylvia spoke to me about doing the play, there was this idea of how we are what we build around us. I wanted to do Stuff and I wanted to do Sylvian because I wanted to work independently a bit more and see if that works. It’s a terribly good team we’ve got working on it, and rather than everything get gobbled up by infrastructure I wanted to focus on doing the work that I love.”
As a small-is-beautiful style experiment, Sylvian is Dow and Romanes’ attempt to get back to grassroots basics and sidestep some of the inherent managerialism that too often gets in the way of making the work itself. While on one level Sylvian is adopting a stripped-back approach, Romanes has held on to some of her regular artistic collaborators she worked with at Stellar Quines. This includes writer and artist John Byrne, who has designed the set for Stuff, lighting designer Jeanine Byrne and composer and sound designer Philip Pinsky.
In terms of getting the old gang back together, for Stuff, a whole new load of beautiful things has been added to the play’s mix by way of a series of boxes created by Byrne as a metaphorical illustration of hoarding.
“I couldn’t find the sort of metaphor I was looking for,” says Romanes, “but when I first spoke to John and Jeanine about it, John came up with these boxes with an art installation in each one. They’re lovely artefacts.”
While there looks set to be a playful sense of fun coursing through Stuff, for all Dow and Romanes recognise some of the absurdities of hoarding, both see too that there is an times heart-rending set of consequences that go with the affliction.
“One thing I feel very strongly about,” says Dow, “is how hoarding as a subject has become really sensationalised, and that one thing people need to realise and understand is that people are hoarders like anyone else, and have the same kind of inner life.”
What happens next with Sylvian in terms of whether Dow and Romanes let it go or else build it into a going concern remains to be seen while Stuff embarks on an extensive tour. This too might well be a necessary form of emptying out, but the experience will also gather up a brand new set of baggage.
“There are reasons why that happens,” says Romanes. “I think we’re all hoarders in little ways.”
Stuff, Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, October 19; MacArts, Galashiels, October 24; Heart of Hawick, Hawick, October 25; Smailholm Village Hall, October 26; Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, October 27; Howden Park Centre, Livingston, October 30; Birnam Arts Centre, Dunkeld, November 1; North Edinburgh Arts, Edinburgh, November 2; Barony Theatre, Bo’ness, November 3; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 6-7.
The Herald, October 16th 2018