Making Theatre: meaning and method

Back to Back Theatre - Bruce Gladwin in collaboration with Simon Laherty,
Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Sonia Teuben and Brian Tilley


An series of guest essays
from leading voices in Australian theatre.

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TThis essay is divided in two parts. The first is a personal reflection on my own theatre practice and a current struggle for meaning. The second, a search for answers, in the form of a transcript, is a discussion between Back to Back Theatre actors Scott Price, Sarah Mainwaring, Brian Tilley, Simon Laherty and Sonia Teuben, prompted by questions from me.

I’ve been struggling with the thought of ‘why bother’ for a few months now. You know, what’s the point of trying to make great theatre?

And what’s great theatre, anyway?

Probably since my mother passed away late last year, these questions and others to do with temporality, artistic legacy and life’s purpose have played on my mind.

I’ve appreciated the space I’ve been given to mourn, but as with Hamlet, it doesn’t feel quite enough.

Sadness becomes blunted among ordinary things like eating toast and feeling ambivalent. Tonight I’ve been making salami with my in-laws. It involves mixing 60kg of pig flesh with salt, chili, capsicum paste and cracked pepper. As I’m squelching the meat between my hands, in the cold, in the garage, in Reservoir, I think what a lovely warm family event this is. I begin to remember my mother and again, I start to mourn, not my mother, but my childhood. The leading witness to my childhood is gone and I’m suddenly aware there is no one left to verify that I was once a child.

In my melancholia it’s been difficult to think and make theatre, when theatre – something that has given my life great meaning – feels meaningless. People who work in the theatre sometimes admit to me they don’t even like theatre. I’m not like that. I love it. But lately, I’ve been adrift and not very good at admitting it.  

I like the idea of being invisible. Writing director’s notes and explaining how work was made at post-show question and answer sessions does not come easily to me. As a director, I want to feel more than invisible: my ideal is for the audience to be oblivious of the director, to believe that the performance came into being via birth or hatching. No mark or thumb print, no lines of construction.

It’s easier to be imperceptible when you collaborate with the Back to Back Theatre ensemble.

When I first saw the ensemble's work in Geelong in 1989, I experienced something I'd never seen before – intelligent, intuitive, tense, raw, heartfelt, direct, honest, fragile, liminal, theatre like chaos on the edge of control. I spent most of the performance feverishly monitoring my own reaction to what was on stage. What I found was guilt in being invited to look, indeed to stare at people I’d always been told not to look at. It was terrifying.

This was theatre that excited me. It illuminated the strangeness of my own thoughts. It scared me. To translate this from the personal to an audience would be to ask the public to have an aversion. In the world of marketing and audience development, it would be to teach the audience to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It’s not easy to achieve.

Over time I came to know the company. The actors dominated; they were theatre makers. Some devised through improvisation while others spent weeks at their desk churning out reams of writing and drawings. The writing process was respectful of the creator’s disposition. The development of a new work was a hothouse of workshop practice. What would otherwise have been perceived as limitation was a spark of artistic liberation. Even watching from the sidelines felt like riding on the wave of a new movement in art.

Perhaps it was the premise of the company’s engagement with artists with intellectual disabilities, a hangover from the heady days of the 80’s theatre collective or maybe it came from inspired governance and artistic leadership of the company at the time, but the excitement it generated made me wonder why more theatre companies didn't make work in this manner, that is, to engage with the full creative potential of each individual. 

What seems evident to me now in retrospect, as someone who has come to know the company well, over most but not all of its history, is the fertile and extraordinary room that has been afforded to Back to Back Theatre by the Australian cultural community and various agencies. Through the social and cultural policies of the 1980’s and 1990’s, a space has been made to allow the company to sit alongside the established and orthodox with no expectation to fall into line with convention. What is unique has been championed. The conversation is open, the company taken seriously, artistically, and in return has had the opportunity to deliver its full creative potential.

That hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world.

It’s a bold statement but I would contend Back to Back’s operation as a theatre company is beyond any expectation of possibility. The company’s record of achievement or even existence could not have been dreamt of in the recent past. In its emerging actuality, Back to Back has ridden a wave of social reformation for people with intellectual disabilities, placing Australian theatre at the forefront of artistic expression as a driver of dynamic political change.

In Senator Brandis’s recent announcement on arts funding, we see another ideal firmly placed front and centre:

I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidizing individual artists responsible to themselves.

The implication here is that independent artists as well as small arts companies are less productive and in return offer less value. It taints these artists as inferior and different. In being different, these ‘deviant’ artists are guilty of somehow trying to command control. The Senator’s statement offers both a cultural plan and a slap on the wrist for those deemed to be artistically abnormal or somehow selfish.

I’m not sure if Back to Back Theatre falls into Senator Brandis’s categorisation of those companies catering to great audiences. We definitely play to large houses and we play a lot of shows. My concern with the Senator’s worldview is whether a company like Back to Back Theatre, if emerging now, would have the opportunity to grow in a future environment where only the ballet, the opera, the state theatre companies and orchestras are funded? Or to pose this question in a more open way: how are we, in this generation, going to accept and nurture the small, the fragile and the different when it unexpectedly arrives? What policy and what reinforcement will be in place to verify and champion the voices and stories we are yet to witness?


Back to Back Theatre productions 'Ganesh Versus the Third Reich', 'Soft' and 'Super Discount'. Photography: Jeff Busby


When do you know a work is finished?

Sarah You feel warm.
Simon The standing ovation.
Scott When the director tells you have done well.
Simon Praise from the audience.

Is that important?

Simon Not as important as a good show.

How do you write a good play?

Brian I work out the title and then characters.
Scott I improvise my own shit.
Brian Basically we get out materials.
Sarah I write ideas and …..
Simon I do a different process. I improvise and if that doesn’t work I get some research.
Sonia Dreams. I had a dream last night. It was about 4:30am. I was in a concentration camp.
Scott Sounds like a nightmare.
Sonia People were feeding me watery rice through the hole in a door. They were all dirty. There was a woman crying in the corner and I’m trying to comfort her. People were being selected and shot.

Most people forget their dreams but I try to hang on to them. I also use incidents that have happened to me.

Are the shows you make autobiographical?

Simon No, absolutely not.
Brian Not necessarily.
Scott Sometimes.
Sarah Never.

People often think they are.

Brian Because we made the show, they think it is about us, they jump to a conclusion.

How important is the plot to you?

Sonia Without a plot you haven’t got a play.

Do you ever steal material?

Sarah Sometimes.
Scott I never have.
Simon I get inspiration from other people’s work.


Scott I guess my psychiatrist.

All artists have had struggles. What struggles have you had?

Sonia I’ve got an addictive personality disorder.
Scott The ‘challenging behavior’ slur. I’ve been called that all my life and now I want to take action. I’ve been titled with that for way too long.

How has your work changed?

Scott I’ve become more provocative.
Sonia What does provocative mean?
Scott To say things you wouldn’t normally say.
Sonia Oh, right.
Simon I’m more confident.

Do you think technology changes the type of work you make?

Scott The internet is a big source of information. We are at an important point in history; it’s like when PlayStation came out and kids only had pinball.

Should we expect different sorts of plays to be produced?

Scott It’s a generational thing, Bruce.

What do you think will happen?

Scott Robots will write plays. They’ll also replace directors.

What sort of plays will robots write?

Sonia Human plays.

Do you think robots are well placed to comment on humans?

Scott What do you mean by that?

Because they’re not human, do they have objectivity, an outsider’s insight to what it is to be human?

Scott I’m not sure.
Simon A robot who is more human than human.

Yes. Everybody is a writer and photographer these days.

Sonia Not everyone can write.

Good point. What makes a good writer?

Sarah Like Sonia said, you need a good plot line.
Sonia An honest person who is not afraid to speak their mind. Not afraid to go from their brain to their mouth and to their computer.
Simon A person who can write neat and tidy.
Sarah Can create a story arc.
Sonia Someone who knows what they are writing about.
Brian Come up with facts and ideas or go to a fantasy world.
Sonia True to themselves and to the people they are working with.

When is life more important than art?

Scott In the past I’ve had a hard time and it’s just right about now my family is quite important.

There’s someone I really want to kill, but I can’t, because I’ll get into trouble. Sorry Bruce, my Tourette’s is playing up. It’s a good thing I am having a day off tomorrow, so I can collect my thoughts.

Simon Just ignore that person.
Scott I appreciate that advice Simon, but I can’t ignore the situation.

Don’t kill anyone, Scott.

Scott I don’t plan to, Bruce.

That brings me to a question on morality.

Sonia I’m 41 and don’t know what morality is.
Scott I’m very lucky to still be here. Perhaps life is worth it. Disability rights are worth fighting for.

Is that your response to what morality is?

Scott Yes it is. Sorry, I am having a breakdown at the moment.

I’d like to give Sonia a definition of morality. Anyone?

Simon Google it.

It’s having a position between right and wrong or good and bad. But my question is how does morality come into making theatre?

Scott Very important, basically we stand up for people with disabilities.
Simon No, normal people as well.
Scott Yeah, all people can get abused and mistreated.
Simon I wouldn’t want to make anything that discriminates against someone.

Should you consider what the audience thinks in making a work?

Simon No
Brian I don’t think so.
Scott It’s like their perception and their perception alone. They make up their own mind on what they see. 



New playscripts

back to top is thrilled to welcome three
seminal playscripts from the Back to Back Theatre ensemble


Showreel: Back to Back Theatre

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Bruce Gladwin and Back to Back Theatre

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The Democratic Set
Photo: Jeff Busby

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Back to Back Theatre was founded in 1987 in Geelong, Victoria, its mission being to create theatre with people who are identified as having an intellectual disability. Using their unique position as outsiders to cast a discordant gaze at sociaty, the members of Back to Back Theatre explore the points of friction between economic exploitation and humanism, between the social and the artistic, between the legitimate needs of individuals and the tyranny of normality. Consisting of five full-time actors, the company has been headed since 1999 by director Bruce Gladwin. Favouring a long-term creative process based on improvisations with the actors, Bruce and his company have more recently developed radical theatricality by focusing on the real issues underpinning the performances, adopting an aesthetic of visual poetry and a continuous seesaw between what is performed and what is represented.

For recent major works by Back to Back Theatre - Soft (2002), Small Metal Objects (2005), Food Court (2008) and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011) - have made the company internationally renowed and, over the past decade, the troup has performed in more than 50 cities and in major festivals around the world.



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