Preview: Off Kilter by Theatreworks (+Interview with Ramesh Meyyappan!)

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Glasgow-based Singaporean physical theatre master Ramesh Meyyappan makes a hotly anticipated return to the local theatre scene this October with his latest work: Off Kilter.

Off Kilter follows Joe Kilter, hiding away in his own happy routine and preferring anonymity over fame. But as a change knocks his routine completely off track (and his house sideways), Joe Kilter’s life becomes, quite frankly, off kilter. As he closes himself off from the world, Joe retreats to a place of darkness, as he attempts to find his centre once more and heal.

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Presented by Theatreworks, the darkly comic Off Kilter will be coming in in fresh from its critically acclaimed run in Glasgow and feature Meyyappan’s signature blend of complex physical theatre and non-verbal storytelling, and raising his already heralded style to a new level with dreamy visuals incorporating the power of illusion at every turn. Off Kilter will also feature lighting design by Andy Lim and a score by Joel Nah, and one can only expect the very best from this production by the man behind genius works like Butterfly (2015) and Snails & Ketchup (2011).

For anyone who’s ever felt a little out of place in the world, put yourself upright again this October with Off Kilter, and witness this master of visual theatre perform what can only be described as sheer magic before your very eyes.

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We also managed to get in touch with Ramesh in Glasgow before he arrives in Singapore for a few quick words! Heres’s the interview in full below:

1. Off Kilter may be off kilter in name, but you’ve also created plenty of other eccentric works in the past, considering previous works had you performing aerial acrobatics and employing puppetry. What makes Off Kilter different from your previous repertoire, and what can audience members look forward to?

I like to think that all my works are at least a little different from each other. The stories are different, the themes I hope are different and while they are all purely visual, I do make efforts to develop and explore a new visual element.   

For Off Kilter I’ve incorporated a new visual element –  illusion. The illusions are fairly small in scale but nonetheless are integral to the character and what happens to him.   The illusions are aimed to make the character feel out of sorts and confused and they work on that level. This is not a magic show, the illusions were chosen and designed to support what we wanted to happen to the character, he doesn’t perform a trick but his mind sort of plays tricks on him.

The initial idea was centered around the experience that many of us have had of having an off day – I think like most folk I’ve experienced that type of day too.  However, I wanted the Off Kilter ‘off day’ to explore a day that had more serious consequences. I wanted to identify the isolation felt, the fear, anxiety, confusion, deep sadness and even anger.      

Reading about mental illness, I was beginning to appreciate the stigma felt by those who suffered (a stigma that is a result of much ignorance), that makes some feel completely alone as they are not understood and at times demonized and feared. I say demonized as many mainstream media stories sensationalize mental health and run with the stories of ‘crazy and dangerous’ people.   

I think with Off Kilter I wanted to offer a sense of the real stories and not over dramatize these – I was hoping that the audiences would identify with some moment experienced by the character.   I think most of us have experienced not being ourselves.   In terms of my own experience, things have happened in life that have triggered a host of emotions that were ‘off’ and needed to be worked through…I assume we can all identify with that. 

How when our routines are changed can we become unsettled or “off kilter”? In a (at times) light-handed way, I will look at how one man deals with the descent into mental ill health, loss of identity and how we perceive him and ultimately how we might empathise with him. There is still a stigma around mental health – the invisible illness that often leaves those who suffer with mental health feeling increasingly isolated and on the fringes of society.

I’m sure Singapore audiences will appreciate the collaboration on this between UK and Singapore folk; Pearlyn Chua producing, Joel Nah composing, Andy Lim designing and Theatreworks presenting. We’ve also had much needed and appreciated support from Dream Academy, NAC and SIF.

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2. Many of your other performances are inspired by or based off literary works (Butterfly, Snails and Ketchup, Gin and Tonic and Passing Trains). What is it about these literary works that makes them prime candidates for you to adapt them in theatrical form?

Themes – one of the important aspects – are universal and thought provoking things that happen to ALL of us and we share the same experience and emotion.

Sometimes when I read stories/texts – like most folk I can see it unfold visually in the ‘mind’s eye’. This can at times go beyond that and I start to see visual possibilities – how it will look on stage.  I don’t read everything with a view to performing it but certainly if I’m considering a text as a performance I have to be able to see it a little visually while reading.     

Creating original piece is a huge challenge because it takes some effort and time to find the inspiration before you start working on a piece. I struggle with the thought that just because something inspires me it may not inspire and audience – how to create something that other will be inspired by. For example, Butterfly – I had been inspired by John Luther Long’s short story and had read it a couple of times and visual ideas did begin to come to mind – I could begin to imagine what became Butterfly. I also wanted to explore puppets – I was curious about how I might make this work and I knew that the Butterfly I had in mind would allow an opportunity to use puppets and integrate them into the narrative – that puppet characters could work and be important characters within this story.

Key considerations for me when reading a text with a view to adapting / performing it are the themes, strong narrative thread, visual possibilities including possible visual styles and elements I’m able to explore.

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Ramesh in Butterfly

 

3. You began your theatre career as an educator and performer with the Hi! Theatre in Singapore. Was there a work you watched or a person that inspired you to make the shift from simply making ‘deaf theatre’ to a more universal aesthetic? 

Although Hi! Theatre were a mostly deaf company they aimed to create work that was accessible to deaf and hearing – choosing to not sign, this in itself was an inspiration.   

Moving to Liverpool I became involved with the physical theatre scene and I became increasingly aware of the wide range of possibilities for visual and physical work and it was at this point I knew I had much to learn and began the journey of striving to continually develop my own visual theatre vocabulary.

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Ramesh in Snails and Ketchup

4. Besides the fact that your wife is from Glasgow, what other factors ultimately led to you choosing to settle there instead of Singapore? What lessons can Singapore stand to learn from the English/Scottish art scene?

Initially I moved to Scotland when my now wife returned to Glasgow (from Singapore) to be with her family at a time when her dad was ill. We didn’t plan to make Glasgow a permanent base but having put in so much effort trying to establish myself within the arts community there, we felt it would be foolish to leave!    

Living in Scotland has some advantages and I’ve been well supported by the arts community here, that’s true. But it wasn’t easy to begin with – lots of work to try and establish myself here and it could have easily gone pear-shaped. I put in a lot of work to just introduce myself here. I remember putting on an event at a venue in Glasgow University, crossing my fingers and toes and praying that those I’d invited (but didn’t know) would attend to hear me talk about my work – it was a call out for support and to look for collaborators.  Following that I approached Steve Slater who at that time was at the Tramway in Glasgow and I remember leaving a short meeting stunned and in disbelief – was he really offering me a Tramway Commission!  From this came Gin and Tonic and Passing Trains.

In terms of audiences, there is a wider audience base including opportunities to tour.   What I was able to do with some success was support venues in their audience development, my work was marketed to deaf (a new and growing audience in Scotland), those interested in visual, physical theatre, little niche at times with circus etc as well as the mainstream ‘theatre going’ audience.

I think if Singapore needs to think about anything it would be to have a little more self-belief and allow the smaller companies to explore and develop, collaborate more and support each other in the industry.  In terms of supporting deaf or disabled artists – stop labelling them – collaborate with us and recognize our talents, skills, insights and experience – use it and stop patronizing by assuming that a hearing person or ‘able-bodied’ can do better. There needs to better access to venues, to training, to funding and to collaborations.

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Ramesh in Butterfly

5. In another life, could you imagine yourself ever having adopted another career path instead of theatre? If so, what might you have been?

I genuinely haven’t ever seen myself working in any other industry – theatre just seems to be what I do! I’m relatively new to fatherhood and wish sometimes that I could do that full-time.

Off Kilter plays at 72-13 from 11th – 14th October. Tickets to Off Kilter available from SISTIC

Off Kilter
When: 11th – 14th October, 8pm
Where: 72-13

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