10 — 13.05.2024

Back to Back Theatre Geelong


theatre — premiere

Théâtre National

Please confirm your attendance with a wheelchair during online reservation or through box officeAccessible for wheelchair usersAudio induction loop | English → NL, FR, EN | ⧖ 1h | €21 / €17

In a warehouse, three employees approach a possibly pointless but visibly difficult team-building assignment. As the group struggles to work together, differences between the participants soon come to a head. Their physical limits, ability to cooperate and sense of responsibility will all be tested. Civility slips, bad behaviour escalates and reality distorts. Who’s in and who’s out? Who will be the scapegoat? Back to Back Theatre is a company of self-identifying disabled people whose The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes was a revelation during the 2022 festival edition. This year, inspired by team-building and Australian migration policy, they return with a theatrical metaphor for inclusion and exclusion. The soundtrack features collected field recordings of “bad things” and the set design demands physical participation from the actors to reach its full manifestation. In a world where self-righteous, indignant voices often drown out the most disenfranchised and vulnerable, this unconventional performance is not so different from reality. Using powerful imagination and plenty of humour, Back to Back Theatre holds up a mirror so we can all take a good long look. Welcome to this workplace at the end of civilisation!

“A work of profound complexity and ambivalence, even a swirling morbidity. Multiple Bad Things sees Back to Back at the height of their skill, simultaneously expansive and razor sharp”
The Guardian

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Multiple bad things: performance, resistance and care

As I sit down to write, the Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs is attempting to rush new legislation through parliament to give him extraordinary powers to target countries rejecting people (primarily refugees and asylum seekers) that Australia is attempting to deport. These powers would also allow the Commonwealth Government to jail those in immigration detention if they do not cooperate with plans for their deportation. At the same time the country is negotiating the outcome of the failed referendum in October 2023 to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ‘a voice’ to parliament. The campaign to achieve a ‘voice’ aimed to give First Nations people a forum to inform policy and legal decisions that impact their communities. It was heralded as a crucial step in reconciling a nation divided by racism and the legacy of a brutal colonial past. Its failure has left deep wounds among First Nations people and their allies and left the nation in an openly fractured state, where previously thinly veiled divisions are now visible in plain sight and entrenched along political, social and cultural lines. While these events are only one part of the domestic picture, they need to be named, as they are some of the ‘bad things’ that shape the context in which Back to Back Theatre works. When we reflect on this scenario by zooming out to the wider global situation, things begin to look dire indeed. From Ukraine to the genocide in Palestine, to the rise of populism and the breakdown of democracy, never mind the threat of AI and global climate disaster, we are in a space of ‘multiple bad things’. This is a space in which life can feel overwhelming, where many of us carry a sense of both responsibility and hopelessness and an uncertainty about how to act, how to be good and how to care. But we must try. We must go on. There is simply no alternative. In this situation of global and local upheaval, threats and ‘bad things’, we look to art for help. Sometimes it is a space for escape, for opening new ways of thinking, feeling or responding to our surroundings, other times it provokes us to act for change, or to consider events, experiences or ideas we may already have thought about, differently. As theatre scholar and critic Hans-Thies Lehmann notes ‘it is the task of art to sharpen our senses for the exception, to cultivate the exception’ Back to Back do exactly this. Their performances might leave us perplexed or uncertain but in time we realise that we have had the opportunity to sharpen our senses, to consider what is important and to think deeply on how we might negotiate and respond to that. They demand in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways that we examine who we are and how we interact with others and the world around us. That we reflect on how we might live a life of care for small and large things, in this fraught environment. The Back to Back ensemble has never shied away from bad things. They know the world we live in intimately. Yet, as the Directors note, it is also one that often excludes them. As previous shows such as Food Court, demonstrate, this gives the ensemble a powerful vantage point. They are acute observers of society, of politics and of culture, of the micro and macro processes and experiences that take place every day. They know things and they use this knowledge to inform their practice. Each performance is exquisitely crafted from the raw material that is all around us. News stories, experiences drawn from everyday life, intimate interactions, moments of joy, of pain, of pleasure and of absurdity. All of this becomes the raw material that is brought into the devising and rehearsal process. Each starts with a seed, an idea or a provocation and grows from there. In an intense process of workshopping and collaboration the final focus of the work emerges and develops. The result is at times sparse, at others complexly layered, it is also funny and necessarily confronting. The ensemble always speak back to society and demand a plurality of perspectives, of voices and of stories. In doing so they make multiple small cracks in the edifice of exclusion, oppres- sion and of power, one performance at a time. Through their works they call for other ways of being, ways that are generative, productive and collaborative. They invite new images and new considerations of what it might mean to deal with and respond to ‘multiple bad things’. Importantly, too, they do not just render these stories and considerations, instead, they invite us, or perhaps even demand, that as spectators we step into the work and reflect deeply on our responsibility to acknowledge the status quo –however fraught, and then to ‘imagine new ways to be’ (Directors notes).

  • Helena Grehan

Helena Grehan is Vice Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University.

Unsafety, and the angle of the strike

Memory fails. Details drip through the mesh. What we’re left with, overwhelmingly, is the feeling. The scars, you could say. And underneath the scars either a numbness or, more often, a heightened sensitivity. Which is to say, memory doesn’t really fail. Sometimes we wish it would fail better. I want to tell you a story. A story being a version of a memory. You’re in secondary school, on a long bus trip to somewhere deemed educational. Two boys across the aisle take turns to harangue you with assessments of your appearance. Eliptical orbits of cruelty, moving towards what upsets you, then veering away, only to return again. Where are they taking you? And, no, I haven’t told you what they said. Perhaps you can imagine, or remember. You’re looking out the window, trying to stay focused on the horizon through the blur of roadside eucalypts, the shudder in your chest. It all goes on for a long time. When the bus pulls over for a toilet stop, the abuse, too, pauses. Wandering around the dusty playground, you notice one of the boys lurking nearby. Holding back tears, you reach out your hand, offering it to him as –what? some kind of gesture of reconciliation? why are you the first to reach out? He looks confused, stunned for a long moment, unsure whether to laugh or walk toward you, your outstretched hand holding only air. Did you want peace, or merely for the conflict to be over? I’ve said “your outstretched hand”, but maybe you were one of the other kids, your ears plugged with music. Or a teacher, or a bus driver. Maybe you were the bully. These things matter, who did what to whom, in which place, carrying which histories.
It hardly bears repeating. We all want to be safe. Especially now.
Yet we will never be. That era has passed, calved off like another sheet of ice from our sense of what we deserve. Climate-change-fueled bushfires, floods and drought. Crop failures. Being made redundant. Your bank account suddenly emptied. In the tram, someone coughing on you, the one day you forgot your mask. I won’t mention what else can happen. You’ve felt those shadows too.
Sometimes, trying to be safe, groping in the darkness, we find violence. We sulk or seethe. We insist and threaten, lash out. We hold a weapon aloft. We say those words. There’s a phenomenon people call “lateral violence”. It’s where someone lashes out at another member of their own marginalised community, rather than the actual sources of their disempowerment. Call it “punching across” rather than “punching up”. It happens. Quite often. Though I’m not sure if naming it helps much, or is enough. Too easily, we become obsessed with the angle of the strike rather than the effect of it, how it keeps us within the choreography of violence and separation.
Every time I witness a Back to Back performance, I feel exfoliated, a layer of pretence scrubbed away. Characters are cruel to each other. In key moments, tender. They enact impossible, and all-too-familiar, dramas which bloom suddenly, darkly or with brilliant light and great relief, out of the myths we hold sacred. Meanwhile, Death Weather watches us, or simply gazes at a screen. My own particular traumas have their bandages torn off, and I see them in an array of other violences and confusions. Their enactments break the fourth wall. Then the third, second and first. So here we are. Whenever I thought of Multiple Bad Things, I felt I had to rewrite this essay. No, it’s not about work, it’s about home. No, it’s about identity. No, language. Or, colonialism. Maybe violent invasion, the spectre of utter vulnerability. At times, I felt I shouldn’t write about my own experience. But, no, it never disappears. It can only be transformed, or storied differently. Ushered into a chorus.
Sometimes I think of Adelaide woman Ann Marie Smith, whose life, person, dreams and pleasures were much larger than the reason she ended up in the news. She was left in the same woven cane chair for months, died of septic shock and multiple organ failure. Her carer was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter. Multiple civil actions have been taken out against Integrity Care SA, which can no longer operate under the NDIS. Other times I think of Loddon prison or the police station near where I live, and the Aboriginal people who have died there. Clinton Austin, artist, brother, a man finding the stories and pride of his culture, waiting too long for parole, found unresponsive in his cell. Tanya Day, who fell asleep on a train, reported to police, taken to the cells under an archaic public drunkeness law. Neither of them safe. No-one held responsible for their deaths. To be honest, I don’t think of them often. Why? Perhaps because of what I don’t share with them. I don’t need personal care on an hourly or daily basis. I’m “independent” (though who is, entirely?). I’m not Indigenous. Police don’t eye me suspiciously, or distrust my testimony. Their absence in my mind is perhaps also because our culture and the tech companies go to great lengths to keep us preoccupied with what is inside our own bubbles. The fourth wall, glistening and intact.
We can’t be safe without a portion of surrender. As advocate and author Son Vivienne writes, “universal safety is equally aspirational and elusive” (Queering Safe Spaces, ix). To promise it is guaranteed disappointment. Instead, “we should address most urgent needs, offering stabilization that can lead to sitting together in quiet reflection”. In this moment, exposed, we have to relinquish the assumption of purity, of ourselves or others. Then, we have to speak, and to listen, without taking up words as shields or as weapons. Still, you might ask, who can I sit with? And how will our urgent needs be met?

  • Andy Jackson

Andy Jackson is a disabled poet, essayist, creative writing teacher, and a Patron of Writers Victoria. His latest poetry collection is Human Looking, which won the ALS Gold Medal and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles
Directors: Tamara Searle, Ingrid Voorendt | Performers: Bron Batten, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price | Devisors/co-authors: Bron Batten, Breanna Deleo, Natasha Jynel, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Ben Oakes, Scott Price, Tamara Searle, Ingrid Voorendt | Set and costume design: Anna Cordingley | Composer and sound design: Zoë Barry | Captioning design: Rhian Hinkley | Lighting design: Richard Vabre | Helpline Voiceover: Rachel Griffiths | Dramaturge: Bruce Gladwin | Script consultant: Melissa Reeves | Creative development: Bron Batten, Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Breanna Deleo, Alana Hoggart, Natasha Jynel, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Francesca Neri, Ben Oakes, Scott Price, Tamara Searle, Tamika Simpson, Ingrid Voorendt | Technical manager: Alana Hoggart | Production Associate: Jordi Edwards | Assistant Stage Manager: Nick Cobbold | Sound Engineer: Peter Monks | Company manager: Erin Watson | Production manager: Bao Ngouansavanh 
Producers: Tanya Bennett, Margaret Bourke, David Miller | Executive producer: Tim Stitz | Coproduction: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Festival d'Automne à Paris, The Keir Foundation, The Anthony Costa Foundation, Geelong Arts Centre and Back to Back Theatre’s New Work Donor Circle, with development support from Une Parkinson Foundation, Sidney Myer Fund and Give Where You Live 
Back to Back Theatre is supported by the Australian Government through Creative Australia, its principal arts investment and advisory body, the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, and the City of Greater Geelong

15 – 17.05: Workshop "Territorial Business" with Back to Back Theatre for professional artists organised by Cifas, more info on cifas.be

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