Theatremaker Ramesh Meyyappan has opinions about the cultural position of “deaf” or “signed” theatre and its role in his own art including his most recent work Butterfly, which ran through May 14 at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway series. The wordless one-hour piece was developed collaboratively with artists including a dramaturg, a consulting director, a choreographer, and a puppet designer to further Ramesh’s explorations of a theatre language of movement without using sign language. Ramesh and puppet director and maker Gavin Glover discussed by phone and email the background and context for Butterfly, their own backgrounds, and their hopes for a theatre of hyphenated art forms focused on telling stories in new ways.
Butterfly is inspired by the same John Luther Long short story used by Puccini for his opera Madame Butterfly, at the core of which is the image of the loss of a child, which first inspired Ramesh. “Butterfly first loses her partner, her love, and then there the loss of a child, a miscarriage, that cannot be fully explained in words,” summarized Ramesh. The piece uses symbols and references to butterflies and flight: the female lead creates kites; suitor Nabokov, named for the writer who was interested in butterflies, captures and studies the creatures; and movement choreographed by Darren Brownlie evokes the beauty and fragility of both butterflies and kites in flight.
Puppet maker Gavin described their storytelling choices:
In this version we left things slightly ambiguous. She is alone. You can believe that she really did have a baby, or you can believe that was a hallucination. It’s a silent piece. The audience is left to make up their own mind, which I find quite strong, quite good.
Ramesh reflected that “there needs to be a place for ‘deaf’ or ‘signed’ theatre, but I do struggle with who the audience is” beyond those who understand sign language. The question of language in art is a deeply professional and personal one for him.
While I absolutely agree that there needs to be a place for sign language, I worry that we deaf limit our audiences and perhaps our opportunities if all we can offer is sign language… I’m proud of my language, it forms who I am. However, if I didn’t compromise, I’d be waiting around for a role that could be signed and depending on interpreters to be my voice. The solution was to find a language, a vocabulary that was shared and understood directly and not through a third party.
Professionally and artistically, Ramesh defies categories—he relies on physicality and “uses a mix of visual and physical vocabularies.” “I’ve devised, I’ve developed, I’ve explored, I’ve performed, I’ve directed—all roles that enable me to create work.”
Ramesh’s visual theatrical vocabulary incorporates multiple elements: puppetry, masks, aerial skills, circus, butoh dance theatre, clowning, and more. In a solo piece Snails & Ketchup, inspired by Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, he used aerial work because the character wanted to live in the trees. For Butterfly, Ramesh worked with choreographer Darren Brownlie to explore movement and how it helps tell a story or develop character. He worked with dramaturg George Aza-Selinger to unpack the component visual parts of the story, to develop a “visual script” that would allow him to describe his director’s vision to the creative team.
The director’s perspective is a current area of exploration.
I’ve recently finished some research including a practical workshop with Graham McLaren on approaches to texts from a director’s point of view. Graham finds the intention behind the spoken word and that is communicated visually, without any dialogue, then the dialogue is added on again, with quite an interesting impact on the actor’s performances. This could be a starting point for me delving into traditional texts.
Ramesh concluded that the story comes first. “I explore a style or element that will support my storytelling; I do tend to move towards work that tells a human story.”
Gavin Glover was a natural match for Ramesh as another professional hyphenate who looks for ways to tell a theatrical story visually. Gavin came to puppetry after completing three years of a seven-year architecture program, then worked in a puppet theatre in London’s Islington neighborhood where he performed and explored visual techniques including mask, clowning, dance, and movement. He shares:
Puppetry is a serious tool that you can use to create something that’s obviously live. We can see the strings, or the guy in the back, or the actor holding onto it, but that’s the beauty about working in the theatre: you can see it’s all being made in front of you, with no edits.
Gavin described his work as generally “more weird” and “darker” than what we see in Butterfly. He formed several companies with compound names over the past few decades. First a “visual theatre” company called FaultyOptic that ceased activities in 2011, where “most of the shows were without words, more puppet shows than puppets with actors, quite dark, and Samuel Beckett-like.” His current company is PotatoRoom productions, where he creates works that combine “puppets, acting, clowning, video, movement, and dance—in fact whatever is necessary to create a highly intricate and intriguing theatre.” He’s now freelancing, and making a move to Glasgow to work on the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
Like Ramesh, Gavin draws from multiple art forms and approaches.
Puppets are artistically-made pieces of sculpture. We inhabit this visual arts, plastic arts field, as opposed to the theatre arts field. We’re trying to bring this together, meeting in the middle. I see myself as creating these time-based performances, obviously start-middle-end, just like a theatre show. But it might not be performed in the same way that you would see a scripted play.
Gavin met Ramesh at a workshop in Glasgow, and Ramesh then contacted him about eighteen months ago to explore puppetry in the piece that became Butterfly. “He hadn’t used puppets before, but used himself as a performer. Butterfly was a bit bigger with three people on stage, so he had more space to experiment, with more people to manipulate stuff.” Puppets are not continuously present in the performance, but emerge gradually as Butterfly’s world collapses. The puppets, manipulated by the male performers, include a tiny mountaineering figurine that traverses a sleeping Butterfly and a life-sized yet not-quite-human-looking toddler. Gavin recalled Ramesh’s thoughts on the real yet not-real baby figure. “He wanted a baby that was kind of realistic and moved fairly realistically but is slightly not human. It’s blue so you know that it’s more in her mind.”
The interplay between alien and familiar in the world of the play is enchanting. Gavin noted that he likes to work on projects “where the thing doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful and it’s the actions of the people around it and their emotions and how they treat it” that animates the scene. The mother Butterfly character has to believe in the toddler puppet. “The puppet has to perform, to be manipulated, in such a way that you believe it’s breathing, it’s looking, reacting, seeing, hearing. There are still those little things that apply to puppets that make it live, to actually get those gasps of disbelief from the audience.”
Ramesh has trained in and created deaf theatre training programs in several parts of the world. He worked with the Hi! Theatre in Singapore, earned his BA at Liverpool Institute of the Arts, and now lives in the UK where he recently was one of two deaf members on a majority hearing design team for a new BA Performance in British Sign Language at English Degree for Deaf at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, Scotland. “My input was in exploring all the modules and considering potential challenges as well as developing a visual theatre module that I now teach as a core module to deaf and hearing students,” Ramesh noted. “For me it was important to have a visual module as an accessible language that is shared with both deaf and hearing.”
Gavin continues work with the National Theatre of Scotland’s A Christmas Carol, and is making plans to work again with director Graham McLaren to build a show inspired by a famous Edinburgh murder mystery involving life-sized puppets. He’s holding workshops to experiment with video cameras and miniatures. He calls it micro cinema theatre—“not using the puppets at all, using video cameras and videoing little things and then projecting it, trying to tell a story.”
Gavin’s professional evolution incorporating people with puppets resonates with Ramesh’s new use of puppets with people in Butterfly. Ramesh expanded his tools with puppetry in this piece, and sees the puppets as some of the most successful elements of the production, “using puppets to allow the audience to see the world the female character creates for herself in her darkest moments.” Gavin realized that putting people with his puppets created a new richer dynamic that broadens his aesthetic toolkit.
If you treat everything equally in terms of what is going to make theatre that you want—something that’s really evocative, or very calming, or cruel, or grotesque, that creates or shows the narrative—puppetry and film and actors and dancers are different colors on a palette that we can choose from. Now it’s thinking about choosing equally, not one above the other.