For the first time, Back to Back Theatre talks disability onstage

Kaiya Gordon, Ohio State M.F.A., Creative Writing

Jan 27, 2020

A promotional image for The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes by Australia's Back to Back Theatre

For a company that specifically employs actors with disabilities, Back to Back Theatre has historically shied away from showcasing disability in its content. “Disability is one of the things that sets us apart from other theatre companies,” said Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of the company in a December phone interview, but “because we employ actors with disabilities, there is often a perception that the content we make is only about disability, or that we are some kind of benevolent social company. Which [it] is not; our purpose is to make great art.”

This is set to change with The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. In Shadow, the group grapples directly with disability, confronting the audience with a conversation about language, identity, and who becomes disabled in a technical world. “It’s a territory we haven’t been through as a company, so I thought let’s just embrace it. In terms of empowerment within the ensemble, it was a territory they really wanted to go,” Gladwin shared.

On a set designed to evoke a public meeting between activists, each of the onstage actors, during an early moment in Shadow, engages in a conversation about the terms of disability––perceived, intellectual, nothing at all. This language, Gladwin told me, is script that actually came from a conversation about marketing, which the group transcribed live. That sort of moment isn’t unusual for the company, which works back and forth between actors and directors to create all of its content.

Writing collaboratively, Gladwin said, opens up “new aesthetic territory,” in Shadow, where the characters of activists can say “what they need to say” and which may not otherwise be said. The script, too, is meant to seem a bit “unscripted”; subtitles which play throughout the piece intentionally show mistakes, and at some point the performance “feels like a feedback loop of possibility,” described Gladwin, who asks: “are these actors really performing a script, or is the script being made as they are performing?”

The piece is highly locational, representing a very small community in Australia, where the group is from. And Gladwin noted that because of this some “global issues” get cast aside. In fact, one thing the actors have in common with off-stage activists is, ironically, a lack: Shadow, as ambitious as it is, neglects to talk about race. “This may be a flaw in our processing and thinking,” Gladwin admitted, “but our focus I don’t think was really about questions of race in the making of the work.” This follows a long history of disability movements failing to take account for people of color, indicted by scholars like Christopher Bell, whose 2006 paper “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal,” sent a shock through the disability studies community. It’s telling that, 14 years later, it’s even possible to make a work about disability without addressing the way that race informs how disability is constructed in the western, colonizing world. But Gladwin assured me that Shadow does, at least, “acknowledge that disability is just the start [of what might be a larger topic].”

"Each of the characters begin to have a relationship with the screen, so in a way it becomes another character, and becomes quite a forceful one."
Back to Back Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin
Members of Australia's Back to Back Theatre in a performance of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

Ultimately, Shadow’s most important character is the set itself, which showcases a huge screen, across which text runs throughout the piece. “Each of the characters begin to have a relationship with the screen,” Gladwin explained, “so in a way it becomes another character, and becomes quite a forceful one.”

While one of the functions of the screen is, as noted above, to display subtitles throughout the show, those subtitles do not only come from the human actors onstage; rather, Gladwin told me, “the most endearing [...] interaction in the script is actually a conversation between the character Scott and [a] computer.” In fact it is these moments with the computer which open up Shadow’s most central question: what are the repercussions of artificial intelligence? “We’re making something in a moment of singularity,” Gladwin noted, “this is not a kind of sci-fi scenario, it’s actually an acceptance, it’s almost like we’ve signed the contract already.” In other words, Shadow is not Star Trek: it addresses the “mass produced intelligences” which come from devices people in the audience likely already own, like Siri and Alexa. “There’s a point,” Gladwin said,” where hopefully the audience questions their own relationship to emerging technology––their own sense of what it means to perceive intelligence.”


This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led project supported by the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award. Students from departments across the university composed responses to the center’s 2019–20 Performing Arts season under the direction of award recipient and Department of Dance Professor Karen Eliot and Manager of Public University Programs Alana Ryder with support from Performing Arts Director Lane Czaplinski.

Images: Back to Back Theatre, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes; photos: Jeff Busby