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Tributes to Ronnie Mulryne, former Chair of Theatre Studies

Ronnie Mulryne (1937–2019)

What follows here are two personal tributes. Together they capture what Ronnie meant to so many people.

 

The first is a memoir from Ian Brown, Emeritus Professor in Drama at Kingston University, UK, and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Glasgow University. Ian Brown's previous posts include Dean of Arts, Queen Margaret University, and Drama Director, Arts Council of Great Britain. He has published widely on theatre history and cultural matters. He is a playwright and poet.

The second is by Margaret Shewring.

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Ronnie: a memoir

I first met Ronnie when I was an Edinburgh undergraduate (1963-67). John Butt, the Regius Professor when I started, was a remarkable talent-spotter. His department included not only established figures like the medievalist John MacQueen, the modernist Ian Gregor and Andrew Rutherford, later Regius Professor at Aberdeen and Vice-Chancellor of London University, but nurtured such then-rising talents as Mark Kinkead-Weekes, Steve Fender, John Sutherland, and Ronnie. The first two would, like Ronnie, become instrumental in the development of dynamic English departments in major post-Robbins universities.

 

Even in this context, Ronnie already stood out. He led the second-year lecture course, focused on Shakespeare, but concluding with a modern drama section. That course remains one of the highlights of my learning life. He allocated plays to individuals with a special interest, while himself doing the heavy lifting of delivering the more routine lectures year-long. Ronnie’s perceptive ‘casting’ of colleagues brought about a phenomenon I’ve never since experienced. At the end of ‘guest’ lecture after ‘guest’ lecture those delivering them were applauded by four hundred students. This was particularly remarkable: the lectures took place at noon and those students were desperate to rush for a place near the front of various refectory lunch queues. When the moment came for Ronnie’s own ‘feature’ lecture – my memory may be playing tricks, but I think it was on King Lear – he raised the roof, yet again delaying the pie-and-chips stampede.

 

In my third year Ronnie was my year tutor, the beginning of life-long mentoring and friendship. He was inspirational, supportive of a gauche laddie from a housing scheme peripheral to a small central Scotland town. In my final year, he ran a year-long module on contemporary drama which opened our eyes to the then still rather new work of such as Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov and Pinter. Ronnie demanded much – of himself and his students – but he was without side, genuine, generous.

 

In 1968 he helped direct and in 1969 directed the Scottish Universities International Summer School, demonstrating administrative and persuasive powers in replacing its hitherto peripatetic nature by permanent settlement in Edinburgh around Festival time. Ronnie used that timing creatively to link the SUISS to the enriching opportunities the Festival offered participants. Very soon after, Ronnie became Chair of the Royal Lyceum Theatregoers Club, which he revitalised into a key part of what now we would call the community outreach of Edinburgh’s main producing house.

 

In the early 1970s, he also co-supervised the first of my research degrees with rigorous warmth and wit. As he left for Warwick in 1977, I was glad to dedicate my play, Mary – I believe the first play about Mary, Queen of Scots to be deliberately a comedy – to him. He had sent its earliest draft to the Royal Lyceum, supported its development and was, I know, proud of the result, which sold out there during the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. Ronnie and I remained in contact and when I realised my decision to be a British Council officer, which found me in Istanbul in 1977-78, was not right for my family, was able to guide me to a degree leadership post back in Britain. There, I continued to deal with him professionally in his role as the CNAA Drama Committee’s energetic Chair.

 

On becoming ACGB Drama Director in 1986, I worked with colleagues to break the old-pals act by which Drama Panel members were being appointed, by seeking nominations from wider constituencies. It was a pleasure to see Ronnie then become a Panel member through that more consultative process. Very quickly, he was accepted by other members as a knowledgeable and shrewd voice of reason, seen not only as an academic, but someone who had a deep understanding of professional theatre. When, within a year of his appointment, a new Chair of the crucially important Projects Committee was needed, the question arose whether the new Chair should be a practitioner in the Committee’s innovative field. Meetings those days often dragged on from lunchtime until well into evening, as tempers frayed and tired judgments might become flawed. There could easily be 130 applications while the number of available grants was usually between twenty and thirty. After departmental discussions we formed the view that there was plenty of specialist expertise among the Committee membership and what was needed was a reliable Chair.

 

After Ronnie’s first meeting, where he arrived fully prepared, having clearly digested the essence of that pile of paper, reduced the issues to clear choices and managed the business – to the satisfaction of Committee members and officers – in under three hours, the Projects Officer, Jenny Waldman, came to my room, full of Ronnie’s praise. In this ACGB role, Ronnie was key in helping then-underfunded companies like Complicite, Cheek by Jowl and Tara Arts to a sound working footing. Such was the acuity of his contribution to the Drama Panel that very soon the British Council Drama and Dance Director, an observer at ACGB panels, invited him to chair his advisory committee on which, as a member, I can confirm Ronnie was again highly effective.

 

When I returned to Scotland in 1994, we remained in regular contact and Ronnie and Eithne were often generous in their welcome. When I last spoke to him in December, we understood his situation. I was, therefore, more than touched when he spoke warmly of’ what we had achieved together ‘over the years’, not least because I know, however much we shared projects over the last half-century and more, I remain the debtor.

 

Roger Savage, an old mutual friend, remembers one last-night SUISS celebration party when that year’s special subject had been ‘The Eighteenth Century’, on which Rachel Trickett had recently published The Honest Muse. Among the speeches of thanks one bright US student rose and spoke a poem which included the unforgettable couplet:

 Now, as we turn our thoughts to things sublime,

 Rise, Honest Muse, and sing of Dr Mulryne.

Ronnie was many things, but, however much he achieved in research, management and public life, like that American, I will always remember his gifts, sometimes under-rated in our REF age, as a great teacher,

Ian Brown

 

 

 

Ronnie: a personal tribute

 

Ronnie was a tireless and distinguished contributor to academic teaching, research and publication as well as to the theatre community more widely. He has inspired generations of students and scholars, developing resources and a scholarly framework for the interdisciplinary study of European Renaissance culture and of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in performance in their own time and today.

 

Among his many roles both within the University of Warwick and on national academic and professional bodies, he was Chair of the School of Theatre Studies for two years following the departure of our founding professor, Michael Booth, and was active in developing the department.

His love of theatre permeated his teaching and research and was reflected in his contribution to the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), the Drama Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain, chair of the Arts Council’s Drama Projects Committee and member and then chair of the British Council’s Drama and Dance Advisory Committee. He was a trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a member a member of the Board of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Chairman of Governors and Trustee of King Edward VI School, and a member of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (formerly Board).

Ronnie was convinced that study of theatre and performance should be interdisciplinary and international – and that no academic study could replace engagement with live performances and with the people who made them, both on stage and behind the scenes. We taught international summer schools during the Edinburgh Festival in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These were open to the general public as were the open studies courses we taught on Shakespeare in Performance for Warwick in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Together we collaborated with the RSC and the Mead Gallery on an exhibition celebrating the first three years of the Swan auditorium in Stratford, as well as on a major British Council touring exhibition on theatre spaces. We co-founded a small publishing company to develop records of these events, not just as catalogues but as a way of celebrating the great range and variety of theatre: This Golden Round: the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan, The Cottesloe at the National, Making Space for Theatre and, for CUP, Shakespeare’s Globe Rebuilt. His increasing engagement with Shakespeare on the international stage was reflected not just in his active contribution to the International Shakespeare Association but in our collection of essays from Japanese, UK and international contributors in Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage (CUP).

Ronnie’s enthusiasm for performance spaces led to his more recent involvement, with myself and Michael Holden (chair of the Society, now Institute, of Theatre Consultants), in devising a postgraduate diploma and MA in Theatre Consultancy, taught by colleagues from TPS, wmg, the Law School and the Warwick Arts Centre to professional theatre consultants, technical managers and strategic planners. These courses focused on theatre spaces, theatre architecture and its legacy, and audience perception, as well as on the day-to-day business of licensing and venue management and on the future sustainability of performance venues in their communities.

As Director of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance a Warwick, from the 1980s to 2003, Ronnie was determined that postgraduate students would benefit from being a part of an interdisciplinary grouping for teaching and research at MA and doctoral level. With colleagues associated with the Centre he convened numerous interdisciplinary conferences at Warwick, Warwick in Venice, Columbia University New York and the Warburg Institute (University of London) as well as two EURESCO-funded conferences in Lucca, Tuscany.

On his retirement from Warwick in 2004 Ronnie was made Professor Emeritus. He continued to be an active scholar, editor, conference convenor and participant. As a co-founder of the Society for European Festivals Research he continued to collaborate in conferences in Warwick, Venice, London, Bergamo, Mons and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He particularly enjoyed our collaboration with the European Science Foundation’s PALATIUM research network. As a general editor of the European Festival Studies, 1450–1700 series of books he encouraged interdisciplinary research in an increasingly international context for students, doctoral and early career researchers and more senior scholars, collaborating in research networks with curators, archivists and performance practitioners.

His enthusiasm, determination and passion for academic integrity also resulted in a collaboration between scholars of history, education and performance studies, archivists and experts in architecture and restoration, to publish a study of The Guild and Guild Buildings of Shakespeare’s Stratford (Ashgate). This, in turn, led to him working tirelessly to enable the establishment of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall as a major heritage destination.

Ronnie’s approach as an educator was one of inclusivity across generations and backgrounds. His research, participation and leadership was of the highest scholarly and professional standards. His energy, his generosity in encouraging others and his love of theatre, music, poetry, architecture, languages and history have been an inspiration to many. Tributes are pouring in from former students, colleagues and friends. He will be a very hard act to follow.

Margaret Shewring