How Back to Back Theatre’s ensemble of neurodivergent and disabled artists gained international acclaim

How Back to Back Theatre’s ensemble of neurodivergent and disabled artists gained international acclaim
  • PublishedJune 4, 2024

Back to Back Theatre has had an unbelievable couple of years.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, they became the first Australian company to win the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre.

Just two years ago, they took home the International Ibsen Award, often described as the Nobel Prize for theatre, worth $384,000.

Ingrid Lorentzen, chair of the award committee, said at the time: “We wanted to give it to a game changer … Back to Back changes the way you see things.”

What’s remarkable is that Back to Back aren’t some legacy state theatre company or a national ballet or opera. They’re a group based in regional Victoria, about an hour outside of Melbourne.

They’ve built their reputation and become one of Australia’s leading performing arts international exports by making work that defies conventional expectations.

For almost four decades, Back to Back has been delighting and challenging audiences with shows devised and performed by an ensemble of artists who are perceived to be either neurodivergent or living with a disability.

After premiering their latest work — Multiple Bad Things — in their hometown of Geelong and then taking it to Brussels, they’re now bringing it to Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.

The origins of Back to Back

Back to Back Theatre was started by theatre maker Cas Anderson, as an offshoot of Geelong’s now-defunct Mill Theatre Company.

As ensemble member Scott Price explained to ABC Victorian Afternoons: “It started in 1987 at a time of deinstitutionalisation. They were trying to get artists like myself and other people involved to create theatre and it grew from there.”

Deinstitutionalisation in Victoria resulted in a number of people with disabilities coming out of large institutions, including Sunbury/Caloola and Kew Cottages. Anderson, alongside a number of other artists, started running workshops with people who had recently returned to their community.

Scott Price with a long beard sits in a dressing room smiling at the camera.
Price told ABC News in 2022: “I actually wanted to work in IT, but connecting with people, performing on stage, I can’t get enough of it now.”(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

From the get-go, performers were telling their own stories, which often explored their experiences in institutions. Their first work, Big Bag, examined the relationships between people with intellectual disabilities and premiered in 1988.

Back to Back artistic director and co-CEO Bruce Gladwin told ABC RN’s The Stage Show that he first saw their work in the late 80s, having just graduated from a university theatre course.

“I was really impressed … It was the opposite to what I’d been trained in, and it was wild and free-flowing and really spontaneous and instinctive,” he says.

Bruce crosses his arms and looks up smiling in a dark theatre studio
Over Gladwin’s decades-long tenure, Back to Back has worked with a pool of collaborators that include local, national and international artists.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

These days, Back to Back operates out of a voluminous space in the old Geelong courthouse, after spending many years working out of a small room in the Geelong library.

Alongside their impressive theatre works, the company runs workshops (including an annual weekend-long one), writers’ labs and education programs. The workshops are where most of the ensemble first encounter the company.

Shock and acclaim

Back to Back’s work is striking in multiple ways: visually, emotionally and politically.

Gladwin says their works often play with “the audience’s discomfort with disability” but, ultimately, they’re “just trying to make the best art we can possibly make”.

In 2011, they began performing Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which follows the Hindu god Ganesh as he tries to reclaim the swastika from Nazi Germany.

2019’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes was the first time, in the Gladwin era, the company focused on disability as the explicit subject of a work.

That work challenges our understanding of “intelligence” in a world of automation and includes passionate debates around language and identity.

Along the way theatre awards have stacked up, including every Australian award under the sun, from Green Rooms to Helpmanns.

While the company had made screen works before, Shadow, an adaptation of their 2019 show, became their first feature film. It premiered at South by Southwest in Austin in 2022, where it won the Audience Award.

Price has been a member of Back to Back’s ensemble since 2007 and appears in Ganesh, Shadow (both play and film) and their latest work. He considers himself an activist, working to advocate for people’s rights.

Speaking to ABC News in 2022, he said the company’s work is always “in your face and no-holds-barred”.

Gladwin says their company, which is a registered NDIS provider, is one of the last companies in Australia with a full-time ensemble making work and working in repertoire, which gives them the time and the personnel to make their consistently groundbreaking work.

Price says this consistency has been vital for him.

“I have been very fortunate to even have a job — not many people with disabilities get this opportunity… My long-term employment with Back to Back is almost paving a new way for people with disabilities … [and] is testament to what people with disabilities can do,” he says.

“[But ultimately] I can’t get enough of performing, that’s a given. If the audience isn’t happy, I’m not happy.”

The Back to Back approach

Each Back to Back piece is devised by ensemble members, working with directors, dramaturgs and designers, often through many improvisation sessions.

As Gladwin says: “[It’s] about empowering the actors in the ensemble … to be the creative core of the organisation.

“[As was the case when Back to Back started] we’re still pursuing this idea of creating new and original stories, often inspired by the ensemble or which come from the ensemble.”

Ensemble member Simon Laherty, who has been with the company since 2003, explains: “During the devising, we get a scenario and try to work out what would happen in that scenario; we improvise. And we talk about it later on.”

A woman on stage, microphone aimed at her, she reaches out to the audience in Back to Back Theatre's production of Food Court
Food Court premiered in 2008 and will be performed at the end of the month at the Venice Biennale, when the company will accept the Golden Lion.(Supplied: Rising/Francis Loney)

For example, for their latest work Multiple Bad Things, Laherty says the ensemble interviewed each other about their boundaries, likes and dislikes.

“[For example], I love drinking Coke. I love eating Cheezels. I love playing Solitaire and I love all the devising,” he says. All this fed into his character.

Multiple Bad Things co-director Tamara Searle says: “[After the improvisation sessions] we then work on the text and we shape it and sculpt it. But [throughout] we’re trying to maintain that freshness and the energy that was in the improvisation in the first place.”

This method takes time — it usually takes about three years to make each work — but has resulted in timeless productions that have travelled across the world.

The ensemble is off on tour for up to 20 weeks a year, and have performed at London’s Barbican Centre, the Holland Festival and the Vienna Festival.

Multiple Bad Things co-director Ingrid Voorendt says travelling with the ensemble is “incredible because of the conversations that it starts”.

“You find out … [how different cultures and languages] describe disability, and it’s always different and nuanced. And you learn more about the world and about disability through these exchanges.”

Price says: “The more work we do and places we go, the more doors are opened.”

Multiple Bad Things

Back to Back ensemble members Laherty, Price and Sarah Mainwaring are part of the larger group that devised Multiple Bad Things.

It’s a horror comedy that sees them playing employees in what Price describes as “a workplace at the end of the world”.

As Mainwaring valiantly tries to get some work done on an abstract structure at centrestage, Laherty sits off to the side often playing Solitaire and Price lounges on an inflatable flamingo.

A man lounges in an inflatable flamingo while two women work on an abstract golden structure on a stage
Multiple Bad Things is the first work since 1999 not to be directed by Gladwin.(Supplied: Jeff Busby)

A conflict erupts between Price and another worker (played by award-winning theatre maker Bron Batten). Price’s nameless character ends up being scapegoated, which is something that’s relatable to him.

“I get called a challenging person quite a lot, I get vilified because of my behaviour and my autism … [and I wanted to say] ‘Hey, I’m not a challenging person. I’m a human!'” he says.

Voorendt says they were inspired by Australian Scapegoat, Arthur Boyd’s 80s series of paintings, which depict a human transforming into a goat.

“It’s the victim and the abuser and the abused all at once. And often we find that in the workplace, it’s not clear sometimes who’s at fault in a conflict.”

Two women and two men in mostly organge costumes interact with an abstract golden structure on a stage
Mainwaring (centre, right) told ABC News in 2022: “I love the opportunities and freedoms I get [from] Back to Back, the doors it’s opened, it’s like my own little community.”(Supplied: Jeff Busby)

Mainwaring’s character pleads for help, but is drowned out by the other workers’ bickering. As the work’s promotional material states: “Self-righteously indignant voices so often drown out the most disenfranchised and vulnerable.”

This goes back to the company’s aim of telling the stories that come from their ensemble of now incredibly well-travelled, veteran storytellers.

“What they think is important is what we tried to tease out. And in fact, that line about self-righteous indignation came from them,” says Voorendt.

As for what’s next for this unstoppable company, Price is keeping his cards close to his chest: “It’s a secret, I’m not giving away the next big project!”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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