Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Character Study - Margritte Roma

I am all about maintaining the anonymity of the people that I refer to in these posts, but as Ms. Roma would be well over 100 years old today, I feel it is alright to use her name. If everything that I heard is true, she has one of the most interesting back stories of anyone I have ever met.

When I lived in San Francisco, I worked, briefly, with a semi-professional theatre group. We were paid a pittance, not even enough to cover bus fare to and from rehearsals and performances. This was understandable, the group was a new start up so funds were going to the "production". Also,the company was large, 14 to 15 people and there was not a very large "gate" coming in. During my time with the group, however,  I learned more about the craft of theatre in a shorter amount of time then I ever had previously. This was due, in large part to Margritte Roma, the artistic and stage director of the group.

Roma, she went only by her last name, was a bipolar crone who could make one crazy but who you still had to respect. I worked with her form the summer of 1984 until early 1985. At that time she was 80. Her story goes....

She was born a German Jew. In her youth she was renown as one of the most promising actresses in Europe. Prior to World War II she was working in Berlin under the direction of Bertold Brecht. She was married, at that time, to a Pole. It as rumored that he was gay. It was not uncommon during that period for straight women in artistic circles to marry gay men. Lotte Lenya's second husband, after the death of Kurt Weill, was gay. All we ever  heard of her first husbands fate was that he was "lost to war".

Being Jewish, Germany was not a safe place for her during this time. With help from a group of Jesuits, so the story goes, she was able to get across the border to France. For the next 7 years she worked with the Comedie Francois collaborating with the theatre legend Max Rhinehardt.

When it became apparent France was going to surrender to the Nazis, she was forced to flee once again. This time to the U.S. settling in Santa Monica, where Brecht had gone to wait out the war. Working at Paramount she met her second husband, a set carpenter.

Eventually they moved north to San Francisco and founded a traveling Shakespearean acting company. I had the pleasure of working with one of the original members of that company during my short tenure with them. He would tell me tale of the early days of the company. They performed, often outdoors in parks, but also in hospitals and prisons. He would often discuss the different ways hardened criminals related to Shakespeare. That company eventually pushed Roma and her husband out feeling that they had become to old. I worked with them during the founding stages or the new company they were trying to develop after that.

Although 80 years old she was as vital as a woman half her age. She was intense; she and I had more that one shouting match. Her politics and world view were so far left that they verged on impractical. Her husband once remarked to me "You know Roma lives in her own world." She spoke 5 languages, although her  English was sometimes almost unintelligible. At one point she directed a young Vic Tayback in a production of "Death of a Salesman". She said it was the only production Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willie Loman, ever saw. Another veteran member of the company, who was also working with them at the time I was, while helping them organize their archives, found a photo of her standing between Mr. Cobb and Mr. Tayback.

Attempting to Google her I have found very little. I managed to come up with one picture she was in. She had a nonspeaking role as a "hostage". I once found a link titled "The Films of Margritte Roma" but the page was no longer active.

Although, for a number of reasons, my theatrical ambitions never bore fruit, I am still grateful for and respect the insights and knowledge I gained from coming to know and work with her.

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