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the genesis: ganesh versus the third reich

john bailey: interview, back to back theatre members


Simon Laherty, Ganesh versus the Third Reich Simon Laherty, Ganesh versus the Third Reich
photo Jeff Busby
Brian Tilley, Ganesh versus the Third Reich Brian Tilley, Ganesh versus the Third Reich
photo Jeff Busby
 Scott Price, Ganesh versus the Third Reich Scott Price, Ganesh versus the Third Reich
photo Jeff Busby
Mark Deans, Ganesh versus the Third Reich Mark Deans, Ganesh versus the Third Reich
photo Jeff Busby
IN 2010 GEELONG’S BACK TO BACK THEATRE UNDERTOOK THREE INTERNATIONAL TOURS PERFORMING FOUR SEPARATE WORKS, HOLDING CREATIVE DEVELOPMENTS FOR ANOTHER FOUR ALONG THE WAY. YET ARTISTIC DIRECTOR BRUCE GLADWIN STILL DESCRIBES THE COMPANY AS A SMALL ONE. “IT’S NOT AS IF WE’RE OUT THERE MAKING A SEASON BROCHURE WHERE WE DO EIGHT SHOWS A YEAR. WE SPEND A LOT OF TIME HERE WHEN WE’RE NOT TOURING, MAKING NEW WORK OR DOING A COMMUNITY PROJECT IN GEELONG THAT DOESN’T HAVE A HUGE PROFILE.”

While the company may see itself as small, its immense strides in the Australian performance world can best be understood by contextualising its very existence. When touring abroad, the company has often been asked about the social and political climate that has allowed it to come into being. It may seem an odd question—in our liberal society, the emergence of an artist might seem the simple result of an individual’s desire. But a professional and highly regarded theatre company employing performers with disabilities isn’t the norm the world over. In the minds of those asking these questions, says Gladwin, “people with disabilities don’t exist within the cultural landscape of their own countries.”

In the 1980s Australia underwent a process of de-institutionalisation. Concerted efforts were made to provide people with disabilities stable roles within the wider community, with residential, employment and support options expanded. People with disabilities were afforded the opportunity to be more visibly engaged with other sectors of society. This hasn’t occurred everywhere. “In Austria,” says Gladwin, “until recently, they didn’t have to have a government policy dealing with people with disabilities in aged care—because at the end of World War II there weren’t any people with disabilities left.”

To mainstream audiences in Australia, Back to Back has emerged as a fully-fledged company producing complex and artfully realised works in the space of a few years. But such ‘overnight successes’ rarely occur overnight—the company has been operating since 1987, and its recent entry into the international spotlight is the culmination of decades of development and self-scrutiny. That a suite of productions—Soft, Small Metal Objects, Food Court—have enjoyed unwavering critical acclaim is an outcome of this carefully judged and quietly considered approach to the question of what the company wants to be.

At a festival in Spain many years ago, Gladwin saw a company of performers with disabilities from Portugal producing a farce. “Everyone said ‘you’ve got to see this company,’ and they were great, they were really amazing. But what they were performing was this traditional farce. You couldn’t watch it without thinking that in their own country they are performing this alongside other companies performing this type of material and they’re always going to just be this variation of that.”

what theatre can be

Back to Back isn’t interested in reproducing traditional forms of theatre. Rather, says Gladwin, the company “has always been about forging what we think theatre could be. We create our own stories.” “Theatre’s very empowering,” says ensemble member Scott Price. “Anyone with a disability can act, and people with disabilities need that empowerment.” Price became a full-time member of the company in 2008 and appeared in the disturbing Food Court, which premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2009.

Performance can be empowering, but many people also find the prospect of exposing themselves to public attention a threatening one. “Do they?” asks Price. “I feel very comfortable in my own skin. I have been nervous occasionally but I’m generally really comfortable. Of course before opening night you’ll be shit-scared but as the shows go by I’m fine.” Though only 24, Price is the ensemble’s most vocal interrogator of the politics and ethics of representing disability in a theatrical environment. “Some of the moral and ethical standards I have,” he says, “well, I’m open to a lot of stuff but what I’m not open to is discrimination towards people with disabilities. Some language is pathetic.”

“Scott is the person in the company where if there was some representation of people with disabilities or if someone uses the word ‘retard’ or something, Scott will stand up and make a statement about it,” says Gladwin. “Well, for example, your use of the R-word,” says Price. “I just don’t think we should use that in a show.”

Back to Back is no stranger to controversy; indeed, the company’s works consciously challenge perceptions of disability, often turning the gaze of the audience back on itself. Soft featured a narrative in which a couple debate the termination of a pregnancy after the foetus is diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, arguing that the child will never be able to secure proper education or decent employment. Food Court—a collaboration with improvisational jazz group The Necks—centred on a pair of bullies victimising a disabled woman, leading her to a gloomy forest and subjecting her to a barrage of physical and emotional abuse. That these scenarios are played out by performers who themselves might face such discrimination adds a profoundly unsettling edge to each production.

ganesh versus the third reich

The company’s next work is Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, appearing in this year’s Melbourne Festival. “In some ways this work is made in response to some of the feedback we had from Food Court,” says Gladwin. “Some of the questions we had were whether the actors were in charge of what they were doing, and who was the author of the work. How comfortable were the actors with what they were doing? In a way, making a work that’s about the making of a work gave us the vehicle to explore that.”

Again, Price has acted as the ethical barometer of the piece. “You know, you’re portraying Nazis and people were actually killed,” he points out. “This is something that should be discussed but, gee whiz.”

The way the company has handled the dilemma of representation is to incorporate these questions into the production itself. The work features two strands: one is an epic hero’s journey—the Hindu god Ganesh travelling through Nazi Germany to reclaim the mystical symbol of the swastika appropriated by Hitler. The other explores the frame of a theatre company attempting to explore the politics of such cultural appropriation by appropriating cultural symbols itself: “the actual makers of the work in moral and ethical conflict with each other over the making of the piece,” says Gladwin.

It’s impossible to say, yet, what the final performance will be. It’s an ambitious undertaking—a number of scenes are performed in German, and Ganesh features the largest amount of text the company has ever taken on. The work is both a costume drama and a post-dramatic exploration of theatremaking. But Back to Back’s mandate is one of risk-taking, and the incorporation of unexpected elements occurs not just throughout development but during productions themselves.

ensemble and authority

Back to Back is driven by its ensemble. In response to those who questioned the authority of its performers in Food Court, one anecdote may suffice. During the development of that production, one of its devisers and performers, Rita Halabarec, insisted on the inclusion of several monologues that others weren’t so sold on. “There was a lot of conflict between Rita and I in the making of that work, in terms of the editing of it,” says Gladwin. “What went in and what went out.

“She would exercise her authority as a writer in the performance. There were two points at which she would deliver a monologue that wasn’t in the script. It was an issue for us because all the language was projected as well as spoken. So after realising that we couldn’t stop her, we built a palette of phrases that we thought she was likely to say and the AV operator would have to look at a screen and try to click on what was said. I kind of liked that, and came to really love what she offered. It went against my judgement but in the end...I mean, we’ve got The Necks there who are these improvising jazz impresarios and she’s doing the same thing.”


Malthouse Theatre & Melbourne Festival: Back to Back Theatre, Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Sept 29-Oct 9; www.malthousetheatre.com.au; Melbourne Festival, Oct 6-22

Read reviews of other Back to Back productions in our Art & Disability Archive Highlight

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 12

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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