Watching Me Watching You 

An Interview with the Back to Back Theatre's Artistic Director

Among the markedly abundant, appealingly provocative performers at this year's TBA Fest is the Back to Back Theatre. Driven by artists with intellectual disabilities, it has been operating in Australia for over 20 years. The subject matter of their productions is serious and sophisticated, and sometimes very dark. (In response to a play called Food Court, an audience member noted that, "It is both empowering and politically imperative that disabled people claim acts [and thoughts] of brutality—if they don't, they sit in a category of otherness that is as patronizing as it is re-disabling.")

The Mercury contacted the company and found out more about Back to Back and their upcoming TBA performance from Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin. Small metal objects takes place in crowded public locations—malls, transit centers, etc.—with the audience seated unsubtly on temporary risers. Its actors are embedded within the traffic of oblivious passersby, many of whom peer curiously at the audience (which, to those who are oblivious to the embedded actors, is the spectacle).. Meanwhile the audience is watching the play and listening to dialogue on headphones corresponding to the mini-microphoned actors.

MERCURY: I imagine that you've encountered the issue of the exploitation of people with disabilities, and I was wondering if you could clarify the inception of the company. Whose idea was it?

BRUCE GLADWIN: Back to Back started in 1987 as a result of a series of community workshops between visual, theater, and musical artists, and people with intellectual disabilities in our hometown of Geelong, a small regional center about one hour from Melbourne. At the time, government policy was in a phase of deinstitutionalization, and there were resources to support people with disabilities to live, work, and engage in the local community. From initial workshops a show was created, which then began touring. This combination of community engagement and touring with a fixed ensemble has become a model for operation [that] the company has maintained over its 22-year history. I would expect many of the initial artists involved didn't expect it to have a life beyond a few years. Many of the guest theater artists in the late '80s and early '90s who worked with the ensemble advocated for and pushed for the ensemble's equity of conditions and awards. The actors with disabilities have always been central in the planning and decision-making of the organization. Collaboration is central to the creation of theater.

There are expectations that actors with disabilities should play certain roles (such as a victim rather than a perpetrator of a violent action), or that their level of comprehension and understanding is limited, so they are easily manipulated. We feel confident that the standard of work we present is excellent, as equal to many of the most inspiring contemporary theater companies in the world. The work itself is a litmus test to the actors' power relationship to the company. If in the situation [that] an actor was forced to work in a show they didn't want to be in, or playing a role in which they didn't comprehend its significance, it would be present in, and ultimately undermine, the artistic achievement of the theatrical work. Exploiting the actors is obviously not in the actors' interest, or the company's artistic objectives.

Do you see cultural differences in the reactions of the public as you perform for an increasingly international audience?

Terminology such as "disabled," "handicapped," "spastic," "retarded," [or] "learning challenged" vary everywhere. To a large degree, we try to keep a sense of distance from disability politics and keep our eye on the task, which is to make great art. Any form of politics and advocacy comes in the wake of artistic investigation.

Is there a level of "functional" ability that is a precursor for someone with disabilities to meet in order to participate in a Back to Back production?

When a position in the ensemble becomes vacant we hold an open audition process. In the past we have had 80 applicants for one position. We would tend to appoint an actor on imagination rather than virtuosity.  

The productions tend to be rather dark, exploring (and using to advantage) the perspective of the outsider, a category in which many people, including those with disabilities, find themselves in relation to society. Would you agree with that assessment?

We are cautious not to speak about people with disabilities in a general way, but we can reflect an observation that people with intellectual disabilities tend to sit outside the institutions that many of us take for granted. For instance, for the actors in our company, most were never expected to achieve in educational institutions, to go to university, to secure employment, to earn an income, to have a life partner, to get married, to have children, to contribute to the intellectual life of our society, to be commentators of culture, to contribute to art beyond therapy.... Yes, they do sit "outside," and as such they are great commentators on us, "us" being those who are defined by these institutions.

In pop culture, disabled individuals tend to appear in a comedic context. I can't help but think specifically of the American TV show How's Your News? The creator—Arthur Bradford—seems focused on broadening the public's ability to relate to disability by showing how vital humor is to that experience. How do you feel about this approach, and how do you see Back to Back's intentions in relation to it?

Our work tends to use anything in the theatrical palette for effect: comedy or drama, we take it all in and spit it out again. Our most recent show, Food Court, has received some audience criticism for being too dark. It's a story about two women who brutally attack a third. The action is horrific but it's presented as a series of seductively beautiful images. Some have difficulty in people with disabilities undertaking an act of brutality, to embody evil, and consider that this somehow dehumanizes people with disabilities. We tend to feel the opposite; in acknowledging the evil we are rendering them more human. 

Regardingsmall metal objects: Can you explain what you mean to communicate through the use of a busy public space/unwitting participants, and audience as spectacle? Did the story of the play itself precede this arrangement, or did it originate with the idea of putting this twist on public performance?

We had a desire to make a performance that happens in a public space with the general public unwittingly becoming extras in the story. We wanted to explore a story that examined the relationship of economics to human value, that is, how someone's perceived productivity determined their position within society.

As an approach, we decided to build the story around a financial transaction that happens on the street, a handshake deal from two sides of town—the corporate world and the illegal traders of the street. The initial concept of the form was an experiment; we had no idea how the audience would deal with being asked to sit on a seating bank with headphones on, in a busy public space. We were perhaps unprepared for the impact of the second narrative in the work, which is the audience's power relationship to the passing public. This power can constantly flow between the two entities. Given that the actors are invisible to the passing public, the audience can be both spectator and spectacle. For the commuter or shopper, the audience can look like 150 people with headphones intently staring in one direction at seemingly nothing. This attracts an audience in its own right. Simultaneously the four actors play out a story about power and visibility and profit versus friendship. The performance is constantly refreshed by playing in new public locations. It is part theater, part social experiment. In many ways small metal objects reflects a city back to itself.

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