ROLES FIT FOR A HERO
An unusual ensemble probes identity in a play about a superhero, writes Matthew Westwood
SARAH Mainwaring is an actress with a quiet manner and deliberate way of speech who makes the listener hang on to her every word. At Back to Back Theatre’s rehearsal studio in Geelong, she and other members of the company are rehearsing their next play, Super Discount.
Mainwaring delivers a speech about the qualities of valour — Super Discount is the unlikely superhero who gives his name to the piece — and declaims the words with her halting and compelling voice. The text, with its high Shakespearean cadences, is adapted from a Marvel Comics book: ‘‘ No trumpets hawk them forth to battle, for true superheroes need no piping of pipes or rolling of drums . . .’’
In the play, Super Discount is a personality invented by a character called Mark, who is played by long-term ensemble member Mark Deans.
Deans is the company clown, a roly-poly figure and captivating to watch. During a workshop of the play’s final scene, he catches my eye and returns a wave and a smile.
If Back to Back’s work has become more layered during the past few years, Super Discount takes a while to get one’s head around. It’s about role-play and representation, the construction and deconstruction of character, superheroes with superpowers and the very human business of making theatre.
Specifically, director Bruce Gladwin and the Back to Back ensemble are interested in the depiction of people with intellectual disability. Is it cruel that actor David Woods — a ‘‘ normal’’ person, as another member of the cast describes him — wants to portray Mark with a big belly, waddling walk, and chewing his thumb with his back teeth?
During a rehearsal break, actor Scott Price explains that Super Discount is ‘‘ a play within a play within a play’’, in which characters audition to play other characters.
Price’s character — also called Scott, who describes himself as having autism — is ‘‘ like an avatar of myself, because it’s kind of like my personality’’, he says.
His role is to stand up for the ‘‘ moral rights’’ of other characters. ‘‘ Why use the word retarded?’’ he says at one point in the play. And later: ‘‘ It seems to me there are a lot of stereotypes in this room. I think we should be a little bit careful.’’
Back to Back was founded in Geelong 25 years ago and in the past decade has become widely known for its exceptional work. Describing itself as a company for ‘‘ actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities’’, it employs a full-time salaried ensemble of five actors (a sixth, Nicki Holland, retired recently). Last year, Geelong city council built a new black-box rehearsal studio for Back to Back, and the company tours widely to great acclaim.
Its last show, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, won the Helpmann Award for best Australian play; internationally, it was lauded from Vienna to London and New York, where The New York Times’s Ben Brantley described it as a ‘‘ vital, senses-sharpening tonic for theatregoers who feel they’ve seen it all’’.
The company’s rise to prominence is due to the ambitions of the ensemble members and to Gladwin, Back to Back’s artistic director for the past 14 years.
‘‘ When I first came into contact with the company in 1989, it was really quite a revolutionary concept: people with disabilities performing on the stage,’’ Gladwin says, riding the commuter train from Geelong home to suburban Melbourne. Very appealing, at the same time, was ‘‘ an element of wildness to [its] work, an almost punk ethos that was antiestablishment and anti-formal’’.
Back to Back may talk about perceived disabilities but in performance there is no sweeping under the carpet or avoiding uncomfortable subjects.
In the confrontation of representations in Super Discount, Mark is spurred to avenge the misrepresentation of himself, leading to a battle to the death in the permafrost. The climactic scene is played out on a table top with a soundtrack resembling something from a video game.
‘‘ The idea of the conclusion is that Mark has a go at performing himself . . . and he fails,’’ Gladwin says. ‘‘ Mark is triumphant in this [fantasy] environment, and then the lights change back to a rehearsal room, and Mark is stuck on the table and can’t get down.
‘‘ I’m interested in this idea of the construction of the image, of seeing someone as the hero and the aftermath of that: someone who can’t get down off a table without someone else’s assistance.’’
All of this is worked out during a long rehearsal period, in which the play is devised through group improvisations that are videotaped. Gladwin sometimes sets up formal improv sessions, or he allows the tape to run while the group talks. Later, he goes through the video record and selects the parts that can be shaped into a script.
Ganesh marked a new phase in the ensemble’s evolution, Gladwin says: with its layers of narrative, the actors became used to delineating the different theatrical modes.
Super Discount goes further. While Ganesh was built around a set of predetermined scenarios, the new play is almost entirely group-devised, based on improvisations across a period of two years.
Only during the past few months has it taken shape in scripted form. ‘‘ In a way, the title reflects the aesthetic of the piece,’’ Gladwin says. ‘‘ It’s kind of stripped back. It’s discounted, in that it’s stripped back to the actors on stage, holding the complexity together on their own.’’
The newest members of the ensemble — Price, Brian Tilley and Simon Laherty — have enabled this evolution to more complex, dialogue-driven plays. Price, in particular, has a near-photographic memory for text.
‘‘ I love working with Scott, because he says exactly what he thinks,’’ Gladwin says. ‘‘ He’s not backwards in telling me if something doesn’t work, or if I’m out of line. He’ll do it with a sense of conviction that is fuelled by his Tourette’s, in a way. He’s a really strong self-advocate as a person with a disability, and he’s not afraid to name something as it is.
‘‘ Mark is this quiet clown, but his relationship to disability is totally different: I’ve never heard the word disabled come out of his mouth, and I don’t think he necessarily sees himself as someone with a disability.’’
Gladwin describes the qualities of the other actors in the group. Mainwaring, who suffered head injuries in a car crash when she was a child, studied drama at Victoria University and performed in her own shows at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre. She is a fearless performer who will strip off if required: ‘‘ No stranger to the avant-garde at all,’’ Gladwin says.
Tilley’s preoccupation with comic-book superheroes, Gladwin says, is not only about cosmic punch-ups but about altruism and making sacrifices for other people: an emotional quest and personal journey that has informed the writing of Super Discount.
Laherty, the fifth member of the group, may be the most recognisable: his image has appeared on posters for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (he was the fuhrer) and Small Metal Objects. ‘‘ Simon just has this incredible capacity for truth on stage, and I find him highly watchable,’’ Gladwin says. ‘‘ He could just stand on stage and I am just drawn to him. It’s this quiet achievement that happens.’’
In his lunch breaks, Laherty has been writing an account of Back to Back. ‘‘ I could work with another theatre company if I wanted to,’’ Laherty says, ‘‘ but I wouldn’t want to, because I want to stay here and do what I do here.’’
Tilley says he enjoys going on tour with the company and is looking forward to taking Ganesh Versus the Third Reich to Festival Tokyo in December, immediately after the Melbourne run of Super Discount. ‘‘ I’m a bit off the topic with Super Discount,’’ he says of his dislike of that particular title, ‘‘ but I’m just so excited with Tokyo.’’
Price says he is fortunate to be working with a great group of people, and with a company where his imagination comes alive. What made him become an actor?
‘‘ Just a passion for the arts,’’ he says. ‘‘ And auditions, auditions, auditions. It’s just that process of going through auditions.’’
Super Discount is at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, September 20 to October 19, and at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, November 13 to December 1.
Brian Tilley, Mark Deans and David Woods rehearse Super Discount, top; Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin with the play’s cast, above