Back to Back Theatre disorients and mesmerises audiences with large themes developed from very personal workshopping. By Kate Holden.

Behind the scenes with Back to Back Theatre

Back to Back Theatre creative development.
Back to Back Theatre creative development.

Entrance to the offices of Back to Back’s studio in Geelong, Victoria, is through the regional city’s former courthouse, which now houses a cafe, two arts organisations, and the theatre company’s generously refurbished headquarters and rehearsal studio. Fresh young faces look up from the long double desk of the admin hub, and the adjacent chamber is light, clean and reminiscent of a boardroom. A vase of flowers sits stalkily on the large table, orange birds of paradise, and there’s a large, high-vis painting of an elephant storming towards a mass of screaming, fleeing Nazis. Beside it are the closed black-paint and silver-trim doors of a stage entrance. 

Back to Back, as one of Australia’s most successful and internationally feted theatre companies, is both wunderkind and grande dame. The swish headquarters are recent, but merited, after previous homes in a church hall, a jail, and another former courthouse. The company’s been running for nearly 30 years, and has a daunting record of performances – 44 national and 71 international seasons of its work in the past decade alone – as well as lavishings of awards and grants. Those who love modern theatre, and festival connoisseurs in particular, will recognise its brand of impertinent, mordant, increasingly spectacular collaborative drama, featuring arresting set scenarios, imaginative characterisation, challenging narrative forms and performances held staunchly in public spaces, such as European train stations, among local, not very sympathetic drug dealers. 

While Back to Back is a mainstay of international circuits, in Australia its reputation still struggles somewhat under a combination of obliviousness and erroneous preconceptions. “We’re in the bubble,” admits Tamara Searle, the company’s artistic associate. “The international touring festival circuit bubble.” It might ultimately work in its favour, in that modern theatre loves to astonish the bourgeois, but lazy expectations of Back to Back often originate in some of its inevitable adjectives: regional, co-funded, contemporary – and another word, of which more later. 

Inside the rehearsal studio there is a row of seats for observers, each with a pair of headphones, where the dramaturges and the marketing manager sit. Bruce Gladwin, the longstanding director and deviser of the company, folds his lanky frame to sit on the floor beside a cast member who is feeling distressed. Gladwin speaks quietly with the man, while Marco Cher-Gibard arranges the sound deck and the rest of the actors take their marks.

Apart from Brian Lipson and newest signing Romany Latham, the cast is establishment figures of Back to Back – Scott Price, Mark Deans, Sarah Mainwaring and Simon Laherty. The ensemble play to their distinct strengths and interests. Deans is the comic of the group: his deadpan expression and shrewd side-eyes punctuate otherwise solemn moments. Mainwaring’s composure bookends Price’s restless pacing and tension. Lipson, a veteran of stage acting, seems a mild man, bespectacled and lean, fitting in easily although he’s a late ring-in to replace a company member. Latham, a young person in DMs and pink hair, is so pert and alert he admits to having difficulty not hijacking the director’s prerogatives. Gladwin’s energy, on the other hand, is as lanky as his body, and the scene settles to rehearsal with jokes, patience and then long-practised focus. 

The troupe is preparing Lady Eats Apple, due to premiere, as their previous four works have done, at the Melbourne Festival. It has been devised as part of a joint festivals commissioning initiative, which ensures it, like previous works, will tour extensively in Australia and overseas next year. A decade ago a discussion between the cast and director established one of the company’s chief goals: that each production, emerging on a roughly three-year-rhythm, will tour for 10 years, and around the world. One dramatically popular work, 2011’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, to which the painting in the boardroom belongs, went from its debut in Melbourne to about 35 seasons so far, to Ghent, Lisbon, various cities in France, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paolo, Dublin, Zagreb, Basel, Zurich, Weimar, Helsinki, Edinburgh, Athens, Sydney, Tokyo, cities throughout Canada, Chicago, Berlin, Paris, Strasbourg, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Hanover, New York, Rotterdam, Austria, Adelaide. These people do not muck around. 

The new production is a metaphysical-absurdist-comedy–tragedy, dealing with the ecstasies and paradoxes of creation and destruction – “an ongoing exploration of the relationship between audience, performers, performance and architectural spaces, a continued technological exploration of sound, environment and performance delivery”, as the media release declares. It features the staggering scenario of a vast inflatable cocoon set, like an ice cave within Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, to be shared by audience and cast, and a mise en scène that extends to resonating binaural sound design and the audience wearing headphones. The press material mentions an anxious god, mediaeval monks, mesmerism and an urban jungle. 

“Prepare yourselves for violence and death,” says a chalk-written flip board, in one scene rehearsed today. The next board says: “Enjoy.” The boards are held by Lipson in an overture to a wonderful role as an exasperated, distracted mentor god of a sullen protégé: Scott Price, slouch-shouldered, black-T-shirted, standing impassive as behind him illustrations of various animals pop in projection onto a screen, and the grouchy adolescent god begins his experiments in divine creation. Hesitant in the background are Adam and Eve, awaiting instructions and “using their words” like toddlers to name the world. “If you throw people off-balance,” notes Latham offstage, “then they have to pay attention just to stay upright.” 

Back to Back delights in braiding dreamlike, slow-motion dialogue with deadpan comedy, or vigorous physical fracas with heartbreaking monologues. Stark, striking visuals – a fat man in sarong, naked belly and Ganesh elephant mask beside a pale, petite Hitler – and resourceful sound design immerse the audience in a disorienting, beguiling universe in which long scenes of determined banality are gifted a kind of metaphysical sonorousness, while grandiose matters are mischievously diminished to the domestic.  

Much of this emerges from Back to Back’s commitment to unhurried preparation and the “devised work” process, in which years of improvisation, brainstorming, errant research and observation are mined for material. “A lot of the character,” says Latham, “is based on what we’re like in real life.” Gladwin explains: “Often we’ll do an improvisation and video it, but quite often what’s more interesting is the conversation after the improvisation, so we keep the camera running.” The scene between the mentor god and the sulky god came from such an instance, when Price, as himself, complained that Latham thought he was a “dumb shit”. The line begins the scene now, and the character’s trajectory. “When you’re feeling a bit upset, feeling emotion, you just perform that way,” says Price, who enjoys the role of “bad boy” and writes a blog on the Back to Back website for which he interviews artists on the theme of provocation. “So if you’re angry, you act angry. If you’re upset, you act upset. It helps.” 

There is a palpable sense of trust within the corps, including Gladwin, who has been director since 1999 and last year won the Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre. “I feel that there are points where we go, ‘Oh my god, where’s this going?’ ” he says. “As the director I wonder: ‘Should I stop this? Should I mediate it?’ It’s a bit blurred for me, watching it. Is it the actor talking, or the character? But often that’s the most interesting material.” 

Members’ feelings can run high: they are acknowledged and incorporated. Frank exchanges of view are encouraged. Problems are workshopped. No one freaks out if someone storms to a corner in agitation. From this fearless dynamic emerges the company’s signature boldness. “I just admired it so much,” says Lipson of previous work he’d seen, “and really wanted to do it. So I’ll do anything, really, that Bruce tells me to.” 

Back to Back extends its enthusiasms beyond its own productions with annex projects such as Theatre of Speed, an experimental artistic “laboratory” held for eligible members of the community, and CAMP or “Come and Make Performance”, an annual weekend of intense theatrical improvisation. Gladwin also runs another workshop, Unmasterclass, and a film and television introduction course. The company, long funded as a professional arts organisation, originated in the church-hall humidifier of 1980s community theatre, and continues its social-minded zeal with mentorships, residences and lectures. It can’t seem to hold itself back from what Gladwin calls “open, free-form creative developments”.

Onstage, Deans and Mainwaring are a biddable Adam and Eve, touching in their bafflement as lackeys of a preoccupied, petulant God. Standing uncomplainingly in the background of the scene, they both have perceived intellectual disabilities. So does Scott Price. So do all the core actors of the troupe. 

The implications of the First Couple and God belonging to a cohort that identifies as perceived-disabled are both profound and elusive. The issue of disability slides and slips around in the heart of the company’s identity. Back to Back is often explicitly described as comprising “actors with disabilities”, although that terminology is also in flux: there is much discussion at the moment about whether the “perceived” formulation coerces or assists its subjects. All the actors are adamant that it is a theatre company foremost. The discussion, and the weary, courteous refutations of misunderstandings, have been going on since inception back in the days of deinstitutionalisation when Back to Back did indeed emerge from community projects directed at giving disabled people confidence and experience. The modus operandi now, however, is very far from giving audiences what Latham calls heartwarming, family-friendly “inspiration porn” à la Choir of Hard Knocks, and is far more interested in creating blow-them-out-of-their-seats, international-standard drama.   

“It’s not as if we go out thinking, ‘Let’s change people’s idea of disability’, but just by making art we do that anyway,” Latham observes. “According to the audience surveys we did last year, people had changed their mind about their perception of disability just by watching Ganesh, which really, plot-based, doesn’t really have anything to do with disability. But people changed their perceptions based on the fact that we were fucking amazing.” Usually in performances a few discomfited audience members will walk out, “because they are really, really shocked by the idea that disabled people swear, and that we can have sex lives, and do things that other adults do.” “Yep,” adds Mainwaring, “they walk out because they’re shocked by the statements that we make.” 

“I think the company’s always been charged with a bit of punk,” muses Gladwin. Many of the artists who began running the workshops that gestated Back to Back in the mid-1980s had a strong punk ethos. “The equivalent of three chords: get some ideas, get them and throw them up.” 

In Brussels in 2009 an after-performance audience question threw them into the process that would lead to Ganesh. The person insisted that disabled people simply weren’t able to create or understand this kind of art. The company met the claim with interest, generated discussions of power, agency, dependence and ambition, and used their response to produce what became their most self-reflective and defiantly creative work to date. It won the Melbourne Festival Age Critics Award and the Helpmann Award for Best Play.     

As Lady Eats Apple is prepared for debut, Back to Back is relishing the chance to extend its range, pushing just a little further than ever before. If a new audience, as Latham exults, “is shocked, confronted, just by us existing and making the kind of art we do”, then so might be the company itself, creating spectacles and destroying expectations just like the fresh god it imagines into being.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2016 as "Crown of Creation".

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