Of punk and prizes: notes from the Australian neurodiverse theatre company lauded around the world | Australian theatre

In a dark walled rehearsal space, three actors run lines. “Are you OK with the word disability?” starts Simon Laherty. A devoted fan of Britney Spears, he wears a black hoodie emblazoned with the singer and her catchcry “Oops …”

“I don’t think it describes me,” Sarah Mainwaring retorts in a steady voice, each syllable carrying deep feeling.

The third actor, Scott Price, strokes his Ned Kelly beard, then puts a finger in his hot chocolate and absentmindedly sucks it. “Look, I am a disabled person,” he says, his words racing. “I am proud, and I don’t want to have to weave my way around language.”

The trio are members of the internationally lauded, Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre, an ensemble who are neurodiverse or intellectually disabled or both. Their latest, group-devised work, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, casts a wry and acute glance at the slave labour forced upon the intellectually disabled – and asks what the rise of artificial intelligence will mean for the neurotypical. Will those who consider themselves “normal”, as the actors put it, be patronised by genius machines?

Artistic director Bruce Gladwin (front) talking with Back to Back Theatre actors Sarah Mainwaring (L), Simon Laherty (back C) and Scott Price (back R) during rehearsals in Geelong. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Watching the actors block out the scene is Back to Back’s longtime artistic director, Bruce Gladwin.

Gladwin sits with his hands on his knees. 196cm tall and straight-backed, he has the ability to remain utterly still, beholding the performers with preternatural focus.

As a young person, the director, now 55, had “constant mission drift,” but he found his calling in 1989. Gladwin had just finished a teaching degree and was working in community theatre when a mentor told him the most interesting Australian acting was happening in a place regarded as a cultural backwater, the industrial town of Geelong.

As he bought a ticket to see the newly formed Back to Back, his mother’s voice was in his ear. He’d been raised not to stare at disabled people, and he’d just paid to do so.

That show was based on a true story about a man and woman who met at a disco at Caloola, a large asylum outside the Victorian town of Sunbury. The pair, who instantly became best friends, would discover during the state’s de-institutionalisation process that they were also brother and sister.

“There was a moment in that show where they are representing the disco in the institution,” Gladwin recalls. “And one of the characters who’s playing a worker says, “All right, everyone up on the dancefloor!” And virtually everyone in the audience also got up on the dancefloor. And it took about 15 minutes to kind of bring the whole performance under control.”

Right there, Gladwin had an aesthetic epiphany. The anarchy, the collectivism, the riotous anti-hierarchical spirit beguiled him. He felt he was present at the beginning of an art movement, and whenever Gladwin could, he worked on projects with the company until in 1999, he became the Back to Back’s artistic director.

“When I started,” Gladwin remembers, “I said to the actors, ‘What do you want to do?’ and they basically said, ‘We want to tour the world.’ And we’ve done that. So that’s like a kind of big tick,” he notes with understatement.

Sarah Mainwaring
Ensemble member Sarah Mainwaring, backstage. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Over the last two decades, Back to Back Theatre has performed on the main stages of the world’s leading cultural institutions, leaving in their wake rhapsodic reviews. Alison Croggon described Food Court (2008) as the rare show that “reminds you that theatre is burning glass, art [that] sears through the intellect into the tissue of deep feeling.” Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011), about the elephant-headed god reclaiming the ancient Hindu swastika symbol, was described by The New York Times as “a vital sense-sharpening tonic for theatregoers”. Time Out called Lady Eats Apple (2016) a creation taking us to “a place of pure love”.

By touring up to 24 weeks a year, Back to Back could guarantee their performers a wage. “And for some of our actors, when they first started working with the company, a lot of them just didn’t have their own money. We would go on tour and we’d hand them a $50 per diem, and that was the first time in their life that they had that level of autonomy.”

Australia weekend

Then came the plan-burying force of Covid, pulling The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes from the international circuit. The company threw away their touring schedule and instead filmed the play, with a technical crew consisting of nine members with disabilities who were mentored by industry stalwarts.

Unlike Back to Back performances made for “big stages in Europe”, the ensemble were working without “smoke and mirrors.” Everything was stripped back, a return to the punk aesthetic that Gladwin had fallen in love with all those years ago.

An unusual request

The director was adjusting to the complexities of all that had been lost and found, when in late 2021, he fielded an unusual request.

The conveners of the Norwegian Government’s biennial International Ibsen Award asked for the entire company to gather for a meeting. The gathering’s purpose was not disclosed, and yet it had to take place in a studio with multiple cameras.

Gladwin knew the company had been nominated for the Ibsen Award, regarded as the Nobel of theatre, and “the stakes were getting higher.” Nevertheless when, with “typical Norwegian restraint”, it was announced that Back to Back were the 2022 winners and recipients of the 2.5m Norwegian kroner prize, the ensemble were genuinely amazed. On the call, the jury members – theatre identities from around the world – read a collective testimony recognising Back to Back’s astonishing ability to “dissect the unspoken imaginings of society” so as to “reveal the audience to themselves”.

Actor in a Ganesh (elephant-headed) mask
A peek at the full dress rehearsal for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

“After the last few years of Covid to feel that you are a part of an international community had a strong impact,” Gladwin admits. “It was lovely hearing people talk not just about one work, but multiple works over the years, from different festivals and locations.”

In the wave of publicity that followed, however, Gladwin noticed a narrative emerging, along the lines of, “‘Aren’t you shocked? You’re just a little theatre company that no one knows about, and you’ve won this huge award!’ And yes, we were shocked.

“And yes, we do feel privileged, but at the same time, the actors have been touring major festivals for two decades and working really hard. And they are really well known and respected for what they do … they deserve it.”

In the rehearsal space, Laherty, Mainwaring and Price, who have acted together for the last 15 years, give each other support amid missed cues and perfect deliveries. They each bring a different intensity and charisma to the stage.

Mainwaring, who has an acquired brain injury as a result of a childhood car accident, is mesmerising to watch for the oceanic emotion underlying her lines. Laherty, with his expressive face and plain delivery, anchors the piece. Price, who is autistic, has a restless, unpredictable, Brando-like energy.

Mid-rehearsal he suddenly leaves the room, returning with a letter that he thrusts in Gladwin’s face. “What’s wrong with this?” he demands.

Gladwin wonders if the punctuation is off.

“No!” It turns out the letter, congratulating Price on the Ibsen Award, comes from the school where the actor was incessantly bullied.

Price returns to his lines: “For thousands of years,” he announces, “people with disabilities have been abandoned in woods, kept in cellars, tied to beds, experimented on, isolated, gassed, drugged, devalued, victimised, dehumanised, sterilised and euthanised.”

“Given that,” Simon deadpans, as if to the audience, “I’m amazed anyone turned up tonight, at all.”

And that audience, when it arrives, may well be watching Australia’s most acclaimed theatre company in flight.