“We are people who do shows”, write Back to Back Theatre. And this is indeed what they do – fearlessly, brilliantly, bravely, imaginatively, collectively.
There are no ifs and buts about it. Since 1987 they have been making ground-breaking shows that ask questions of their audiences, of society, of each other. Back to Back put people first. Their work is first and foremost a matter of being a person and after that a matter of action – the agency of doing, of making, of sharing, of taking responsibility. A poetics of action that has had far-reaching consequences on the lives of the performers, the company and the audiences who encounter the work.
Back to Back’s ethos of “putting people first” is about ethics, about a process that involves equitable involvement in the devising and crafting. From questions and problems come the subject matter of new work; productions engender productions, a throwaway line, an unresolved query, the debris of an earlier piece - their work is built on the edifice of navigating the contemporary world with an awareness of inherited histories. And it is this that makes their pieces so immediate, so relevant and so unsettling.
Theirs is a theatre that resists closure and catharsis. There is no easy release for an audience in engaging with productions like Small Metal Objects (2005) and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011) – rather they prioritise the complexities of dilemmas that have no easy solutions, a world where there are no quick fixes. They have never been governed by an ethos of what should be done but rather what might be done: a theatre of possibilities, a theatre grounded in a necessary chaos. There is no need for exposition in their theatre, no overreliance on dialogue, no need for a proximity of performer and role. Back to Back create a theatre that doesn’t follow the rules; they take over spaces that have been marginalised, erased or rendered insignificant. And they show the importance of what is not said as crucial to meaning making in each and every one of their pieces. Through this poetics of disruption they have created some of the most memorable productions of twenty-first century theatre: the reflections on suffering, bullying and abuse and the importance of taking responsibility for your actions that resonate through Food Court (2008); the striking examination of power, responsibility, manipulation and authenticity in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011); the small stories that lie hidden behind the metanarratives that shape dominant cultures and the inescapability of death in Lady Eats Apple (2016); the remarkable invitation that audiences enter into a fiercely necessary, very difficult and deeply touching conversation on the future of democracy and human interdependence in The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes (2019).
Fusing the factual and fictional, the experienced and speculative, the brutal and gentle, these dramaturgically and philosophically innovative tapestries present a theatre which is always unpredictable, always unexpected, always unique. Crucially, humour and joy emerge when least expected; the work radiates, disrupts and resists. It is a mode of recognising the humanity and self-awareness that lies at the core of the company’s work. This is a theatre that defies a tick box culture. It’s a theatre – both pragmatic and metaphysical — that gravitates around what it means to live in the fullest sense of the word at this precise moment in history.
Helena Grehan and Peter Eckersall’s 2013 edited book on Back to Back documents the company as “driven by an ensemble of actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities”. And Back to Back have consistently and defiantly challenged social and cultural perceptions and constructs. They have unsettled the politics of normalisation by making uncompromising work that stimulates, contests, entertains and engages, challenging the interdependence of myth and history and the grand narratives that ground Western cultures, as well as those stories that have been repressed, forgotten or erased.
Crucially also the company has challenged the idea of the single auteur as the driver of artistic creation. Creativity is multiple and dialogic. Knowledge is there to be exchanged rather than owned. Back to Back’s work is a relentlessly collective practice, in which multiple creators, ideas and perspectives are always present. Democratic dialogues are built into the very structure of the company – a recognition that democracy is messy and difficult; it is built not given, negotiated and navigated rather than handed down. The work of Back to Back, like the theatre of ancient Greece, reminds its audiences of democracy’s faultlines and gaps. Performance is simultaneously both a safe and unsafe space: “we are not afraid to step into the cold, dark side,” the company wrote in 2012, “We go deep into the work. We go into places you can’t go in real life.” Back to Back’s theatre — as Food Court and Ganesh so fiercely show — isn’t afraid to tackle the difficult, the dangerous and the threatening. As an audience, we are asked to face up to our responsibilities and our possibilities.
Indeed, it is in their respect for the intelligence of its local, national and international audiences that Back to Back’s generosity as a company lies. The theatrical event becomes a space for inclusion and possibility, as well as a space – edgy, sharp, insistent — to reimagine and reconfigure. They guide audiences to shift their foci from art and (dis)ability to art and multiplicity, or perhaps, more precisely to art and its many potentialities.
Back to Back’s iconic status is firmly grounded in a refusal to court the iconic. But it is in this defiant refusal that their iconic status arguably lies. Comparisons have been drawn with the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Robert Wilson, with DV8 and La Fura dels Baus — work that asks questions of performance and the world. In giving the International Ibsen Award to Back to Back Theatre, the Committee recognises the global importance of a body of work in motion that has imaginatively foregrounded the politics of representation, articulated a politics of space, recognised the importance of robust, intelligent storytelling, and celebrated the plurality of theatre-making.