Monday, October 2, 2017

Back to Back Theatre

Art and The Seeming Impossible: Back to Back Theatre by Alice Nash, Executive Producer, at Currency House Business and Creativity Breakfast, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney: Wednesday September 20, 2017.

Full text provided by Martin Portus, Media Manager, Currency House:

Report by Frank McKone
Posted September 27

After acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional owners of ‘the land on which we now stand’, and Back to Back Theatre Board members present, Phillip Keir and Ben Kay, Alice Nash noted “that I am speaking on behalf of a virtuosic group of co-authors and actors who are the Back to Back ensemble, as well as my long-term partner in crime, Artistic Director, Bruce Gladwin.”

Nash spoke ‘in particular’ about ‘our critically acclaimed production Ganesh Versus the Third Reich which premiered at the 2011 Melbourne International Festival (and is still touring), controversy around the genesis of this work, its intended and actual impact on audiences, and the contribution I consider it makes towards the development of civil society in Australia’.

After quoting reviewer Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader in 2013:

Suppose I told you that Australia’s Back to Back Theatre works with ‘intellectually disabled’ actors?  What would you expect from one of their shows?  Drama therapy?  Elementary theatre games?  A bunch of sweet simpletons making an endearing hash of say, a scene from The Odd Couple?...I know I imagined all sorts of feel good crap – until I saw...Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.  Believe me, the thing is utterly, wittingly sometimes even brutally crap free.

Nash described ‘one of the most challenging moments for the company’ when ‘two weeks prior to the opening of the world premiere of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a global social media campaign was mounted to halt the production’, causing ‘amongst the many media outlets who contacted me’ Mark Colvin to ring ‘for ABC’s PM, to initiate a piece on the fact that we had “unwittingly drawn the ire of Hindu groups [for our]...depiction of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.”

She explained the process of ‘long conversations and fierce artistic and ethical debates’ and improvisation which ‘form the bulk of the text that we create’ had led one actor ‘talking us through hundreds of her drawings of Lord Ganesh’, being ‘obsessed with Ganesh, the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’.  Another actor had come ‘to work in a leather bomber jacket, her hair shorn nearly to her scalp and when she pitched her voice downwards, she created a terrifying neo-Nazi character.’

‘Putting these two streams of investigation together, the actors created the first narrative of the show: that of Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient symbol of goodwill in Hinduism.’  Then ‘the second story in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a fictional autobiography of Back to Back Theatre caught in the action of exploring ethical and moral issues generated by the first story of Ganesh and the swastika’.

The controversy resulted in a meeting, overseen by the Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, with ‘Hindu community leaders, representatives from the Victorian Multi-Faith Advisory Committee, Arts Victoria, Malthouse Theatre and the Melbourne Festival...about how we collectively define and build a multicultural, pluralistic society, about democracy, tolerance, individual rights and responsibilities, about respect, and about voice and power in our community....  Amongst agreed outcomes of the meeting, invitations were extended to all religious leaders to attend the Opening Night of the production the next day’.

‘The experience was demanding,’ Nash stated, ‘and I am not saying we did not make mistakes along the way, but it was an immense honour: to engage with and respond to community concerns, to listen and to be heard, and to try to forge new understandings’.

‘And the work too travels the world.  In 2014, it appeared in Weimar, Germany, in a theatre once draped with Nazi banners and where – not without heavy irony – the actors stayed at the Elephant Hotel in which Hitler once stood on the balcony overseeing troops’.

Nash then described her aims under the heading Why Theatre? and the principles of working with Artists with Disabilities, especially concerning that ‘it is safe to say that within Australian society, people with disabilities continue to be placed within the category of “the other”.  Back to Back comments on the value-based structures that define the institution known as “the majority”.  Family, career, sex, politics, religion. education and culture are all subject to a lateral analysis from an artistic team whose defining characteristic is separation from the spectacle of their subject matter’.

Considering Art, Ambition and Entrepreneurship, Nash went on to describe Back to Back Theatre as ‘a highly dynamic business enterprise’ saying ‘Yes, it’s a not-for-profit charitable organisation, and it’s a hard-hitting social enterprise with long-term cultural and economic impact’.  She then went on to discuss six aspects of her work, from the beginning point ‘My role as an arts producer is never to say ‘no’ to the artistic team’.

The areas covered were

1. We’ve identified the ingredients we need to make great work: Support the artists; Time for research and development and keeping the work in repertoire [including Small Metal Objects, reviewed on this blog, Sydney Festival 9 January 2007]; Space – ‘an amazing studio, an experimental laboratory – as we call it – for theatre essential constant, both a comforting home and a high performance functional environment’.

2. We’ve created a unique product.

3. We’ve identified our market: ‘in any given city in the world – in Geelong, or Mildura or Sydney or New York or Seoul – our work is a small pice of the action in each city but when we add it up globally, it’s a massive, clear, engaged, artistically and socially committed audience’.

4. We’ve been entrepreneurial: ‘It’s demanded grit, determination, systems, and spreadsheets and quite a few late nights across the years, but it’s been energising imagining a possibility and then bringing it into being’.

5. We continue to have wild ideas: ‘17 years on, we continue to take risks’ with plans for a bilingual version of one of their shows in Hong Kong ‘as a precursor to striving to enter the Chinese market’, and for a major screen project called Oddlands which ‘will have its world premiere screening at the Adelaide Film Festival in a few weeks, screen on ABC TV early in 2018 and then...we hope to serialise it, for a year, or maybe for years to come.  One has to dream big’.

6. We’ve still got lots to learn: ‘We like to think we are qute smart, but we still make mistakes.  But when we do, we take responsibility’.

To conclude, Alice Nash quoted ‘some thoughts from a member of the Back to Back Theatre ensemble, Sonia Teuben, the one who created the neo-Nazi character.  Just the other day she wrote:

“Theatre should be for the people.  For the people to have a voice.  And not feel afraid of that.

“Theatre needs to come from listening to other people...True stories.  In-ya-face kind of stories.  Stories from the heart and the mind.  Stories that are deep down inside of you.  Stories that you never forget for a long time.”

Sonia wrote:  “My taxi driver this morning, he was a single bloke, lives in a house.  I asked him questions like ‘You got a wife?’ He said ‘No.’  I said ‘You got a dog?’  He said ‘No.’  I said ‘You got kids?’  He said ‘No.’  I said ‘What do you do in life?’  He says ‘I read books and I drive taxis.’  I said ‘That must be boring.’  He says ‘It’s not.  That’s life.’  He said to me ‘Have a really nice day.  You are a very special woman’.  I said ‘You should really get a cattle dog, you seem lonely.’”

Sonia then wrote: “Theatre is for the rich.  Theatre is for the poor.  For the loneliness.  [And f]or the forgiveness.”

Alice Nash said ‘Thank you.’