Photo courtesy of Back to Back Theatre
For the final weekend of the Walker Art Center's 25th season of Out There, Australia's Back to Back Theatre will be presenting an award-winning work called Ganesh vs. the Third Reich, a piece about the Hindu god Ganesh traveling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. This will be Back to Back's second trip to the Walker; its 2008 presentation of Small Metal Objects was performed in the museum's Sculpture Garden. In this work the company, which employs actors with perceived intellectual disabilities, will explore the moral and ethical ramifications of storytelling about other cultures, as well as the power dynamics of a troupe that includes people with disabilities. We chatted with Back to Back's artistic director Bruce Gladwin, and here's what he had to say.
Out There 25: Maybe the play isn't the thing
Photo by Jeff Busby
What was the impetus for starting this work?
Well, there were three things. We had one actor who was obsessed with Ganesh, and in a creative period she would spend hours drawing pictures of Ganesh. We had another actor who created a neo-Nazi character. The idea is that the piece comes from the actors' hearts and minds. And I think, for me, I had an agenda of making work which was like a fictionalized autobiography of the company.
So, it's really a link between those three things: From the idea of a show within a show about a company making a performance from the two ideas of the Nazis and Ganesh we created this idea of Ganesh traveling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika.
It's a classic story of good versus evil. The Sanskrit symbol in India represents all that is good and obviously the hooked cross in Nazi tradition represents the Holocaust.
How does the story within a story relate to what your company is all about?
The story is really about the actors trying to navigate themselves through a kind of moral and ethical dilemma of storytelling. Is it appropriate to represent the Holocaust? Is it appropriate to play a Jew in the Holocaust? Do we have the right to tell that story? The representation of Indian deities -- there's a number of complex issues in the show, and I think the characters on stage also reflect the process for us, the kind of moral and intellectual navigation that's involved in creating.
Simon Laherty and Brian Tilley.
Photo by Jeff Busby
Does the narrative reveal different ways to tell a story?
Yes, definitely. The story of Ganesh traveling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika is a classic kind of Joseph Campbell journey -- like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings -- with big epic storytelling. But we also spent a lot of time reading and looking and speaking to specialists of Hindu literature, specifically classic stories like the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, and looking at how these stories function, where you're in one story and it references another story and when you're in that story a character tells about another story -- it's a constant state of stories within stories. And in many ways the narrative structure of our play is like that.
For people that saw Small Metal Objects in the Sculpture Garden in 2008, would they recognize this piece?
No, it's completely different. The previous show involved the audience sitting in a tribune with headphones. The narrative was about a drug deal that goes wrong in a public space. So it's very experiential for the audience. It was site specific in many ways, whereas this work is more of a traditional theater environment.
But I think there's a similar kind of aesthetic in terms of the acting. The quality of performance that the actors bring is similar, but the kind of form of the piece is quite different.
I'll tell you one thing that's really specific to being in Minneapolis at the Walker: When we toured there, just the experience of being at the Walker was actually quite profound in the development of this work. The James Turrell installation in the garden at the Walker -- the effect of just being in that installation had an inspiration for the design of the show.
What was it about that piece that inspired you?
We just loved the simplicity of it. It's a sculpture of light, basically. What we've attempted to do is to try and use light in the set of the show. It is a series of large plastic curtains, like full-length shower curtains that are translucent and capture the light and create a series of silhouetted effects on the stage, and really the catalyst of that idea came from sitting in the James Turrell exhibition.
What was the impetus for forming a company that works with actors who are perceived to have intellectual abilities?
Well, I'm the fourth artistic director, so I've been here for 14 years. Really the company started at a point of de-institutionalization in Australia. Previously, people with disabilities would have been housed in large institutions. The government changed its policy, and people were integrated into the community to employment resident activities. The company started through the passion of local artists in their hometown who had an interest in outsider art and experimental theater, and they started running workshops with people with disabilities. Very quickly that work developed into a show that started touring around Australia.