Blog: An interview with Bruce Gladwin from Back to Back

28 February 2024

Photo by Kate McIntosh
Photo by Kate McIntosh

Bruce Gladwin: 25 Years of Devised Theatre with Back to Back

An interview by Andrea Cabrera Luna

It’s been 25 years since Bruce Gladwin took over as artistic director at Back to Back Theatre, based in Geelong, Australia. The company, known for its full-time ensemble of intellectually disabled actors, is recognised for making some of the bravest, cheekiest, most inclusive, radical and politically charged devised work. Their plays challenge and entertain audiences in equal measure. Imaginate invited Gladwin to lead a Devising Theatre workshop in December 2023 in Edinburgh. I had the pleasure of talking with him about directing, the importance of free association, treasuring inaccurate memories, Back to Back’s new show and the merits of long improvisation. This is a long interview, filled with insights and good tips for devising theatre. Enjoy!

ANDREA: Bruce you’ve been working with Back to Back for 25 years, how has your process changed over the years?

BRUCE: Initially the engine of the process was probably driven by my own anxiety, whereas I think I can sit within the unknown more comfortably now, which probably makes it more pleasant for my collaborators to work with me. So, there's ideas that are discussed or researched that come into the rehearsal room and then there's a process of improvising those ideas. The work that we create now is more considered in terms of the audience's relationship to it.

ANDREA: What draws you to the company?

BRUCE: I'm interested in the singularity of the actors. The company has always seen the actors as an asset from the outset. Who they are is enough. It's like they don't need necessarily four years of drama training or theatre making training. The people we work with come with a set of life experiences and an aesthetic and a theatricality and an individuality or a uniqueness that can be utilised within the performance and their imagination can fuel the work. I'm drawn to the company because it's kind of anti-institution in a way, kind of like the reverse of my theatre education at university.

ANDREA: How do you begin a new project? Do you come up with lots of ideas or do you come in with questions or an image?

BRUCE: Sometimes it might be a newspaper article or a conversation that we've had with someone in a foyer post the previous show, or it might be a review that we've had. There's a kind of discourse with our audience that then prompts the thought about what we might make next. As a director, you tend to really feel the weight and responsibility of having to hold the room. Some of the more exciting times have been where I've turned to the actors and said, “I don't know what we're going to do here. I don't know how to deal with this. I got a sense of what this is, but I don't know how to go about doing it or what it should be”. Challenging them to take a role of leading and disengaging myself from that pressure of having to hold it helps. The company has a very rich relationship with some very long-term collaborators that we've worked for many years on shows. I still feel like the responsibility for it sits with me and that feels important.

ANDREA: When you say collaborators, do you mean designers and the creative team?

BRUCE: Yeah, designers, costume designers, lighting designers, composers. There’s probably four or five collaborators across dramaturgy and design.

ANDREA: So, do you have conversations with them prior to starting a project?

BRUCE: It depends on the project but sometimes they might come into the process a little later. It feels important that the ideas that we want to explore are really grounded with the actors. I often invest in time; it might be six months of development where we might test some material and test some ideas to see what it is that we want to make.

ANDREA: So, you test ideas and things seem to be quite flexible at that point.

BRUCE: Initially, the kind of dramaturgy of it is we're just collecting lots of ideas and it's very much you know, one idea sparks another idea, like free association. Often, we might be planning to work on something, and someone comes in and they've had an experience on the way to work and that becomes a kind of distraction that we pursue.

ANDREA: You mean they're obsessed?

BRUCE: They've had a conversation with a taxi driver that's upset them or made them think about something or they've had some sort of interaction with the outside world that charges them in some way, then that just feels like a good detour to take. Often, we'll collect a lot of those detours and then start to find a connection between them or connections with the material that we're dealing with.

ANDREA: So, this is actually a nice way to connect the conversation with the devising workshop you facilitated in Edinburgh. You gave us a surrealist prompt that was devised by André Breton. We closed our eyes and imagined someone knocked on the door and we opened, and we had to visualise someone, a famous person, at the door.

BRUCE: I love all those kinds of games that open up imagery and language and sense of play. I think the rehearsal room is great when it functions like this analogy that you can go on a walk with a three-year-old or you can take a three-year-old for a walk. And these are two different things. One is that you're led by a three-year-old who's going to walk in circles or only get five meters out of the house and then sit down on the grass and start playing with some leaves. Or the other one is going, I'm taking you for a walk and we're going to walk around this block. That early part of the dramaturgical process of collecting things is you can get into that headspace where you are just building a list of things that interest you and you're not sure why.

Then often the why comes much later in the process when you're kind of connecting the dots but being able to go on that journey without feeling like your job is to keep everyone on track, you know, and to give yourself as a director the liberty of the creative journey as well and the joy of it. It is so much about the social bond and being with other people and being open to what's happening in people’s lives. I know other companies that work with actors with intellectual disabilities try and separate a lot of the activity that might be happening for people individually and then keep a very kind of disciplined rehearsal room for the making of work or the rehearsal of work. We tend to be much more fluid. I've had some days where the whole day is just taken up with dealing with what someone's presented in the first five minutes and the rehearsal is just gone, you know, because we've just entered into a conversation that becomes quite complex. I feel like a lot of that has merit and starts to actually inform the work.

ANDREA: So, it sounds like autobiography seeps through the work quite a lot.

BRUCE: The way we wanted to make our last show The Shadow Whose Pray the Hunter Becomes, was to present conversation that we had in the rehearsal room. Then the actors end up playing characters who are activists holding a town hall meeting, but that dialogue has really come from us as a group of people in conversation. Rather than going, “oh, let's discuss this and then I'll stand up or you'll stand up and undertake an improvisation”; it's like when we entered the room, that was the improvisation. Everything that we say is available for the creation of the work.

ANDREA: How do you negotiate the importance and singularity of each member whilst also having to bring in new people due to the decimation of the ensemble in last few years?

BRUCE: During the course of when we started making the show to when it was presented, we had two actors who passed away in the process. So, one actor was really into dance, and we had started working on these dance sequences and so basically when she passed away, that component of the show just went. It wasn't like we were going to replace that aesthetic or that element of the show. Then another actor, Sonia [Teuben], who devised the part that Simon [Laherty] does in the show. When she left because of illness, and she couldn't do the show. We replaced her with another actor, Michael Chan. Who was not in the ensemble but had worked with us on a number of community projects, and when he came in, the script was getting quite close to a final draft, and we just had to redevise the part and a large section of the show to accommodate him.

Michael is of Chinese background and speaks multiple languages and we thought “that's great”. When he performs, that show changes. There's a certain amount of devising that's required to shift someone into the part. When he wasn't available to do the show anymore, then we recast Simon in that role and the show changed again, like the script was shifted. It's had a number of different iterations and rewrites as a result of the recasting.

ANDREA: How do actors take change?

BRUCE: They're really open to it. Each change made the show better.

ANDREA: Do you have other shows in repertoire?

BRUCE: Yes, we've got maybe about four or five shows in or projects in repertoire that we can do.

ANDREA: Are you directing the next work?

BRUCE: No, it's directed by Tamara Searle and Ingrid Voorendt and it's called Multiple Bad Things. It will premiere in Geelong and then go to Clemson Festival in Brussels in May.

ANDREA: Is this the first time that other people direct a Back to Back show?

BRUCE: It is in my tenure.

ANDREA: So how are you feeling about it?

BRUCE: I think it's super healthy for the company. My job now is to create the space for other people to make work. I found it challenging, to be honest. It doesn't need to come at the result of me not making work myself and I guess philosophically to give people as much space with it as possible, you know.

ANDREA: One of the things we did in your workshop was draw a map of the world. My group missed a whole continent.

BRUCE: There's a number of things in the exercise. One is I like the aesthetics of those maps. They're recognisable, but they're kind of so idiosyncratic and odd and there's something about that and creating a kind of value of going, “oh, that's a good aesthetic”. What you can only half remember, or half do or you don't have the draftsperson skills to render it beautifully.

There's an aesthetic in that that has a value. I guess the analogy is you don't necessarily have to be the best improviser, you don't have to be able to deliver text with perfect diction or you don't have to be able to move like a dancer for there to be an aesthetic value in your performance or what you deliver.

ANDREA: You're very good at creating an atmosphere where people want to just try things out without knowing exactly why.

BRUCE: You asked question at the time about the merit of letting an improvisation go on for a long time versus being succinct. I thought, that's a great question. It's also a question that can only come from someone that's quite experienced. My reflection on that was, “well, both, you know, there's times for something that is just short and succinct and there's times for things that are improvisations that are much more long form”.