On being Canadian, making work in Australia and touring it back to...

On being Canadian, making work in Australia and touring it back to Canada

Back to Back Theatre, Super Discount (2013. Image: Jeff Busby

I hail from Edmonton where my first job in theatre was with Catalyst Theatre. For the past decade I have been Executive Producer of Australia’s Back to Back Theatre. Our works small metal objects and Ganesh Versus the Third Reich have toured internationally extensively including to Canada.

In 2003, when I started with Back to Back Theatre I had never produced a theatre company before but the work is exceptional so it seemed logical to me that it should tour. It may sound odd, but this is in part because I am Canadian.

In 1975 I came home from my first day of kindergarten telling my parents (both Anglophones) that at my school we spoke French and that it was a whole different of way of thinking, of seeing the world. I went on to do a degree in Russian and French, studied and lived in Marseille and Moscow and a few other places. I had a rather vague idea that one should have an international life and landed eventually in Australia.

Back to Back Theatre is a ruthlessly contemporary theatre company. We set out to make work that is unlike anything that has ever been seen before, that is unfamiliar but feels inherently human. The company is based in the post-industrial regional centre of Geelong (near Melbourne) and all our work is written and performed by an ensemble of actors who nominate themselves as being perceived to have intellectual disabilities. “Who woulda thunk it?” someone once said to me, “that this company would tour?” That this was an unlikely combination did thankfully not occur to me.

What does it mean for me to play a role in bringing this work to Canada? Of course, I feel the great honour that this represents, that significant resources are provided, that audiences witness and bring the work into being through their attention and complicity.

I conjur parallels: grand distances and extreme (albeit diametrically opposed) climates, nations with violent colonial histories, a relationship to but some kind of healthy distance from European theatrical canon. In Ganesh Versus the Third Reich we asked ourselves: can a small theatre company from Geelong represent a Hindu deity on stage, re-write European and Asiatic history, taking in the Holocaust and the T4 program? If this group of creators can’t fictionalise such ideas, who can? Driven by an ensemble of artists with intellectual disabilities, Back to Back is perfectly placed to comment on the social, cultural, ethical and value-based structures that define the ‘majority’. If you are an outsider, it is sometimes easier to see with greater clarity.

Back to Back Theatre, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (2011). Image: Jeff Busby

So I like the idea that one needs distance and dislocation in order to see things properly. But I’m envious too of something that I have missed out on through being an immigrant: of a seemingly rather old-fashioned way of being of people who live their whole lives in the same valley. I begin to think about vast countries that are of course not homogenous but made up of thousands and thousands of very specific communities. And here – it might be Natimuk or it might be Trois-Rivières – an artist or a group of artists identify and pursue what interests them and hope that this will thus be of interest to others. The work that resonates is not at all vaguely international but rather determinedly and beautifully specific.

And then, if the work is good – and there are many ways of being so – let us hope that this work can be seen by a fine audience, in living rooms or on the street, on a screen or on a wide and generous stage in some faraway place. We should all be so lucky to witness this collective generosity.

Coda: Back to Back Theatre just made a show called Super Discount. It ends with a snow storm. Here it is, with love to the cold white north from the far dry south and with a nod to Trudeau and a bilingual heritage which I value deeply.