Bruce Gladwin on The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

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Geelong-based company Back to Back Theatre returns to the Melbourne Festival with its new work “inspired by mistakes, misreadings, misleadings and misunderstanding”, capping an association with the festival dating back to 2005. Daily Review caught up with its Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin.


Tell us about the inspiration behind Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes. 

Weaving a narrative through the ethics of mass food production, human rights, the social impact of automation and the projected dominance of artificial intelligence in the world, The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes is a theatrical revelation inspired by mistakes, mis-readings, mis-leadings and misunderstanding.

Shadow reminds us that none of us are self-sufficient and all of us are responsible.

How does the development process for a Back to Back show typically evolve? 

Created intermittently over many months and even years, through conversations and improvisation, Shadow’s performers are also its co-authors and dramaturgs.

The actors and their collaborators are a group of people who have to find a way of working together; this can be both awkward and fluid. The company has always been charged with possibility. Driven by curiosity, each time we pursue a new work, we begin again. The emerging work is never about a single thematic or singular vision but a list of ideas. It is a list that encompasses theatrical form, content, images, questions about materials, the audience, the actors’ development, personal experience, individual and collective imagination, observation and mistakes. It’s vast and eclectic and is as much about a journey into fear as it is about bold ambition.

We embrace risk. Attempting to make extraordinary theatre is a tempting of fate, a symbolic quest about how close one can come to death through provocation, complexity, simplicity, exposure, transparency and admission. It is a test of what one can get away with: what one can do and say and still be loved, or simply listened to.

Attempting to make extraordinary theatre is a tempting of fate, a symbolic quest about how close one can come to death through provocation, complexity, simplicity, exposure, transparency and admission.

While our creative aim is beyond reach, our faith in our relevance rests solely in our engagement with our audience and community. We start where they are and give them a reason to journey with us. We want our audience to be compelled to care so we give them a story worth telling and allow them to be aware of the risks involved. Simply, we take what is meaningful for the artist and allow it to be meaningful for an audience.

What are you hoping to ask audiences through this production?

How do we come together to make decisions that are in the best interest of a civic society? This is a play about individual and collective responsibility.

What are some of your personal highlights working with Back to Back?

The actors are unique ensemble who have a skill set unlike others. As a director I am constantly enriched by their perceptions and talent.

My favourite work of Back to Back during my tenure has been Food Court, where we had the opportunity to collaborate and perform live with Australian music legends The Necks. 

Bruce Gladwin (Nurith Wagner-Strauss)

Back to Back recently received funding from Creative Victoria for a feature film adaptation of Ganesh vs. the Third Reich. What can you tell us about the projects development? 

In 2011, Back to Back Theatre created the play, which features two intertwined narratives – the first of Ganesh, the elephant headed Hindu deity, travelling to Nazi Germany to retrieve the swastika from Hitler; the second a fictional autobiography of Back to Back Theatre caught in the act of discussing the moral and ethical implications of whether they can or cannot tell the first narrative.

The stage production has toured to 35 cities worldwide and garnered eight national and international awards, including a Helpmann Award for Best Australian Play and an Edinburgh International Festival Herald Angel Critics’ Award.

Using the existing stage script as its starting point, the feature film will incorporate the story of how the work finally made it onto to the stage after extended dialogue with Victorian religious leaders about how it could best be told.

It is an opportunity to totally transform an outstanding work for the stage into something complex, potent and poignant for a wide and diverse screen audience worldwide.

GANESH is an artistic collaboration between four virtuosic makers and performers with disabilities – Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price and Brian Tilley. Our aim, with others to join us in due course, is to make a feature film of cultural and artistic importance in Victoria for domestic and international distribution.

GANESH is an ambitious project, a highly unusual and inclusive process to skilfully expand and radically transpose a highly honed theatrical production into an even more important work for the screen that is equally transformative, potent and deeply moving for audiences.

Early investment from Creative Victoria in the development phases of the project is essential, to support the core team to develop a film script that will be competitive in securing production investment and finance from the market place, private investors and film investment bodies.

How do you feel Back to Back has evolved as a company during your time as Artistic Director? 

Formed in 1987 the company nurtures a unique artistic voice focused on the ensemble’s commentary on broad social, political, and cultural issues. For more than a decade the company has sought to develop a significant body of work of world-class artistic standard. Our goal has been to stage works that exist in repertoire across extended timeframes, performed on the nation’s and the world’s most important stages.

Our primary agenda for these projects – and for all our projects – is creative investigation. An important by-product is the broader inclusion of people with disabilities in our community, and in society at large.

Throughout its history, Back to Back Theatre has collaborated widely and intensively with local communities in the greater Geelong region. Back to Back Theatre has provided vital support to independent artists, most notably providing high profile, valued employment to artists with disabilities who write and perform work which has been met with widespread critical and audience acclaim and is broadly regarded as some of Australia’s most intelligent, complex and thought-provoking work. Back to Back Theatre was awarded the 2012 Australian Disability Award of Excellence for exemplary employment of people with disabilities by the federal Department of Social Services.

We receive many requests for access to our processes. We have therefore developed a suite of community projects. They can be one-off or ongoing projects, but the underlying emphasis is on creating long-term relationships, connecting and reconnecting many times with people over the course of their lives.

Our primary agenda for these projects – and for all our projects – is creative investigation. An important by-product is the broader inclusion of people with disabilities in our community, and in society at large.

When I started as the AD the ensemble stated they wanted to tour the world. It’s a goal we have achieved.

Has the audience response to Back to Back’s work changed over time? What are some of your strongest memories about audience reactions to particular shows? 

We are less likely to be pigeon holed into the category of a benevolent organisation working with people with disabilities , we are more likely to be seen as an important contemporary theatre company challenging audience with thought provoking theatrical interventions.

The work tends to invoke strong reactions from audience. Anecdotal conversations with audience members have inspired ideas for new works and helped us understand who we are and what it is we offer. Our work is a dialogue with audience. 

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes runs at Arts Centre Melbourne October 9 – 20.

Feature pic: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. (Jeff Busby)

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