Go Deeper

small metal objects: Q&A with Alice Nash of Back to Back Theatre

Posted August 21st, 2009

Alice Nash is the executive producer of Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company that creates engaging new work through a collaboration between disabled and non-disabled creators. Back to Back is presenting small metal objects at the Live Arts Festival next month. Alice braved a flaky Skype connection and a 14-hour time difference to talk with Andrew Zitcer about bringing this piece to Philadelphia.

Can you tell me a little bit about Back to Back?
Back to Back is one of Australia’s only ensemble theater groups. We have seven actors with intellectual disabilities. They work 40 weeks a year; it’s a full time job for them. They write all the work with our artistic director Bruce Gladwin. Their view is idiosyncratic, and what is important about Back to Back’s work emerges from the fact that the actors have a refreshing perspective on the world that is surprising and illuminating to audiences. In a way, they remind us what it means to be human. They bring it home to us—sometimes by being more warm-hearted, and sometimes by being more shocking than the norm!

We are quite interested in the relation between architecture, performance and audience. We have dispensed entirely with the idea that you need a theater. [For instance, Back to Back has performed small metal objects in 29 cities around the world, in venues including parks, libraries and shopping centers.]

Bruce works with the ensemble to write all the work. He is the main intermediary between their ideas and their audience in a sense. The work is created through a process of improvisation, very, very slowly. The scripts that are generated are lean and to the point. We take the time to make the work properly.

What was the idea for small metal objects and where did it come from?
We wanted to make a show about the relation between economics and human values. Economics is a fairly abstract concept for anyone, and our ensemble has intellection disabilities. So we started to talk about money and value and what it means to be valuable.

After the jump: the intersection of value, disability, and site-specific theater. And then at the end, an awesome dance video!

One of our ensemble members, Sonia Teuben, was one of the co-authors. She said, “If we are going to talk about success, I want to play a successful businessman.” That was the parameter she set for her goal in the piece. She based the character on a friend that is a drug dealer. But she considers him a businessman who values friendship over money.

The character espouses a lot of the values that Sonia espouses as a human being—that it’s not important how much you earn, but it is important how you are as a friend. It draws out a lot of different things about what it means to be a good human in our society. The other characters came from Sonia and are, in a sense, foils for her character.

Is this work meant, in part, for a disabled audience? Do you perform a lot for disability groups?
We have maintained from the inception of the organization that it’s an arts company. Our work can be very enlightening for a disability audience, but it’s by no means our primary audience. In fact, some of it can be difficult to receive by a disability audience. And I would resist any funding that forces that relationship.

What we are interested in is not that they are disabled, but that they have an interesting perspective on the world – a byproduct of the work is that it can tell you what somebody with a disability might think about the world. But the target audience is definitely the audience for contemporary art. Sometimes people have seen the work and not have realized there is a disability involved.

small metal objects
At first we thought the work required heavy foot traffic—half of the show is the audience. But the piece is more robust. It can sustain a more low-level pedestrian show. It becomes a gentler and contemplative piece. It’s fairly versatile.

The exciting thing is that it reveals the beauty in the everyday of the audiences’ own space. They are forced to watch that space in a way that they have never watched it before: quietly for an hour in an enclosed space in their head. They watch the space more carefully than they have before.

We get notes from people later who say, “We will never see that space the same way again!”

How do the actors handle all of the possible unpredictable interactions?
The show is tightly scripted but can admit the public and it relies on all four of the actors being able to respond to that and accommodate it.

The interaction between the public, the actors and the audience can be minimal and it can be quite intense. We have had occasions where people have tried to intervene, stop the show, mediate a dispute going on between the characters. [And] people have tried to perform in front of the audience!

Generally it’s much tamer than that—and it can be beautiful and sweet when people try to intervene in a situation that they think is untoward. You can have a soft show one day and a hard day the next. It can be very heartening. The relationships that are established between the piece and its environment, humanizing a public space like that – the piece draws out peoples’ humanity where empathy was worn through.

What do you think are the ramifications of a piece like small metal objects?
I get really excited about the show being a piece of advocacy for theater itself. You might get someone who goes to work everyday and wouldn’t go to the theater but sees that there are some people sitting quietly with headphones on, watching this show. We have had people who keep walking by it and buy a ticket and see theater for the first time.

Also, for a member of the public it’s not the actors who are the spectacle—it’s the seating bank of 150 people watching a space where it’s not obvious what is going on. We hadn’t anticipated that there would be a dynamic between the public and the audience. There can be an interesting power dynamic between public and audience: the audience can be quite powerful, but occasionally the public can become more powerful when they try to subvert what’s going on.

What’s next for Back to Back after small metal objects?
We just got back from Austria, where we are developing an experimental work called Tour Guide. There was no seating bank; people just wandered through a park and found the show. We used headphones but these didn’t have wires; we broadcast the sound from the show through a narrow fm broadcast. We collaborated with 35 people with intellectual disabilities in German. And we did it all in two and a half weeks!

[And since you’re interested in Back to Back, let’s revisit the super awesome dance video they put together. – Ed.]

Theatre of Speed Vs Boz N Hok – Directed by Rhian Hinkley

Back to Back Theatre will present small metal objects during the last week of the Live Arts Festival. It opens Wednesday, September 16, for seven performances at the 40th Street Field in University City.

–Andrew Zitcer