October 2022


Strength to strength

By Alison Croggon
The Back to Back Theatre ensemble: Mark Deans, Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring, Breanna Deleo and Simon Laherty.

The Back to Back Theatre ensemble (from left) Mark Deans, Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring, Breanna Deleo and Simon Laherty

Back to Back Theatre’s ensemble, work and philosophy have drawn international acclaim, and now theatre’s most prestigious prize

“Back to Back Theatre is despicable. It’s beastly. It’s contagious. Get this filth off our stages. This is rubbish theatre. Too many words. These guys are a pack of punks.”
— Back to Back ensemble reviewing themselves, 2019

Those who think of theatre as something more than a subset of the “entertainment industry” know that every collaboration is a rehearsal for utopia. Embedded in its heart is a gamble on human possibility: how we – as a community, as a nation, as a species – might work or play together, how we might negotiate difference, how we might find through each other a better way to be ourselves. How, together, we might make something out of nothing.

Few companies come close to achieving this, and those that do generally manage only a temporary glimpse. Many things work against it: the sheer difficulty of sustaining such a vision in an economy hostile to the politics of care and attention; the infinite vagaries of people; the hard, human work of it.

One of the few Australian companies to embody this possibility is Back to Back Theatre, the extraordinary ensemble of “people with and without disabilities” that this year won the theatrical equivalent of a Nobel. The International Ibsen Award – at almost $400,000, the richest and most prestigious award there is for theatre – is given to honour an institution, organisation or individual that has contributed to the “global art of theatre or has given theatre new dimensions”.

“There are so many reasons why we gave it to Back to Back,” Ingrid Lorentzen, chair of the Ibsen Award committee, said in Oslo. “The prize is about honouring a body of work, and it’s about a contribution to world theatre. We wanted to give it to a game changer. When [the committee] were discussing who might win, we couldn’t think of anyone who had such a democratic project and consciousness … Back to Back changes the way you see things.”

The company received the award at a moving ceremony in the fading grandeur of Norway’s National Theatre, an 1899 building replete with gilded statues of Bacchus and neoclassical murals. Last month, in the mild Norwegian autumn, Back to Back began to assemble at Oslo’s Thon Hotel Slottsparken for a week of events around the presentation. The hotel – a slightly shabby relic of the 1930s notable for its astonishing smorgasbord breakfasts and bright furnishings (orange, aqua, jade green, red) – rapidly transformed into the epicentre of the Back to Back machine.

It’s a sizeable entourage, 26 people in total. There’s the cast, crew and support teams for the two Back to Back productions that are playing at the National Theatre. The crew of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is on the final leg of a European tour through Britain, Switzerland and Germany, while the Ganesh Versus the Third Reich team – including artistic director Bruce Gladwin and his 13-year-old daughter, Florence – has flown in from Australia to re-rehearse before two performances. Also present is a small film crew, which includes writer Chloe Hooper, that’s making a documentary about the company. I’m there as a guest of the Ibsen committee, to appear with Hooper on the “academic panel” that accompanies the formalities.

The result is something like a cross between a travelling carnival and a family reunion. The hotel’s foyer and breakfast room rapidly become informal offices and meeting places, and the various rehearsals, production schedules, meal appointments and the company’s COVID-19 protocols – which include rapid antigen tests every morning before leaving the hotel room – are coordinated online over Slack. The general impression is of friendly, patient efficiency, with a high tolerance for the small emergencies that accompany every tour.

So far the worst that has happened is executive producer Tim Stitz’s positive test on the morning of his arrival in Oslo. He’s stoically confined to his hotel room for a few days. The strict protocols – essential for a group that includes people with compromised immune systems – mean that the illness hasn’t spread through the team. In contrast, Norway’s COVID restrictions have been lifted completely. At a lunch to welcome the Back to Back crew, it feels slightly surreal to hear the National Theatre’s artistic director, Kristian Seltun, casually mention that they recently performed a show with a positive case in the cast.

For Back to Back, the Ibsen Award is the culmination of decades of work, a validation of its stubborn insistence that, even as an organisation that employs people with disabilities or who are neurodiverse, it’s a theatre company first.

The fact that Back to Back is Australia’s only permanent professional theatre ensemble – a major factor in its success – is, when you think about it, a little shocking. The only other in recent history was Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors’ Company, which lasted three years, from 2006 to 2008, generating brilliant work and controversy in equal measure. It’s perhaps ironic that it’s Back to Back’s ability to access different funding streams – as well as an arts company it is, for example, registered as an NDIA provider – that has permitted it to sustain an ensemble, which is the ideal model for making great performance.

Groundbreaking companies such as Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil or Peter Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research – also winners of the Ibsen – or Pina Bausch’s dance theatre company Tanztheater Wuppertal, are all built on the idea of ensemble. What this model permits is the development of long-term relationships, both creative and personal. This continuity creates the ground on which a company can develop its own theatrical language – and, in the best circumstances, radically reimagine what theatre might be.

As ensembles go, Back to Back is already venerable – some members have been with the company for decades. At the moment, the ensemble consists of Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price and Mark Deans. Deans, the troupe’s clown, has been with Back to Back for a staggering 33 years.

Mainwaring joined 13 years ago. Her pathway was slightly different from most other cast members, who have generally come through Back to Back’s community workshops – she made her own work as an independent artist for many years beforehand. “It’s been fantastic for me to be able to be within a group of like-minded actors and to be able to share my craft,” she says. “It’s just fantastic to be able to step into the world of theatre with these guys and feel strong. It’s a world I am proud of and know a lot about. And it’s fantastic to feel like this is where I belong.”

Laherty has worked with Back to Back for 19 years, over five different shows. It’s a sizeable chunk of a lifetime. “I love touring. I love being in the company,” says Laherty. “It’s like a family.” He feels a similar pride to Mainwaring. “Every show is our words,” he says. “And it’s our ideas.”


“We did what we were told. And then we didn’t.”
— Back to Back ensemble, 2018

The story of how an idea hatched by three artists in the mid 1980s ended up being honoured on the stage of Oslo’s National Theatre is, like the company itself, at once astonishing and ordinary. Based in the post-industrial Victorian town of Geelong, Back to Back began when theatre maker Cas Anderson, musician Robin Gador and visual artist Noel Hart volunteered to work with people at the disability services provider Corilong Centre, and began to see the possibility of creating a mixed-media theatre company.

Anderson was the company’s first artistic director, followed by Barry Kay, who had a background in community arts and devising, and then by Ian Pidd, whose career includes performance, public arts and festival direction. In 1999, Bruce Gladwin, who initially worked with the company as a performer, was appointed artistic director, a job he has retained since.

It’s striking how consistent the company’s ethos has been from the very beginning. In the book “We’re People Who Do Shows”: Back to Back Theatre – Performance Politics Visibility (2013), Anderson describes its genesis:

What I really wanted from that work at Corilong was an ongoing company that toured … I wasn’t into the idea of the one-off spectacular. There were a lot of one-off events back then, where people with Down’s syndrome were dancing. But [the organisers never] let them open their mouths … I started to get the inkling that these individuals were creative, had creative things to say.

Then, on a personal level, things happened, like Lorna Toolman who passed away 10 years ago now. I was giving her a lift somewhere and she said, ‘You know what Cas, I’m so pissed off. I got kicked in the head by a horse when I was two and so now I’m epileptic … and I can’t drink a beer like anyone else.’ So, it was like the creative, the physicality, the amazing writing and then these stories …

Each successive artistic director evolved the central idea. Under Kay, Back to Back began collaborating with other contemporary companies such as Circus Oz and the puppetry-visual company Handspan Theatre. “I brought in opera singers, circus performers, musicians and, when I was leaving, puppet/visual theatre practitioners,” he says. Freak Show, a collaboration between Circus Oz and Back to Back, was featured in the 1994 Melbourne Festival – the first time the company was part of a non-disability-related arts festival.

Pidd’s direction saw Back to Back formally separate itself from Corilong in 1997. “We insisted that this wasn’t some kind of disability support organisation – that it was a professional theatre company,” Pidd says in the book. “Removing ourselves from Corilong was very fraught … but they simply did not have the expertise to deal with where the company was going.”

Part of the fight involved shifting its Australia Council for the Arts funding from the Community Cultural Development Board to the Theatre Board, and paying its actors as professionals. “They really wanted us in that community culture development sector,” says Anderson. “That was it. It was as if they were saying that that was all Back to Back could ever be.”

Since Bruce Gladwin took over as artistic director in 1999, Back to Back has created some of the most extraordinary theatre – and, more recently, film – that has been made in Australia. In hindsight, it’s clear that this is a direct result of a single-minded determination that was baked in from the very beginning.

When asked about the ethics of Back to Back, Gladwin is entirely pragmatic. Valuing the work of its artists is central. “Fundamentally, it’s a workplace,” he says. “It’s important that our actors are paid above-award conditions. We’re members of the LPA [Live Performance Australia]. And obviously there are responsibilities that come with working with people with neurodiversity and intellectual disabilities. There’s always a risk of exploiting people.”

As part of this, a central tenet of Back to Back is the insistence on proper credits. All the artists are empowered as creators, a democratic model that can only work with time, resources and mutual trust. “Our actors are also authors, and are credited as such. That’s worked out from the very beginning, before we even start. It’s a question, by the bye, that has implications for broader theatre collaborations, where actors also create content and ideas.”

Another important aspect, says Gladwin, is that Back to Back’s business model rests on creating repertoire, sidestepping the short-term project-to-project funding that is the bane of Australian arts. “For us, there’s no point in working to make a show that lasts only for a two-and-a-half-week season,” he says. “We focus on creating work that can tour for years.”

The result over the years has been increasing acclaim. Gongs include the Australia Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre, a swag of Green Room Awards, New York’s Bessie Award and the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Group Award. Back to Back pursues a punishing touring schedule, both across Australia and internationally, that means it’s regularly referred to as Australia’s biggest cultural export. Last year it became part of the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework, the new major companies structure, which gives the company security in an overwhelmingly precarious arts landscape.

All of Back to Back’s theatre projects are co-devised with the central ensemble, which changes over time as members arrive and leave. Their refusal to repeat their work or to rest on their laurels has resulted in works that differ wildly – from the epic theatricality of shows such as Ganesh Versus the Third Reich or Food Court (with music by The Necks), to the intimate town-hall meeting of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. The company’s next work, Multiple Bad Things, is in its third stage of development. Co-directed by Tamara Searle and Ingrid Voorendt, it’s the first Back to Back show since 1999 that’s not directed by Gladwin.

The company is increasingly making screen projects, starting with the short film Oddlands in 2017. Shadow – an adaptation of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes – was partly a project that resulted when touring shut down due to COVID. Released this year, it’s been doing the film festival rounds, and won the 2022 Audience Award at the South by Southwest festival. There are also some smaller, one-person films involving members of the ensemble, and ongoing projects such as RADIAL, a collaborative filmmaking process that results in “a video portrait of a community and landscape in motion”. Most recently, RADIAL projects have taken place at the BLEACH* Festival on the Gold Coast.

“Film was happening before the pandemic,” Stitz says over Zoom, from isolation in his hotel room. “The idea was born out of the ensemble, a question of how we expand our audiences, how to make our work more accessible. One night on the ABC or SBS can reach 75,000 people, which is way beyond what any theatre company can do.”

Stitz is frank that Back to Back can’t be all things to all people, and is conscious it exists in a field where disability arts is becoming more diverse and its artists more vocal. Over the past couple of decades, companies such as Rawcus, Weave Movement Theatre, Restless Dance Theatre and many individual artists have been extending the vocabulary and range of disability performing arts in Australia. Back to Back is only the most prominent, although paradoxically, its fame remains more international than local. As Stitz says, a lot of people in Geelong don’t know who they are.

The public projects are only part of what they do. RADIAL, for example, is part of Back to Back’s education program, which they say is “integral to their innovation”. There are the annual CAMP (Come and Make Performance) workshops – one of which is part of the Alter State arts and disability festival at Arts Centre Melbourne – and the Theatre of Speed, a centre for young people with intellectual disabilities that holds weekly workshops in Geelong. Stitz says they have often sourced cast members for the main stage shows from Theatre of Speed, which has become a kind of laboratory for theatrical experiment.

The distinguished roll call of independent artists who have worked with Back to Back since its early days is another constant. The Oslo team, for example, includes Daniel Schlusser – artistic director of the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble – as tour director for Shadow’s European travels, and Melbourne pianist and composer Nat Bartsch. It’s not hard to see the attraction for artists interested in rethinking the art form – the very nature of Back to Back’s project forces every artist, abled and disabled alike, to imagine beyond theatrical conventions. And that’s exciting.


“What should theatre be like? Never a part two. No interval. Right through an hour show and that’s it. Like a rainbow on a sunny day. Bright and happy and warm and short. And they should feel satisfied. It’s like an orgasm, alright, you work up to it, and when you have an orgasm you feel satisfied. You work up to it you work up to it you work up to it, and then kaboom, you are seeing more than rainbows. That’s what theatre should be like.”
— Sonia Teuben, Back to Back ensemble member, 2017

How to describe Back to Back’s theatre? It’s work that peels away the illusions that sustain us, a kind of psychic cleansing that generates a fugitive sense of freedom and joy. By its end, their audiences are left facing themselves. The voyeurism that shames us. The cruelty that stems from self-hatred. The conflicts that expose us. The fascism that seeds in the tyranny of the well-meaning. Our unbearable fragility. Our mortality.

There is no moralising: any judgement is left up to us, the audience. The ethics of the company exist entirely in their process, out of which emerges the questions and imperatives that drive whatever they make. Although it stems always from a particular collaborative philosophy, it’s very hard to generalise about their work. As Gladwin said in 2014, “Each time we start a new work, we begin again.”

I first encountered Back to Back in 2005, when they had already been working for two decades. The Melbourne International Arts Festival premiered Small Metal Objects, a play about a small-time drug deal that later became their break-out international hit.

I had never seen anything like it. The audience sat wearing headphones on a rostrum in the Flinders Street Station concourse as the Friday night crowds streamed by. The performers were somewhere in the concourse, audible through the headphones but not immediately identifiable in the crowd. Disconcertingly, the audience also became the show – I remember one commuter stood facing the rostrum, his arms crossed, waiting for something to happen.

I walked out, as I always do from Back to Back, with a heightened and persistent awareness of the beauty of the mundane, of the profundity of the tiny interactions and ordinary people that are edited out of social perception. Since then, shows such as Ganesh Versus the Third Reich – an epic journey in which Ganesh seeks to wrest the swastika back from the Nazis – and Food Court – a devastatingly beautiful show about an incident of abuse – have demonstrated that Back to Back is one of the most exciting companies Australia has ever produced.

As Stitz and Gladwin have said, their work is “an experiment in social hope”. At the centre of everything the company makes are difficult truths, painful and raw, presented with the transparency and skill that only comes with courage. Its gift to audiences – the lightness with which you walk away – is liberation. How often are we offered truth?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously said that the demand of art is “you must change your life”. Few companies embody this as directly as Back to Back. For the members of the company – and for many who see their shows – Back to Back literally changes lives. That ventures beyond hope to something tangible, a glimpse of the possibilities within us all.

Maybe Sonia Teuben, a former ensemble member who died last year, said it best. Back to Back’s theatre is, she said, for everyone: “For the rich. The poor. For the loneliness. For the forgiveness.”

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. She is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.


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