Disabled theatre group win prestigious award

Sarah Mainwaring sitting near a mirror in a dressing room
Sarah Mainwaring sitting near a mirror in a dressing room Image credit:

A small theatre company formed of neurodiverse and disabled actors has received a prestigious award for their ‘exciting, unsettling and thought-provoking’ work.

Australia’s Back to Back, launched in Geelong in 1987, has staged critically acclaimed shows such as 2011’s Ganesh Versus the Third Rich [which tells the story of the Hindu deity reclaiming the swastika from the Nazis], which sees cast members interrupt the play to question their right to perform it.

The theatre company has put on a number of other shows including Food Court (2008), Lady Eats Apple (2016) and The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes (2019).

Such performances has seen the company winning this year’s Ibsen award of DK2.5m [£282,072]

Mark Deans, Scott Price, Breanna Deleo, Simon Laherty and Sarah Mainwaring are the current ensemble at Back to Back.

Speaking to The Guardian Mainwaring [pictured above] said: “I think we all are, it is such an honour for all of us to get that award and to receive it from that panel.

“And for them to see that in us is so fantastic and it’s so rewarding for us to know that we can go on, and build our work The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, to tour it to more places. And make it bigger, hopefully, a finer work. It is such a privilege.”

Back to Back’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin was “shocked” by the announcement.

When the Norwegian National Theatre first made contact with him Gladwin presumed they wanted to discuss a collaboration. “But in that meeting, they announced that we’d won it. None of the ensemble had any idea that they were in contention for it, let alone that they’d won. They were just so moved that their work was acknowledged at that level,” he told the publication.

“Awards are strange because you don’t necessarily make the work to receive them. This just came out of the blue. I feel really honoured that this group of international theatre practitioners have been watching the company’s work for close to two decades. They’ve acknowledged the ensemble’s insight as social commentators, which is embedded within the work. I feel quite touched about their understanding of what we’re trying to do. It’s a pat on the back for everyone.”

Back to Back was told about their award on Sunday when Norway’s ministry of culture broke the exciting news to mark the birthday of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

“We are proud to be able to honour an outstanding and unique theatre company that asks questions of their audience, of society and of each other through ground-breaking productions,” said chair of the prize committee, Ingrid Lorentzen. “Back to Back’s work is exciting, unsettling and thought-provoking. It inspires us to be better artists and better people.”

The prize panel commended Back to Back in a letter saying: “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 … 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.”

When asked how the company intends to spend the cash prize, Gladwin said: “We’ve just got over the shock of actually winning the award. But it is an opportunity to take some risks, to support some blue sky projects.”

Back to Back will receive their Ibsen award at a ceremony held in Oslo in September.