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Feature: Butterfly

Lorna Irvine catches up with the critically acclaimed theatre maker and aerial artist Ramesh Meyyappan ahead of his new show.

Lorna Irvine: How did creating Butterfly compare with Snails and Ketchup? (Obviously, it was just you on stage for Snails.)

Ramesh Meyyappan: A few similarities actually – both inspired by a narrative text, both entirely visual, both required me to learn new ‘skills’ as part of creating (puppetry and aerial work for Snails).

I learnt much from creating Snails that allowed me to feed into creating Butterfly – one of the major lessons learnt was how the ‘vision’ – what I want to create – is shared with the creative team, who were going to be essential in the creation of Butterfly. For Butterfly I worked with a dramaturg to help with the development of a ‘visual script’ that went some way in providing not just a structure but explored what I hoped we’d see on stage as well as giving some thought to character – for the actors and for the puppets.

LI: You recently performed to massive audiences in Singapore- how was that?

RM: Yes – thanks to the great marketing of Esplanade, we’d sold out before we’d even landed in Singapore. For me it is always great to arrive ‘home’ and feel that my work is supported by audiences there, even though there is sometimes a little pressure to live up to expectations and comparisons with past performances. Although it’s good to know that audiences will come and see the work of the ‘local’ there is a little pressure all the same – Singaporeans are fairly critical.

There is a great feeling however, performing to a full house – I feel that audiences make a difference – we actors almost feed off their energy, expectations and you can feel the collective response – this then can add to the feeling and emotion on stage – at least that’s how I felt!

The response generally was very positive and some great dialogue between us during post show discussions. I think Singaporeans expect me to bring something new to each performance – with Snails there was the aerial element and there was a similar interest in puppetry.

LI: I was wondering about the working process- particularly in collaborative terms. How do all the elements come together? Do you start from a visual idea and build on that, or go by text first?

RM: I don’t have a formula in terms of what comes first. In this instance 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’d 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. In my opinion this has been one of the most successful elements of Butterfly – the use of the puppets allow the audience to see another part of the female character – a world that she creates for herself in her darkest moments.

In terms of bringing the elements together, I was aware of making many Butterfly references in the writing – not just the character but referencing butterflies and what we associate with them; their capture, their beauty, their fragility and their flight. The team picked up on this well and we were able to all explore butterfly motifs – from design and movement.

LI: Has it been a challenge, adapting such a classic and well-loved piece as Madam Butterfly?

RM: Had I attempted to copy the opera then I could have ultimately set myself up for a fail. However, it was never my intention to re-create that story. While I was inspired by the story I was particularly interested in the themes and how these could be explored.

Thoughts from this included: cultural differences and the different expectations between men and women, the trust from a woman and her betrayal and disappointment. However, the most powerful image created when reading was how her child was taken from her – evoking much emotion based on her loss. It was this final image/thought that really inspired a desire to create Butterfly.

In life most of us will suffer some form of loss – it has various guises and impacts on us at different levels. This seemed like a ‘theme’ worth exploring, one that was universal and one that would almost definitely evoke some empathy.

There became a sense of wanting to explore how grief and loss manifest themselves both physically and emotionally.

The challenge became dealing with this (grief) sensitively and avoiding any sensationalism or even over sentimentality. The puppets became the solution to this – allowing the Butterfly character to show us the world she inhabited while dealing with her grief – a world where she was perhaps not accepting what had happened and her journey to that realisation.

LI: What can you tell us about Darren Brownlie's choreography?

RM: Darren’s contribution was massive in allowing us to use movement to show some of the sensitive and intimate moments as well as one of the most harrowing. These I needed to be a little more stylized. Darren was a great listener and very capably took on board thoughts about what I wanted to achieve with these specific moments.

Darren faced quite a challenge – he had to continue the narrative, integrating a ‘dance’ style, all the while trying to not create a piece of dance. He managed this – his choreographed moments, I think, fit seamlessly into the piece.

LI: Manipulate has an amazing line-up. Is there anything else you are looking forward to seeing this season?

RM: I’m very much looking forward to seeing: “Autumn Portaits”, “And then he ate me” and “That’s it”. I’d like to see a whole lot more but we’ll be touring Butterfly as part of the festival so won’t have that opportunity.

Butterfly is part of this year’s Manipulate Festival and tours Scotland from January 27-February 5.

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