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Theater Preview: Wexner Center Hosts Australia’s Back to Back Theatre’s First Ohio Appearance

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Preview: Wexner Center Hosts Australia’s Back to Back Theatre’s First Ohio AppearanceAll photos courtesy Jeff Busby
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The Wexner Center has done an outstanding job of cultivating international relationships with companies, curators, and performers, for longer than I’ve been a regular attendee (about 25 years of its 31-year run). They’ve outdone themselves with their February offering. One of the most vivid, stunning, moving ensembles I’ve ever seen on a stage, Australia’s Back to Back Theatre brings their brand new piece: The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes, in their first trip to Ohio.

On a personal note, I become aware of Back to Back in New York, at the Public Theater’s 2013 Under the Radar festival with their Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich. I was so moved I walked for blocks after – wiping tears away and unable to talk to or look another person in the eye. As I compiled my list in December, that performance I saw in early January was my favorite theatrical experience of the year, and it wasn’t even close. So it was a pleasure to meet and interview creator/company member Scott Price and Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin, over coffee in Manhattan as they returned to Under the Radar to kick off this tour.

Back to Back Theatre exclusively features performers with intellectual disabilities who also have the largest role in creating each work. The company began with workshops in 1983 and mounted its first performances back in 1987. Bruce Gladwin is their longest-running director since 1999. I asked about the origin story of this long-running company.

Gladwin said originally the content tied directly to participants who had been institutionalized all their lives. (In the 1980s, Australia had the same moves toward deinstitutionalization and mainstreaming as the US and UK.) 

“So in Australia, there’s this shift going on,” Gladwin said. “We’ve isolated this demographic, and now we’re going to bring people back into the community and find employment, activity, combination, and accommodation within the community.

“To give you an example, one of the first plays the company made was a story about a brother and sister, both had an intellectual disability, had been put into two separate institutions as small children. They met as adults an institution, not realizing they’re brother and sister. They become best friends, okay? For years and years. Best friends at this institution – then once the deinstitutionalization process occurred found out that they’re actually brother and sister.”

In the early days, first director Cas Anderson was running workshops with community participants and noticed that some were just obsessively writing or drawing.

“They already developed and maintained their own practice, almost in a kind of outsider or art brut kind of manner, right? And she just tapped into what they were doing and generating,” Gladwin said. “So the company’s always had this.”

When I asked about trying to fit that practice into a theatrical convention, he responded, “Well, it’s kind of trying to draw the work from them – it’s about giving space. We thought, ‘Oh, let’s try and make a work where no one talks on stage,’ so we spent a week just doing drawing workshops.”

That drawing workshop directly led to acclaimed Under the Radar hit Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich and spoke to their process – finding inspirations and following them, digging down and polishing, until the company has something uniquely theirs.

“One of the actors was really obsessed with Ganesh, so we had that subject matter,” Gladwin said. “We’re also just kind of formally experimenting with pitching the actor’s voices down an octave through radio mics and then really turning up the amplifier in the room and the reverb. So all the actors had to do was kind of breathe, and we get this big rumble.

“One of the other actors was looking up experiments [which led us] to the Nazis appropriating the swastika. That led us to a great story – maybe Ganesh travels to Nazi Germany to get the swastika back. [We decided] we don’t have the right to make this work – we don’t have the kind of cultural capital or the skin to make a work that deals with the holocaust or representation of an Indian deity. “

Gladwin described when they found the personal hook into that weighty material that felt tied to other cultures.

“We were doing a Q&A in Brussels after [our piece Food Court] and someone in the audience stood up and said, ‘I don’t believe these actors made this work. I don’t believe they had the capacity to make this work,'” Gladwin said. “It was a question about authorship but also it was an accusation towards me about being a svengali or,” Price interjected, “Some sort of puppet master.” 

Price took the microphone and addressed the point to the individual.

“In a way, they’re great questions this person is raising and it’s very brave to raise them in a public forum,” Gladwin said. “But it led us to think there’s a real interest in the kind of power machinations of the company itself: who makes the decisions? That led us to the idea of maybe there’s a work for us to make: a kind of fictionalized autobiography of us in the process of making a work.

“Ganesh was in two parts: one was the kind of story of traveling to Nazi Germany [and the] other one was [about the] actors and director, and the kind of moral-ethical dilemmas about the creation of the story. Once we thought of that, we realized the play that we wanted to make but never thought that we could is subject that we could play within the piece.

“Maybe the other thing is by that time we’d also been touring Europe quite a bit. One of the experiences we had was taking a work to Linz in Austria. We’re working near Mauthausen concentration camp, which is on the outskirts of Linz. This is the birthplace of Hitler, obviously, [but nearby at Schloss Hartheim] there was also a center for the care of people with intellectual disabilities prior to World War II, some of the best care in the world, kind of a leading institution. Then once it was, you know, occupied by the Nazis intellectual disabilities were [part] of the extermination campaign.

“Once we kind of went there, we thought, ‘All right, if a company like Back to Back can’t make a work about the T4 program in the Holocaust right then?’ And in a way we found our kind of cultural capital.”

Leaning forward in my seat, I asked about the origin of the work they’re bringing on this tour, The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes. Price said they found the spark in a New York Times article.

“We had a board member who is a kind of workplace employment specialist. He bought our attention to this New York Times article about this incredible story about these guys who’ve been moved from an institution, Texas to Iowa, in the late seventies; a government-backed work program where young men from institutions were found employment in agricultural industries,” Gladwin explained. “At the time in the late seventies, it was a very leading program in terms of, you know, empowering people with disabilities. Yeah, but they were forgotten about and they’ve been left to work in this turkey processing plant for 30 years and they’re still being paid the same amount they were in the late seventies, which was something like $30 a month.

“We also thought the show we made prior to this was a kind of esoteric work on a very grand scale, very poetic. We thought this could be really good subject matter; because it’s the New York Times, it’s an amazing photo essay; there’s documentary footage that went with it and just was very factual and had a real currency to it. So I thought ‘Okay, let’s do development on that.’”

But of course, nothing’s that easy.

“Then when we went to do it, we went, ‘It exists within the kind of North American landscape.’ We had all these kind of conventions of going alright, we have to do American accents,” Gladwin said.

“Which we couldn’t do of our own accord. We so couldn’t do it.,” Prince said.

“Now we thought maybe it’s another story about a company trying to tell the story of another culture. Felt a bit repetitive, right?” Gladwin explained. “But we did a small showing on the piece.

“In the piece, Scott [Price] stood up and just told the story [of the article] in a really passionate way, like he was a disability rights activist telling the story. We [thought] there’s something interesting in that – this idea of activism, an activist can get really to the point. What’s the issue here?”

Gladwin gestured to Price.

“So I think there’s some obvious [similarities] in terms of life. In terms of my own experiences,” Prince said. “I haven’t had [the experiences from the article but] having been forced to work myself and [watching] people exploited that way. I think people should have a say in their employment, having gone through that experience myself.” 

Gladwin reflected that the company had never really put disability front and center.

“It was not something we avoided, but it was just not our interest,” Gladwin said. “And then we thought this, creatively, might be a good thing to try and do and see what would happen. The idea of our kind of town hall meeting or a kind of activist meeting… the work is a piece of fiction but the tensions that the audience have in watching it is because they’re watching actors with disabilities playing these characters who are activists with disabilities. There’s a kind of merging between the actor and the character. It’s just actors playing roles but it feeds off this tension [in the minds of the audience.”

I followed up on Price’s comment about work he wasn’t given a choice in and he said, “Acting,” with a laugh, prompting an eyebrow raise from Gladwin and the comment, “Irony.” Chuckling, Price, expanded, “I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it but at first I didn’t know. Prior to this I had no work experience to date. I wasn’t given the chance to do what else I might [enjoy]. I’m just stating facts.”

Gladwin said, “You know, for me, I quite like the idea of direct address, it’s a mode of performance that we hadn’t explored as a company in a substantial way. There was a challenge there, in terms of building a muscle for the actors to just kind of sit in front of an audience and talk to them in a way that a stand-up or someone that’s facilitating a meeting does.

“A lot of the decisions we make often come from questions that are raised in the previous work or a response to the last work. The last work was a show called Lady Eats Apple and it was this very grand cinegraphic work [with] a very huge elaborate set; this show is just very minimal, just the actors sitting on four chairs. There’s no scenography to hide behind, very lo-fi and object quality, very comic, nothing to brace the performance with or hide behind.”

Those responses don’t stop as the script forms.

“Normally dramaturgically, or the kind of creation of the script, happens in two modes: the first is almost like a massive collection, ideas that we have that we kind of pursue; and then there’s kind of happy accidents that we collect as we go,” Gladwin said. “To give you an example, we sat down with the actors and to write some marketing copy for the company and we started with the terminology of intellectually disabled.”

Gladwin started that conversation by explaining how the company had historically described its participants “as a group of people, as actors, with intellectual disabilities.” He asked how they felt about it. Did they want to keep using that terminology? When they tour, the terminology is different in each place.

“Also, in our own landscape of Australia some people will use terms like ‘neurodiverse,” Gladwin said. “We’re just kind of touching base with the actors and going, ‘What do you think?’ So out of that prompt came this very interesting conversation about who are we as a group and what do we want to be called and who feels comfortable with what.”

Luckily, Gladwin said, they were recording the conversation.

“That formed the first 10 minutes of the script,” Gladwin explained. “We had no intention of being content for the piece, but it’s a very fascinating conversation about how people perceive themselves; a conversation about language and labels.”

“There’s a different terminology in the US, UK, Australia,” Price said. “I think in America they use words like ‘mental disability’ and I think that would be offensive in Australia, the UK is ‘learning disability.’ It’s lost in translation.”

Gladwin used that as a jumping-off point for the next piece of the process.

“You know, when we get into the rehearsal room, we often will have a conversation around a table and then we’ll get up and improvise,” Gladwin said. “With this show [we] kind of felt like we never got off the table that much.”

Price emphatically agreed.

“The kind of conversation about the subject matter that we’re dealing with became this very long-form improvisation for months and months around a table,” Gladwin said.”We just collect like recordings and then we had the opportunity coming to Sundance Theatre Lab at Mass MoCA, two weeks there working with a dramaturg and stage manager. That was a different process for us. We don’t normally work with someone outside [the company].”

That led me to ask about the refinement process, is there a defined dramaturg role.

“Yeah, I think there is, Melissa Reeves,” Price said.

Gladwin expanded on that answer to say, “Often I work with what we’d call a script consultant. Someone who’s not in rehearsal. We’ll send the script and it’s often me going and having the conversation [with Reeves.] My role is to kind of pull the script together in a cohesive manner. She’s a writer in her own right and knows the personnel of the company quite well.”

After having the usual conversations and development process with Reeves, Gladwin and the company took advantage of Sundance’s outside perspective.

“The act of talking about what it is we’re doing helps settle and discover ideas in there,” Gladwin said. “Being forced to explain it, to someone sitting down and saying, ‘Well, how do these ideas connect?’ Or, ‘In one word, what links all these ideas?’ Having to explain at that level, being pushed to explain oneself [is helpful].”

In what sounded like a mission statement, Gladwin said, “I reserve the right that we don’t have to know what the outcome is. [That’s why] we can make a work like Ganesh Vs. The Third Reich without having the intention of making that work. At the same time, feeling like [The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes] is a story about a public meeting, so it’s a story about what’s within us and what sits between us, for the characters on stage and the audience.”

On a broader social level, “There has to be some sense of currency to the times and being open to that,” Gladwin said. “The documentary approach to the actual story we thought we couldn’t realize [led to] wanting to reach as broad an audience as possible. Even though we’re embracing the concept of disability front and center, how does the concept relate to the general populace?”

With disability as its primary subject, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes makes room for other concepts in an interconnected web.

“At the same time, there’s a lot in the media about artificial intelligence and its implications on roles within the workforce,” Gladwin noted. “We wanted that to be something; while the characters are talking about the history of disability and disability rights, they’re doing it for a reason that has to do with forecasting about the future.”

About that future shock element, Gladwin added, “Structurally, the piece hopefully has for the audience this experience of the concept of otherness that’s so implicit in all of us. We can’t help it, we segregate ourselves into a group and we attempt to empathize with others but it’s always ‘others.’ In this public meeting, there’s a group of actors with disabilities talking about their own experience or that they somehow represent ‘someone’ and at some point the audience goes, ‘They’re not talking about ‘them,’ they’re talking about ‘us.’‘ But the reason they’re talking about that is they’re sharing their expertise to warn us.”

You won’t see anything like The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes the rest of the year. In content, in structure, in pure ideas, and in emotion.

The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes runs for four performances: 8:00 p.m. Thursday, February 13, 8:00 p.m. Friday, February 14, and 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, February 15. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org.

All photos by Jeff Busby

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