★★★½☆ Putting disability on the record in a gently provocative dance-theatre work

Carriageworks, Sydney
August 17, 2016

Is it offensive to portray a disability on stage that you don’t have? Is it OK to poke fun at sign language or attempt to speak on someone else’s behalf? Where does personal space begin and end? How much of our true self is it advisable to reveal to the world? Off The Record asks all kinds of questions, while playing with preconceptions and misconceptions to do with disability and ways of communicating – and it does so in a thought-provoking, gently amusing and, at times, touchingly tender way.

Produced by Force Majeure in partnership with Dance Integrated Australia, Off The Record was commissioned by Carriageworks under its National Arts and Disability Strategy, New Normal. Force Majeure was founded in 2002 by Kate Champion and has developed a reputation as Australia’s leading dance-theatre company, creating devised works about contemporary Australian life. This is the first work by the Company’s new Artistic Director Danielle Micich, who has co-directed with Philip Channells of Dance Integrated Australia.

Photo by Zan Wimberley

It features a diverse cast of five engaging performers with and without disabilities: contemporary dancers Jana Castillo and Marnie Palomares, actors Alex Jones and Gerard O’Dwyer, who are both disability advocates, along with actor and Auslan interpreter Neil Phipps. Off The Record draws on their personal experiences, exploring aspects of their lives that they would normally keep hidden. Working with Zoe Coombs Marr as a dramaturg, their stories have been used “to build a narrative that cultivates a shared understanding of our differences,” as the co-directors put it in their programme note.

The stories range from the light-hearted to the confronting, from “Dear Diary” entries about sex to denting a friend’s car to playing sex games as a child with Barbie dolls. A rejection letter Palomares received, couched in professional language designed (but failing) to let her down gently, hits hard. The way O’Dwyer defines himself with a mantra about all the things he is not (“I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t steal, I don’t swear”) and his admission that he “tried to fit in so badly” when he was young is sweetly moving. Meanwhile, his attempt to impersonate Stephanie Forrester from The Bold and the Beautiful is wonderfully silly.

With set and lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne, Off The Record is performed on an open stage with a couple of raised platforms and five flat screen televisions (one for each performer) on which subtitled text is sometimes shown. It begins with a voiceover describing the space in great detail, down to its dimensions (the depth of the stage is equivalent to the length of two cars, its width the size of an average blue whale). All the while, Phipps stands on a raised area and signs what is being said in Auslan. And then he just keeps signing and signing. “How do we get him to stop?” quip the others.

Throughout the production, there are all kinds of amusing twists on the use of sign language as the characters communicate in different ways. Phipps frequently signs, but also verbalises when Jones (who is deaf) is signing. At one point, Palomares verbalises for Jones, making up a ridiculous story with rabbits, which clearly has nothing to do with what he is saying in sign language. In another vivid image, she literally puts words in his mouth.

Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

The production challenges you regarding the use of labels. The performers with a disability don’t refer to it directly in their biography, so when writing about them, should we? Castillo throws in even more of a curved ball. Initially seen curled up against the back wall on which she is drawing chalk figures, she appears at first to have a disability affecting her speech and movement. Later that doesn’t seem to be the case. She tells a story about having Tourette syndrome, which medical practitioners dismissed as attention seeking. It doesn’t affect her on stage, she says. Questions abound.

There is some wonderful movement in the piece, with a series of powerful duets. A dance between O’Dwyer and Palomares explores inappropriate touching and invasive physicality. Palomares and Castillo dazzle in a stunning duet – both of them such lithe, beautiful dancers, Castillo with a flexibility that verges at times on contortion. In a touching duet between Palomares and Jones, physical manipulation develops into protective tenderness.

There are times when the production loses traction a bit, when the narrative might be tightened and the emotional punch stronger. But it is a thought-provoking work that creeps up on you as you get to know the characters, charming you with its gentle humour and moments of surprising tenderness. Well worth a look.

Off The Record plays at Carriageworks until August 20