Sunday, 7 August 2011

Arousing Conversation

Muriel Romanes is one of the coolest directors in Scotland. With Stellar Quines, she has had an uncompromising commitment to work that is unashamedly feminist, yet has a lively humour and accessibility. She has been nominated for best director by Theatre Awards UK - who are jumping on the band wagon, given she won the CATS prize earlier in the year. In this interview, she talks about the process behind the play that has got her on the shortlist.

Age of Arousal looks like a challenging- and excellent – choice for the Lyceum: dealing with both political matters that are still under consideration, and the implied eroticism of both title and promotional image. What made you decide to collaborate with the Lyceum for this production?

I’ve worked with the Lyceum many times over the years and was an Associate Director here directing shows such as Anna Karenina and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so I have always had a very good relationship with the theatre, its audiences and its staff. Because of this I was keen for Stellar Quines to do a co-production with the Lyceum and when I came upon Age of Arousal I thought that this play would be perfect.

Age of Arousal is written on a grand scale – it has an almost Shakespearian force and energy and the capacity to play well in touring venues – which is part of Stellar Quines mandate – but also to engage a larger, subscription based audience such as that at the Lyceum. The Lyceum stage is a perfect setting for a play that both embraces the Victorian Age and challenges our assumptions of that age. While the play has a historical context that is well suited to the Lyceum building, it also tells a story that reaches far beyond its late 19th century trappings and the accompanying confusion over women’s rights, to tap into current slippery notions of love, marriage and sex. The play is packed with delicious female characters and I felt that their stories meant it could offer something for everyone. It is endlessly witty and brilliantly inventive.

This production would never have been able to be realised without the generosity and support of the Lyceum as co-producers. Mark Thomson has been a great supporter of the project and the Lyceum team has met Stellar Quines with energy and commitment. Their support makes it possible for many more people to see the piece than would otherwise have been possible through a more usual Stellar Quines tour. It also gives the Lyceum a chance to get their name out to venues beyond Edinburgh.

In addition, the Lyceum has made it possible for us to support a number of collaborative projects around Age of Arousal including work with the students in stage 3 of the B.A honours Performance Costume course at Edinburgh College of Art who used Age of Arousal as a project from which to develop their own costume ideas. I met and worked with the students, then David Butterworth the Lyceum’s production manager and Jeanine Davies the lighting designer came in to share their expertise as well. Once the show started rehearsals in January the students were invited to sit in on the read-through and the rehearsal process. The students work will be displayed in the Lyceum foyer for the duration of the run of Age of Arousal.

In addition, the Lyceum Creative Learning Department (along with Perth and Kinross Council) are helping us to stage a rehearsed reading and discussion of Cat and Mouse by Ajay Close, a play about the force feeding of suffragette’s in Perth Prison during a similar time period to that dealt with in Age of Arousal. We are doing this in celebration of the centenary of International Women’s Day on 8 March this year. The Lyceum are promoting the event to their own audience and hosting the reading in the Lyceum auditorium. They have also asked University of Edinburgh Sociology student Meg O’Brien to undertake research for us on the people, places and stories of the Suffragette movement in Scotland in each of the cities to which Age of Arousal will be touring.

 Stellar Quines has always supported women's work in theatre, both in terms of content and casting. while this can be a lonely position to take - feminism seems to be often marginalised, despite its obvious relevance - it is a necessary and brave one. how has the political landscape changed in the years since the company's foundation, and has this impacted on the nature of the work that you create?

There have been changes in the political landscape since we were founded, so much so that perhaps some people think that focusing on creative work by women and putting women at the forefront of everything we do is now a little out of date. But we are still here after 17 years and the very fact of this proves in some way the necessity of our existence. Women themselves continue to tell me that they often feel that their voices are not heard to the extent that they would like.

Whatever the political landscape, then and now, I have always wanted to produce work that is bold, relevant and brave. I have never seen Stellar Quines as a feminist theatre company, rather a company that is driven by women in collaboration with the men who share its vision. One of the delights of Age of Arousal is that it takes on feminism in the present, by setting it in the past, which I think is important. Sexuality is always relevant.

Going back in time is often a way to avoid confronting issues too directly, or can play into the heritage industry's reading of the past. AoA appears to avoid this, but are there any particular reasons that this period of history appealed to you?

Turn of the century Britain was exploding with arousals – political, sexual, social. It was a period of radical change – the assumptions that were being confronted are still being confronted. Reading the dialogue of suffragette thinkers is to be shocked by the reality that this struggle continues – Mary Wollstonecraft seems eerily similar to Germaine Greer. I was attracted to the theme of women learning to enter the business world – Griffiths does this by wittily centering on the Remington typewriter. While women now make up 51% of the corporate world, the percentage of women in the executive boardrooms is under ten percent. In Age of Arousal, the assumption is that working women will progress much more quickly to share leadership in society. By setting the play in the past, this irony is brilliantly brought to the fore.

 On a more formal note, how far can you use physical theatre or other strategies when you are working on a script from a very talented writer? SQ have always been adventurous in their staging, and I wonder how this piece will reflect that?

The play is so very modern although set in 1880’s and we have subverted the Victorian and the modern in our approach to the production using Victorian, mechanical and circus style conventions. It is a piece that can burst out of itself and then as quickly get back in it’s box to demonstrate the real and the unconventional and a piece full of contradictions leaving the door open to opportunities both visually and physically which we have exploited. The text has a convention attached to it called “thought speak” which are the uncensored outpourings of the characters and add another layer to the piece to enable the audiences to engage with private and secret thoughts and enabling the sub textural elements of the piece to be exposed. The set is placed at the centre of the Lyceum stage with the mechanics of the actual stage exposed so that we never forget that we are in a theatre and the process of performance is not hidden away completely.

What particular details of this play made you pick it up after seeing it in Canada?

Stellar Quines has been building relationships with Canada for some years now both in the English and French sectors. We have a history of producing Canadian work both English and French e.g. The Reel of the Hanged Man by Jean Mance-Delisle (translated into Scots by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay) which we did in 1999. In 2007 I was invited to see a production of Age of Arousal in Toronto by Nightwood Theatre in collaboration with Factory Theatre. Nightwood have a very similar ethos to that of Stellar Quines and I was thrilled by this play, especially as it is now a century since the suffragette movement came into being. The play is a very clever piece of writing that explores the female world from the cradle to the grave and is as relevant today as it was in 1885. It is about women who challenge convention and women who dare to say the "unsayable" and is in the spirit of the work we do at Stellar Quines. The subject matter of the play fits exactly with our ethos and shows a world view of what women and men could each offer society if only a balance between the sexes were allowed - they fought for equality but also to allow our differences to have dignity and prestige. Also, the emergence of the Typewriter then and technology today have many parallels that I felt would resonate for modern audiences and especially for women of my own advancing years.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Latitude 2009

My camp site neighbour has painted his entire body blue, and has the expression of a man who has lived to regret the decision. Every morning as I walk down to the stages, somebody is telling another Greek myth to a crowd of children. Families are sitting on the damp grass, playing scrabble. The Manchester Orchestra are in the Uncut Arena, emoting. Thom Yorke does a solo set, and his piano accompaniment sounds a little too much like Spinal Tap’s ‘Lick My Love Pump’. I wander across to pick up some hot sex tips from Deborah Frances White. She is suggesting that I try and act and look a little more like George Clooney. I look sadly down at my waterproofs.
Last night, I’d found a deck chair and watched The Irrepressibles perform on a platform in the middle of the lake. A male singer with a high-pitched voice and a small orchestra of costumed women, who did minimalist choreography as they accompanied his lovelorn warbling. This morning, Say Hi to the Rivers attempts to fuse the songs of The High Llamas and Jonathan Coe’s social realist meditations. The tunes are jolly enough, and Coe cuts to the heart of suburban desperation, but the complete lack of visual appeal- the stage is crowded out by band members- makes this, as performance, an interesting CD. Neither of these acts square the circle of theatre and pop music.
I shamble through the forest again, taking in the portraits of the stars hung on the trees. I catch The Magpie cover ‘Roadrunner’ with a winning enthusiasm. A serious discussion is taking place in the Literary Arena, where Peter Blake is spreading mythology about his cover for Sergeant Pepper. Previously, I’d heard an extract from a pornographic fantasy read by the same man who had read Henry the Hungry Caterpillar to children. As the obscenity increased, the more the audience laughed.
I am still overwhelmed. Aside from the persistent rain, which has now breached my tent and left me in soggy clothes, there is so much to take in, art forms accidently jostling each other, sounds saturating sounds, a steady beat always insistent, shifting from funk to hip-hop to straight ahead rock. I arrive at the Disco Shed, which is surrounded by ravers. We lift our arms to the sky and wave our glow sticks. The La De Dahs burst into unaccompanied singing, covering 'Creep' in the style of the 1940s. Stuckey and Murray are strumming ‘Favourite Things’ and I leave before they start becoming crude.
An old National Review of Live Art lag, Richard Dedomenici is lecturing on plagiarism, revealing how his presence and skills have evolved in the past four years. Pete Brown, whom I knew at university, is chatting about beer. I've missed discussions on the wonders of science and the stupidity of religion. The sheep on site have been dyed fabulous colours and Les Moutons are dressed as such. Until late at night, Guilty Pleasures DJs churn out those hits that we can’t admit that we love.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Liv Lorent - A Flashback to Fringe 2010

Many of the previous pieces that I have seen by you have had a unique approach to the relationship between dance and music: the music operates more like a soundtrack to the movement than the guide for the dancers. Is this approach a deliberate strategy, and does Blood, Sweat and Tears continue  it?
Yes, I think that you will experience a similar musical relationship to the choreography with Blood, Sweat and Tears. What I am aiming to create is a partnership of vision and sound that has an experience similar to being at the movies.
In a film the music is usually added in post production and the actors` emotional states are delivered clean of aural manipulation. This influences me - the illusion is that they are oblivious to any sound other than their own emotional state.

I think the live effect has its own wonder and I can afford to use more emotional music if the dancer manages not to "emote" to it!
For me, sitting in a studio watching the dancers move while I alone can hear the sound through ipod and headphones is quite magical. I am trying to create an experience where the music is the sound of our empathy with the dancers on stage. The challenge for the dancer is making it look like their body has not been moved by me or music.

The raising of a child is not a common theme for dance- why did you decide to make it the foundation of an ambitious trilogy of dances?
Blood, Sweat & Tears is not so much a trilogy as a work with 3 parts to it. There is The Duet - which is being shown at The Fringe, and the full length work has a cast of seven dancers and will be touring nationally in autumn and spring. As for the content, much of my work has an autobiographical perspective, and this piece was influenced by becoming a first time mother two years ago. The experience was so overwhelming to my life in every way I could not help but put that into work.
I suppose that what I love about the subject matter of the arrival of a new baby and its impact on a couple`s relationship is that it is a very dramatic and yet very common experience. I seek empathy of experience in other artists` work in whatever discipline, and equally that is what I want to offer.
As with other productions, the lighting and costume are critical parts of the choreography's overall impact. At what stage do you begin to explore these factors, and how do they inform the creation of the dances?
I am very lucky to have some completely brilliant collaborators that I
have worked with for many years now. Paul Shriek with costume and design, and Malcolm Rippeth with lighting, and Ben Ponton with sound. They respond to the choreography in its early stages - and I counter respond to what they offer the work in their respective mediums. Together we inch forward to the finalising of the work. I cannot imagine this work without these very important and inspiring people.
You have worked with Scottish Dance Theatre, who are also appearing at Zoo. Do you feel that Zoo has a particular atmosphere as a venue, and one which suits your company?
I am familiar with Zoo Southside through SDT and yes, I have really enjoyed the atmosphere and appreciated their dedication to the work. I have very good memories of working with Scottish Dance Theatre and will be supporting them always and look forward to watching the work they will be presenting this year.
I am very much looking forward to taking our Blood, Sweat & Tears duet to The Sanctuary which is one of the most inspiring venues I have ever been to.
Do you regard your choreography as being part of any particular tradition or trend in contemporary dance? Are there other companies or choreographers that you feel an affinity for?
Oh I love so many other choreographers' work... a really diverse range from Mats Ek, Merce Cunningham, Kenneth Macmillan,Balanchine,Wayne Macgregor, Pina Bausch - all the giants!

In the end I really love dance - in its many incarnations. I don't particularly feel part of any trend or tradition or perhaps I feel the legacy of all them...... I work in quite a solitary way in the North East of England and prefer to respect other people`s work by trying not to copy them and trying to be true to my own vision.