How Back to Back challenges the way we see actors with disabilities

Back to Back Theatre’s award-winning Ganesh versus the Third Reich opens at Carriageworks this week. Jeff Busby/Carriageworks

This week, Back to Back Theatre’s 2012 production Ganesh versus the Third Reich will open at Sydney’s Carriageworks. The show has toured the world, winning awards and laudatory reviews in Montreal, Paris, Chicago, New York, London and Berlin.

Much successful work has been done by disability advocacy groups and national organisations to improve basic rights for people with disabilities, such as the right to employment, full access to transport and venues, and increasing government awareness of disability issues. Still, the status of actors with disabilities remains a work-in-progress in the often elite institution of theatre.

Disability live onstage

Over two decades, Back to Back’s work has broken ground in Australia by challenging the perception that theatre made by people with disabilities belongs to some lowly strata of community arts. As artistic director Bruce Gladwin comments, “within Australian society people with disabilities continue to be placed within the category of ‘the other’.”

Characters with disabilities appear frequently on film, with actors such as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Sean Penn in I Am Sam, and Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake portraying characters with various disabilities.

Trailer for Forrest Gump (1994).

Such films have tended to favour a narrative whereby the disabled protagonist can achieve the status of a “normal” person via some heroic achievement or overcoming of odds – but cinema and live theatre are very different mediums.

Companies and solo performers working with disabilities challenge the viewer to engage with their work in a way that encourages a different perception, one that avoids confusing disability with deficiency.

Whether they desire it or not, people with disabilities are frequently the objects of stares – yet they are not represented in most images about daily life.

Historically, disabled people involved in live public display were humiliatingly exhibited as freaks, or cast as the fool or village idiot – figures most of us are familiar with from childhood fairytales.

Cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz writes that the “freak” pertains to “an ambiguous being whose existence imperils categories and oppositions dominant in social life”. This ambiguity that attracts a conflicted gaze, that, “amounts to both willingness and shame” on the part of the spectator.

Back to Back has not sought to steer its work away from this conflict, but has instead, steered right into it.

Ganesh and the Third Reich, in particular, conjures images of the pathologising gaze of Nazi eugenicist Joseph Mengeles, notorious for his horrific experiments on those people considered “abnormal” in the Third Reich.

In Back to Back’s theatre, the doctor’s obsession with a perceived abnormality is now transposed to the spectator – who is perhaps looking for deficiency. The spectator may seek to diagnose and categorise the particular disability the individual actors may have – rather than acknowledging the performers as co-creators of the production. Such efforts to diagnose disability suggest that it is what constitutes the totality of a person and their abilities.

Whose neutral body are you looking at?

The spectatorly unease that Back to Back’s productions induce ruptures the theatrical experience for audiences accustomed to the established orthodoxies of western theatre. Traditional methods of actor training and conventional casting have placed disabled people at the margins of the theatre – not at the centre.

In western countries, actor training is predominantly focused around the concept of “the neutral body”. This neutral body is the ideal state upon which to build a character whose inner life is revealed by the actor’s emphasis upon physical features such as posture, gesture and gait. Via the body, the emotions, and even the moral core, of their character can apparently be read.

Theatre and performance are tools for a useful and therapeutic form of self-expression that focuses on the internal process of the performer – rather than her ability to transmit the themes of an artistic work to an audience via her skills as an actor or performer.

But, as performance and disability studies scholar Petra Kuppers incisively observes, “when disabled people perform, they are not primarily seen as performers, but as disabled people”. This in turn can lead to the conclusion that the disabled body – and, I would add, the mind labeled as such – is naturally about disability.

The rise of theatre with disabled actors

Back to Back’s work offers a vital challenge to such perceptions. The company has a high profile in the international arena – but it is not operating in isolation.

There are many companies – not to mention numerous solo performers – such as; Theater Thikwa and Theater RambaZamba, both in Berlin, Mind the Gap, Graeae, and Candoco Dance Company, all in the UK, Rawcus in Melbourne, Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide and Theater Hora in Zürich who recently commissioned choreographer Jerome Bel [to create a work](]( with them that has since been shown at Documenta 13, the major European festivals and in New York.

These companies work with disabled actors and dancers in ways that disrupt received notions of the “normal” body and its privileged status. While their approaches and aesthetics are very different, what they collectively share is a repudiation of the medical model – the term employed by disability scholars to identify a framework that sees people with disabilities as patients, who in fact, want to be “normal”.

The apparently disabled actors and dancers in these companies are not concerned with ideals of normal but display a sense of ease in their own bodies and confidence in the abilities they have.

They do not see themselves as deficient or inferior to “real” actors. The kind of work Back to Back and their contemporaries make, challenges theatre to extend its repertoires beyond the classics that are still routinely scheduled in most venues and engage more fully with the people it has championed actors to represent, but who, until quite recently, have been prevented from representing themselves.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich plays at Sydney’s Carriageworks until 15 March.

Further reading
Review: Super Discount by Back to Back Theatre

Love this article? Show your love with a gift to support The Conversation's journalism, matched dollar-for-dollar.