Back to back theatre


- Words Jo Walker

Ask actor Simon Laherty what kind of music he’s into, and he’ll tell you, “Just Britney.” He collects Britney Spears merch, he has a deep love for her back catalogue, and right now he’s working on an idea for a play about everybody’s favourite tragic and legally constraine­d pop diva.

Simon is part of Back to Back Theatre’s ensemble, a small group of actors with intellectu­al disabiliti­es who work together developing and performing major theatre works. And while Britney Spears might seem an odd choice for theatrical inspiratio­n, artistic director Bruce Gladwin says he’s come to see her connection to the company’s work.

“I'll say, ‘What do you want to make a show about?’ And Simon will say, ‘Britney Spears.’ And in the back of my head, I'll go, ‘I can't ever see us making a show about Britney Spears,’” Bruce explains. “But then our knowledge about that subject matter starts changing. And then it becomes evident: here is a person who’s disempower­ed and treated as a child. And it does have these parallels with other things that are closer to us. Like, some people with disabiliti­es can feel that they, as an adult, are treated as a child. Or they can’t have a voice.”

Simon’s unnamed Britney project is still in developmen­t, but if it ever gets performed, it won’t be too out of place for a company whose previous works include a show about an Indian god visiting Hitler’s Germany (Ganesh Versus the Third Reich); a suburban juice bar where dignity goes to die – set to a soundtrack from a live band (Food Court); or the biblical creation story (Lady Eats

Apple). Or maybe it will be just out of place enough – that’s sort of what the Geelong-based theatre company is all about.

Bruce joined Back to Back in 1999 and Simon signed on in 2003, so it’s been a long-term relationsh­ip for them both: to each other, the ensemble, and the company as a whole. “We’re like a big family,” Simon says. And for Bruce, too, it’s about connecting over time. “It’s not just a three-week rehearsal and then you throw it up and have a two-week season and that’s it. It's an ongoing investigat­ion into the subject matter and developing skills as a collective.”

Most of Back to Back’s shows start as collaborat­ions among ensemble members and other in-house creatives (including Bruce), plus maybe a guest theatre maker or two. Ideas are researched and played with and improvised before being moulded into a final piece. Inspiratio­n can come from anywhere. Up in

Smoke was based on childhood memories from some of the ensemble members. Another show, SOFT, was prompted by a Geelong journalist asking for comment on decreased rates of newborns with Down syndrome.

“We went and spoke to genetic researcher­s at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute,” Bruce remembers. “It was challengin­g because some of the actors with those genetic conditions were having a conversati­on with scientists who were explaining, ‘This is a test for Down syndrome. And these are the repercussi­ons of finding out this result in the test, and this is what some people decide to do’ – which is terminate the pregnancy.

“They are massive things, because they’re questionin­g people’s own existence within society. So I think there’s a connection with a lot of our thematics around ethics or power. There’s a strong thematic there around the machinatio­ns of power, but also this lovely thematic around care.”

Over the years, Simon has helped devise and perform a pretty wide range of characters. “I’ve done my childhood. I’ve played a Jewish character. I played a German dictator. There’s so many.” Acting out stories he’s had a hand in creating is a big plus, too. “I like, before doing a show, that I know it real well,” Simon says.

Not all Back to Back shows are staged in formal theatres with velvet curtains and choc tops at intermissi­on. They’ve developed pieces for train stations, blow-up tents and shopping malls. Does this attract a different kind of crowd than a regular playhouse? “Definitely,” Simon says. You get the idea that the Back to Back group likes to play with expectatio­ns. And they play with the convention­s of theatre in other ways, as well.

Sometimes, innovation­s come from the needs of a performer, Bruce explains. “Simon has a phenomenal memory for learning lines. Whereas some of our other actors have less refined memory skills,” he says. “In one show we did, Lady Eats Apple,

Simon was playing a romance story. And the actor he was playing against, Sarah, really struggles with learning texts. So we embroidere­d all her lines onto Simon's costume. And it became an aesthetic.

“It was quite a complex piece of dialogue that was very intimate, and would involve her really getting close to him. From a distance, it really just looked like she was being incredibly intimate with him and unzipping his jacket and reading the text on his t-shirt.”

Another example that’s become a Back to Back staple is the use of microphone­s for performers (and sometimes headphones for audience members, too). “None of our actors have really been to WAAPA or VCA or NIDA, so they haven’t done four years of voice training,” Bruce says. “In some ways we’ve just avoided that and worked with technology like radio mics. But then we’ve started realising we can pitch shift the actors’ voices down a couple of octaves, or drive it with a lot of reverb… So we’re using sound to overcome these traditiona­l stereotype­s of what an actor is, but then going, ‘Actually, it opens us up to all these other creative possibilit­ies.’”

Like every other performing arts company, Back to Back was thrown off course when the pandemic curtailed internatio­nal tours and even local performanc­es. The company started 2020 with a tour of North America – and then cancelled all forward bookings. Instead, they’ve changed up their business model. Working in collaborat­ion with kids in special schools, Back to Back is halfway through an animated video series called First

Responders. There are ongoing community workshops, and there’s a screen adaptation of one of their more recent plays,

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, involving 12 production internship roles for people with disabiliti­es. Then there’s Simon’s Britney project – and others bubbling away in the ensemble – that might make it in front of an audience sometime in the future.

For Simon, the Back to Back mission statement is simple: “Profession­al, we work hard, always on time and just what Bruce wants.” Turning up to work and being surrounded by so many other creative people with disabiliti­es is pretty special, too. “I’d say the guys who have a disability are all part of my second family,” Simon says. “We all get on quite well.”

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