Ghosts in the Machine Article

Ghosts in the Machine: Back to Back Theatre and ‘The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes’

by Mark Mordue


What does it mean to be human today? Or, more deeply, to have your humanity recognised and respected? These questions are affecting everyone as developments in technology radically accelerate and our society is forced to restructure.

Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back Theatre’s Artistic Director, believes his company is uniquely placed to look at “the growing anxieties around capitalism, and this feeling it’s a machine where no one is really in control.”

Back to Back Theatre is a Geelong-based ensemble made of people with intellectual disabilities. This include performers with Down’s syndrome, autism and brain injuries. As such, they became a go-to entity for one journalist a few years ago. The abortion debate was just hotting up. A correlation had been found between a decrease in Down’s syndrome children being born, and improved pre-natal screening technologies. Would they care to comment? The company declined.

Their thinking occupied all kinds of ethical tensions and grey areas. No single response was ever going to be adequate. Grey zones are something Back to Back Theatre have always confronted, played in, cried over, and laughed about in their work. But never quite so directly with regard their own humanity as they have in The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes.

Their latest performance “examines the changing nature of intelligence” today, referencing everything from A.I. and automation to human rights and the ethics of mass food consumption.

In form, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is far from futuristic. We see five actors set up as if at a community hall meeting. Basic lighting, a few folding chairs, head-set microphones. Above them, a voice-activated, Siri-like presence scrolls text-translations of their speeches for the benefit of the audience. Eventually the actors turn and debate this interpretive presence and their own identity as speakers.

A faint whiff of Beckett hangs over the minimalist setting and existential dialogue, although The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is rawer, funnier, and arguably kinder. Gladwin prefers to reference Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and the challenge of bringing an innovative work of theatre into a bare and simple place. As a director, Gladwin believes in “advocating for theatre being apparent in the making of a work. I love theatre’s slow illusionary power, how you can see the illusion taking place on a stage. And how it can really resonate, then it fades and disappears. At the moment, we’re so engaged with media and mediums that move so fast and disappear so quick, there may be a need for work that is very different to that.”

The title to the show reads like a Rubik’s cube … shadow, prey, hunter… it’s a verbal mind-game where the identity of the protagonist and the antagonist keeps moving around. Gladwin likes this slippery, unsettled quality. He explains that it comes from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and his reflections on the ego and our attempts to understand its elusive nature. It’s likely Lacan was playing off an old French saying when he coined his own version for psychoanalytical purposes. In colloquial form, ‘lâcher la proie pour l’ombre’ means giving up what one already has to go chasing shadows.

There’s a phenomenal sequence in the performance where the actors begin to argue with the text-translating Siri-like presence. On stage, the actor Sarah Mainwaring posits whether the word “disabled” is appropriate or useful for who they are. She suggests they identify themselves “neuro-diverse”. But fellow actor Scott Price becomes exasperated: “I don’t want to weave my way around language!” Then, with great comic timing, he points to the text scrolling above them and says triumphantly, “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes up on a screen.”

It’s true that it can sometimes be hard to grasp what the actors are saying. After a while you tune in to their stretched or slurred speech patterns more easily. You learn to listen. But the debate on stage breaks into the audience’s relationship with the performers as human beings, as well as the actors own sense of how they inhabit this production. “We don’t speak a different language,” Mainwaring says, her words dryly mimicked by the text above her. Her feelings about being continuously translated are palpable when she shouts at her own words as they continue to scroll over her… “I don’t want to be spat on and polished!”

As an ensemble, Back to Back Theatre operate through what Bruce Gladwin describes as a lengthy process of research and improvisation, with new productions arriving on average every three years. Each of their shows is “co-authored”, devised out of the ideas and improvisations of the ensemble. The company was formed in 1987 during an era when people perceived to have intellectual disabilities were being de-institutionalised and given pathways to re-enter the community.

It’s nonetheless true that people with intellectual disabilities tend to end up living a kind of shadow life among us, present but rarely treated as equal, let alone understood. Far less well-known in Australia than they are internationally, Back to Back Theatre are not funded as a disabilities group, but as a major artistic ensemble. Edinburgh, London, Berlin, New York, rave reviews, critical garlands, these are native to the company’s global reputation.

Having worked with them since 1999, Gladwin makes no bones about the brilliance of his ensemble. “It’s a skill to be a performer and stand on stage and look an audience in the eye and talk to them,” he says, as if forced to state the obvious.

Two stories converged to inspire the making of The Shadow Whose Hunter Becomes the Prey, both of which are retold on stage during the community meeting we are invited to take part in. One story concerns the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, run by the so-called Good Shepherd Sisters. Young women who had children out of wedlock were seconded into their care through the exigencies of Church and State. One of their prime and highly profitable areas of work was assembling world-renowned board games. Most died in abject poverty.

The other story was an investigative feature by the New York Times called The Boys in the Bunkhouse (9th March 2014). It examined the Dickensian conditions and belated liberation of “a few dozen men” with intellectual disabilities who “lived in a dot of a place called Atalissa… Every morning before dawn, they were sent to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant, in return for food, lodging, the occasional diversion and $65 a month. For more than 30 years.”

Gladwin speculates the latter situation evolved out of an era of de-institutionalisation and community work in the USA that had similarly birthed Back to Back Theatre here in Australia. “The difference was a marked lack of vigilance and supervision and zero health and safety protection,” he says.

It’s clear the performers in Back to Back understand this story could just as easily have been their story. And that their empathy expands to embrace the women who suffered at the hands of the Good Shepherd Sisters – and that they are reaching ever further as A.I. begins to impact on everyone’s lives and drives a re-constitution of 21st century society. Labour rights, human rights, animal rights, there is a weave here that the actors in Back to Back Theatre grasp fiercely and with a fine, sly humour.

“Some of these issues are very heartfelt for some of them,” Gladwin says of his actors. “Because of their own experiences through the education system, in residential care, in employment they have felt taken advantage of and like they don’t have a voice. So, their characters take on an amalgam of real-life experiences and blend with these stories they are telling [on stage] about power and responsibility.”

Watching film of a rehearsal it’s obvious the performers are energised by what they have achieved. “It really felt quite alive,” Scott Price remarks after a public rehearsal is over.

It’s almost a shock to be reminded that he was acting – and not just being who he is in day-to-day life. The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes turns itself inside out before your eyes in this way. When Price is asked by an audience member after the show what has made him feel powerful in his own life, he looks back to the stage where he has just performed – then he turns forward again to his audience and says, “Just to be up there, oddly enough.”


The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes will have its world premiere season at Carriageworks, 25-28 Sep.