New spaces, other intelligences

Keith Gallasch talks to Back to Back’s Bruce Gladwin

Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back

Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back

Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre is a performance company with a formidable international reputation founded on the successes of Soft and Cow in Europe. The company comprises an ensemble of performers (Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sonia Teuben, Simon Laherty) “perceived to have a disability”, and “creates work with a view of the world not constrained by convention, logic or the imperative to be normal.” Directed by Bruce Gladwin, the company is joined in production by guest designers, composers, multimedia artists and other actors—Jim Russell and Genevieve Picot in the company’s 2005 Melbourne International Festival show, Small Metal Objects.

Back to Back produces exemplary hybrid performance, placing the performer in multimedia amalgams of physical, aural and virtual space with an architectural sensibility, and bringing together a range of talents and intelligences that challenge the able/disabled binary. Back to Back tackles dark subjects, blending serious contemporary material about mind, body, morality and technology with a droll sense of humour in works that are non-patronising, either for performers and audiences, and sometimes downright lateral.

Intelligences

When he first saw Back to Back, Gladwin recalls he was struck by just how intelligent the work was: “I’d really had very little to do with people with disabilities. Just the label ‘intellectual disability’ implies something not very intelligent. For a director it requires a different approach, which is hard to articulate, for each of the actors. There is an intellectual rigour in the work, but it’s not an academic rigour.”

As a group the company is interdisciplinary says Gladwin: “Some of the actors work with text, some are physically comic, some are classical in their movement, so I start with a diverse palette. There’s a particular pleasure in working with a regular ensemble of the same 5 members. Finding something each year which is for them and which will challenge them is a large part of the approach to creating the work.” Gladwin has been with the company for 7 years and some of the performers 15 years.

Spaces

Gladwin speaks about the focus in Back to Back’s work being on the performer in space. He addresses the new relationships between theatrical space and the performer, and the audience, that have opened up in contemporary performance as it escapes theatrical convention. But he is also increasingly aware of the advantages of these developments for a company such as Back to Back.

“Traditionally”, he says, “theatre spaces require a certain performance style, for example throwing the voice to the back of the auditorium. Working with performers who are not classically trained and with the technology that’s available now, thinking about a new space that could empower these actors—these led us down the path of the inflatable design for Soft.” Audience and performers shared the giant inflatable space, the actors were headmiked and every audience member had headphones, resulting in aural intimacy in a huge space.

“The use of headphones”, explains Gladwin, “came out of doing Soft in a huge dockshed in September and October, in Melbourne with high winds, and wanting to get the speakers as close to the audience’s ears as possible. Then we discovered that there was something very liberating in this. We were liberated from having any particular form of space.

“If you think of a theatre as a physical shelter, an emotional, psychological shelter from the chaos of everything outside, we created a shelter inside an inflatable, like a symbiotic building inside a dockland shed. But with our new show, we thought we could create a shelter with the sound, leaving it open for us as to where we place the show.”

In a bold exercise in site specificity, Small Metal Objects is set in the main concourse of the Flinders Street Railway Station. “Based on some of the thematic ideas we’d developed, we wanted to place the show amidst chaos, so we decided for the Melbourne showing to put it among thousands of commuters at around peak hour, 4pm, 5pm, 7pm and 8.30 in the morning. There’s no set, no lighting, just actors, a bank of seats for the audience and a sound score.”

“The performance isn’t overt”, says Gladwin, “the actors blend in with the public on the main thoroughfare where all the platforms come onto the concourse. The public coming from the trains will see a seating bank holding 100 people, looking in a specific direction but not knowing what that audience is looking at.

“There’ll be 2 narratives going on, one in the written text and the other which comes from the positioning of this seating bank in a public space, and the interplay between the general public and the audience. Both are observer and observed. We did a showing of this work last year and it’s fascinating, the power shifts between them. One person with a limp and 3 poodles on a lead passed by and the audience laughed, just at the visual image. I was suddenly aware of my responsibility—I’d created a monster. Three youths emerged from Platform 4, eyed the audience and chested the air, as if to say, what are you looking at? And you could feel the audience shrink back into their seats. So just as there’s a kind of power interplay between the characters in the story, there’s one between the public and the audience.”

Small Metal Objects is playing throughout the festival: “It’s an experiment for us. We could have gone for a week’s season but we’re taking the length of the festival to give ourselves as many shows as possible. I think the show might be totally different at the end of the season…it’s open to that. The idea partly came from (Melbourne Festival Director) Kristy Edmund’s suggestion when we were talking about tourability. With Soft we’d wanted to tour it more but finding venues large enough was a problem…we found 2 venues in Europe but, talking to other festivals, it was too difficult and expensive for them. So we thought let’s keep developing the ideas but not feel that we had to create a set as grand as Soft’s.”

Hyperrealism

Gladwin feels that the setting for Small Metal Objects will further the principles explored in Soft: “It really does create a performance style, opening up the actors to working in a more filmic way, and with a greater awareness of where their focus needs to be. What we’re interested in is hyperrealism, for the performers to blend in with the images. I’ve been looking at some visual art in terms of that in painting and sculpture, the work of Ron Mueck, which I saw a great exhibition of in Hamburg. In the first 10 minutes of Small Metal Objects the audience doesn’t know which are the actors in the crowd, so it first functions like a radio play with them trying to spot the performers among, say 150 people. It introduces ambiguity—what is real and what is not.”

Moving from a controlled theatrical space to a public setting has required some re-thinking of the sound score. Gladwin says of working with composer Hugh Covill that “usually each moment is scored with a specific piece of music, but we’re doing something quite different this time. We’re running one track of music that underscores the whole piece. There’s a kind of rough synchronisation with movement, but we’re open to the fluidity of the piece, performing it in the chaos of the station, with the actors responding, say, to people coming up and asking them for directions. So there’s an element of improvisation in matching the score with the performance.”

Improvisation is a key element in the creation of Back to Back works, but in Small Metal Objects it will play a role in performance as chance enters into the picture when crowds move from trains onto the concourse. This will be a challenge for the performers. Although, as Gladwin explains, “the script has been generated from improvisation, the characters have been created by the performers and they know the characters intrinsically”, the actors will need cueing and some security. The solution is, says Gladwin, “is to have foldback through their own earphones with me as director offering them direction and suggestions in performance—to encourage and support them in working with the material that’s around them. This will be part of the extended season, for me to develop that role and to see how far I can take it. Is it an aesthetic or am I a control freak? [Laughs] It’s important in that environment for the performers, because the area is over 40 metres long and 20 metres wide, so for them to be able to hear and cue each other, we needed some sort of device and that’s the foldback.”

Productivity

The catalyst for the story came from issues raised in Soft where a couple terminate a pregnancy because the foetus shows signs of Down Syndrome, the rationale being that the child would never get proper support from or work in or love from society. Gladwin thought that “a kind of economic rationalism was attached to the decision. That’s the starting point for Small Metal Objects, looking at productivity, how someone’s perceived productivity equates with their value in society.” In the development of the work, says Gladwin, “I’ll read a lot, for example economic theory, and then I have to offer something to the actors, and they go through their own process of intellectualisation. Sonia [Teuben] created a character who she saw as a success, but it was in terms of the ability to make friendships, as opposed to capital growth and earning an income. From discussions and improvisations we thought we’d set the story in a financial transaction and the simplest one is goods sold in the street, primarily a drug deal, and one that goes wrong between 2 characters who value friendship over the accumulation of wealth.

“It’s a really simple narrative: we’re at the point of putting it on and I’m thinking, is it too simple? But dealing with the space that we’re presenting it in I feel we’ve made the right decision. The narrative in the script is only half the story, the other is the experience of the audience in that space: they’re creating multiple narratives by looking at people in the space and also placing themselves in the story, so we need the space for that to happen.”

Next

Solo opportunities are looming for the 5 ensemble members in Back to Back’s next work, a gallery-based performance-cum-installation extension of the themes of Small Metal Objects featuring 5 discrete performances. This further exploration of productivity and notions of well-being will involve the company working with an economist to create an economic model. The audience will choose from the performances, paying a fee for each with the actors in competition in creating a market.

Back to Back Theatre, Small Metal Objects, Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 7-8, 11-15, 18-22; www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 6

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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