(photo credit: Jeff Busby)
The Elephant and the Swastika; The Journey of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
How a small-town Australian company created world-acclaimed and mind-bending theatre
by Chad Dembski
CHARPO: How did Back to Back theatre first come together? How has it grown to its current state?
GLADWIN: The company is based in Geelong, a small regional centre just south of Melbourne in Australia. It started in 1997, at a point of the institutionalization of Australia. So the defining feature of the company is that it employs actors with intellectual disabilities. It started as a series of workshops, with a number of artists; visual artists, theatre makers, and a musician running workshops with people with disabilities in our community. All three of those artists were drawn to an outsider art aesthetic and started applying that to theatre. The company has never worked from existing scripts, it’s always a collective writing process, like a devised process.
The very first show that the company produced started touring so this process where the company makes work not just for the community that it’s based in, but also for a touring program became the model of operation. The scale of work has built over the years, I’m the fourth Artistic Director and I think each director has taken the company in their own specific aesthetic direction. When I joined the company one of the agendas that the ensemble had was to tour more broadly and to tour internationally. We set about trying to make work that would have a broader resonance, with our audience.
Our presentation of “SOFT” for the 2005 Melbourne International Festival was a play about pre-natal screening, emerging genetic technology. It was obviously quite pertinent for the actors in the company because the work positioned the actors as being kind of obsolete in society, and not wanted. We aim to make work that comes from the idiosyncratic voice of the actors but it kind of speaks to all people. A lot of the thematics we’re dealing with are about power, power difference, and the machinations of power. But really each work is trying to answer questions that are raised in a previous work, so it’s like an ongoing investigation in many ways.