(photo credit: Jeff Busby)
The Elephant and the Swastika; The Journey of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
How a small-town Australian company created world-acclaimed and mind-bending theatre
by Chad Dembski
CHARPO: How did Back to Back theatre first come together? How has it grown to its current state?
GLADWIN: The company is based in Geelong, a small regional centre just south of Melbourne in Australia. It started in 1997, at a point of the institutionalization of Australia. So the defining feature of the company is that it employs actors with intellectual disabilities. It started as a series of workshops, with a number of artists; visual artists, theatre makers, and a musician running workshops with people with disabilities in our community. All three of those artists were drawn to an outsider art aesthetic and started applying that to theatre. The company has never worked from existing scripts, it’s always a collective writing process, like a devised process.
The very first show that the company produced started touring so this process where the company makes work not just for the community that it’s based in, but also for a touring program became the model of operation. The scale of work has built over the years, I’m the fourth Artistic Director and I think each director has taken the company in their own specific aesthetic direction. When I joined the company one of the agendas that the ensemble had was to tour more broadly and to tour internationally. We set about trying to make work that would have a broader resonance, with our audience.
Our presentation of “SOFT” for the 2005 Melbourne International Festival was a play about pre-natal screening, emerging genetic technology. It was obviously quite pertinent for the actors in the company because the work positioned the actors as being kind of obsolete in society, and not wanted. We aim to make work that comes from the idiosyncratic voice of the actors but it kind of speaks to all people. A lot of the thematics we’re dealing with are about power, power difference, and the machinations of power. But really each work is trying to answer questions that are raised in a previous work, so it’s like an ongoing investigation in many ways.
CHARPO: Where did the idea come from for Ganesh Versus the third Reich?
GLADWIN: The work was in development for about five years before it hit the stage. The initial catalyst for it came from wanting to make a work that didn’t have any dialogue in it. So we spent a week drawing with the actors, getting the actors to draw. And one of actors at the time, Rita, was obsessed with Ganesh, she was just constantly drawing Ganesh, so we had that as a kind of character. We were spending a lot of time pitch shifting the actors' voices down a couple of octaves, so that they had this deep, resonating voice, so even if they breathed it would sound like an earthquake rumble. From that exploration of sound, another actor Sonia created this neo-Nazi character. So we had these two different thematics of Indian deity and Hitler and the Nazis.
In a way the show is a product of Google, we googled those two subjects and found a number of websites dealing with this idea that the Nazis appropriated the swastika. We were quite interested in the idea of the hero’s journey, and the theories of Joseph Campbell, in terms of narrative construction, which are these epic archetypal based stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. So the idea of placing a central character, a god, travelling from India to Germany at a point during WWII and the holocaust, we just felt we didn’t have the right to make it. Because it was dealing with cultural appropriation, we don’t have the right to tell this story. We’re just a little theatre company from regional Australia, with very little connection to European history. We sat on the narrative for two years, and the idea that we can’t actually make it is the basis to explore in the making of it. We decided to make a fictionalized autobiography of the company in the process of making a work, which became the structure of the other narrative. So there’s two narratives; there’s the Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika - which is a Heart of Darkness story - and the other narrative is the director and the actors in the process of coming to terms with the moral and ethical implications in the creation of the piece.
CHARPO: Back to Back theatre is group of devisors, how is the company different from a traditional theatre company?
GLADWIN: The ultimate aim is to generate a script, a blueprint for the way we operate from, and so the work itself is very set. The way we generate that script is different to having a solo author of that work. My job as the director is to create a framework for an understanding of the world in which the play will take place. Create a frame onstage for the actors. In the devising process, I will propose an idea for the scene, and the actors will improvise, and then we’ll improvise for hours. We’ll swap roles, so we generate whole other versions of what the scene could be. From there, it’s a simple process of going through the video and taking the parts that work and building from there. As the script is building, there are black holes and so there’s more improvising that needs to be created to try and fill a moment that’s not there. The actors are writers working dramaturgically on the floor as improvisers. There is intellectual discussion that makes its way into the script as well. The main characters we are dealing with are an actor and a director, so quite often we just turn the video camera on them and use that as well.