Dawn Jani Birley and Ramesh Mayyappan
"In order to build authentic bridges of intercultural exchanges between Deaf and hearing communities, it is vital for Deaf artists to have a say – or be empowered and supported in telling our own stories – rather than being portrayed in ways we have been systemically perceived.” - Dawn Jani Birley
Courtesy of SummerWorks Festival
Recently I held a Zoom call with Dawn and Ramesh through ASL interpreters. This was my first experience speaking with Deaf artists. Their background in development as theatre artists is fascinating.
Both are here as part of the Summerworks Festival. Ramesh has directed the premiere of ‘Lady M (Margaret)’ now onstage at The Theatre Centre. Jani appears as Lady M.
Dawn has always loved theatre but didn’t have an opportunity to study it growing up in Canada. Coming from a third-generation Deaf family, she used to find herself the only Deaf person looking to pursue a career in the theatre. company. Fate took her to Scandinavia when she was aware and shocked to discover a professional sign language theatre with Deaf actors. Finally, she could go into a theatre for the first time and see a production in her unique language.
She was thrilled with this discovery, and it became a natural fit. Dawn established friends with theatre people, was entranced with the theatre and took courses from Deaf professionals. All this experience led her to take summer school. She took her professional training in Scandinavia. Dawn then pursued a Master’s in Physical Theatre in London, England, in 2016. Since then, she proudly asserts she has been working at her life’s calling.
Ramesh is from Singapore. He did not receive any formal training in the theatre. Growing up, he saw Deaf Theatre when he was young as there was a company in Singapore and was fascinated with their work. After school, Ramesh became involved in the semi-professional company He had the opportunity to work with Deaf and Hearing actors for eight years, where he learned a tremendous amount.
After this time, Ramesh knew he needed some new challenges and to find something different. He moved to England and studied at the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. He was the only Deaf student when he enrolled, as the others were all hearing. Luckily, these eight years under his belt in Singapore, this experience allowed him to connect in the program because the communication issues were very challenging.
After a couple of years, Ramesh began to build bonds with the other students. At the Liverpool Institute, he became involved with Hearing actors who were Physical Theatre actors. Ramesh also honed his craft here, not only school learned but through active involvement in theatre companies. He developed a taste for Asian and Western theatre, and he has been able to incorporate and mould these components in his performances as an actor and artist.
Now onstage at The Theatre Centre as part of SummerWorks, Lady M (Margaret) is a new, Deaf-led adaptation of Macbeth that explores Shakespeare’s famous power couple with an intersectional experience for both Deaf and hearing audiences. Adapted, created and directed by Ramesh Meyyappan, this world premiere performance work is the inaugural production by 1s1 Theatre featuring Dawn Jani Birley and Sturla Alvsvåg in the title roles of Lady Macbeth and her husband.
When I taught high school English for thirty years, ‘MacBeth’ was one of my favourites to share with the students because young people seemed to be into the elements of the witches, the murder and the gore.
The one difference here?
Influenced by Shakespeare’s ‘MacBeth’, ‘Lady M (Margaret)’ is a one-hour production that explores one of the key themes, guilt, and its impact on her and her husband, who are at war with each other in their marriage. They have been living with this tremendous sense of guilt and grief, and the audience will see this desperation play out in front of them.
Our Zoom call delved further into the text of ‘Lady M”. Dawn affirms that we all know the story from our high school days, but in his adaptation and direction, Ramesh focuses on the character of Lady M and for the audience to look closely at her. For Dawn, the play is really about looking at different perspectives.
She adds further:
“It’s always been easy to lay the blame at the feet of women. Historically, women haven’t had rights or assert their independence in history. In playing Lady M, I question why this woman does what she did and how she would cope with what she’s done. ‘Lady M’ is not a story told from one perspective. It’s a story told and perceived from multiple perspectives, making this play fascinating.”
In his role as Director, Ramesh agrees with Dawn’s understanding. He added that in 2004 he directed a production of ‘MacBeth’, which was done entirely through elements of visual language with no spoken or signed dialogue whatsoever. It followed Shakespeare’s text.
Now almost twenty years later, Ramesh looks at the play again. This time he focused on a quotation: “I have given suck/And know tender it is to love the babe that milks me”. With Dawn’s heavy involvement, Ramesh began to look further at the concept of Lady M and this child. The woman is noted for her ambition and scheming nature, but what Ramesh wanted to do was unpack what happened to her:
“Shakespeare obviously hinted in this quotation that Lady M was a mother. If she was, then what happened to that child? That got me started in thinking about different concepts and building the critical story of Lady M as the character. In her motherhood, was she looking to protect the family? Was the family not everything to her? If that’s the case, we might look at her differently. Are these new questions now the driving force behind Lady M's ambition?
The SummerWorks website adds further insight into ‘Lady M’:
“Without a child, there seems little purpose. When a heart is broken and the heartache never fades, the dull ache becomes resentment, then anger. This is what drives Lady M (Margaret). Searching for a purpose, her hardened heart will lead her to do the unimaginable to get what she wants. Her desire for power to keep her family leads to haunting guilt and swelling paranoia.”
Performances of ‘Lady M’ run August 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 at 7 pm, with a 1:30 pm performance on August 12. For tickets and other information, visit http://summerworks.ca/show/lady-m-margaret/
A 1s 1 Production, co-produced by Why Not Theatre.