Walker Art Center

44° FLight RainVia Yahoo! Weather

Ganesh, Nazis, and the Elephant in the Room
“Intellectually Disabled” Actors Tell a Tale of Power, Exploitation, and Cultural Appropriation

By Paul Schmelzer

The storyline alone is enough to give thoughtful audiences pause: the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh treks to World War II–era Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol, from the Nazis, meeting Hitler, Mengele, and a fleeing Jewish Holocaust survivor along the way. Complicating this time-traveling trans-ethnic journey further, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is told not by a Jewish or Hindu cast but through “actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities.

Dubbed a “vital, senses-sharpening tonic for theatergoers who feel they’ve seen it all” (New York Times), the play’s storyline jumps between the theatrical tale of Ganesh’s travels and a fictionalized account of Back to Back Theatre’s developing the work for the stage. Through it all, both the actors and the characters they play—whether Nazi, Jew, or Hindu—directly acknowledge the perilous nature of their undertaking, posing questions about cultural appropriation, the ethical considerations that go with creating theater with cognitively or developmentally delayed actors, and, as theater critic Cameron Woodhead put it, “the rights and responsibilities of those who imagine and speak for others.”

In a recent conversation with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer, Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, discusses the ethical and artistic challenges of creating a theater work that aims to get audiences thinking about power, cultural ownership, and—as Gladwin states—“the strangeness of their own thoughts.”

Paul Schmelzer

When you started developing Ganesh Versus the Third Reich nearly four years ago, did you have any hesitation about the themes you were pursuing?

Bruce Gladwin

When we came up with the narrative of Ganesh traveling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, we thought it’s a great story line and a great hero’s journey, but it’s not actually our play to make. We don’t actually have the right to make it. But then there was a turning point, where we actually started recognizing that the issues around why we felt we couldn’t make it would actually make an interesting exploration about cultural appropriation and who has the right to tell particular stories. So we endeavored then to make it.

Schmelzer

The play—or more specifically the imagery and symbols you’re using—has generated some controversy, including outrage by a Nevada-based Hindu man who opposed your use of Ganesh in a Melbourne mounting of the piece in 2011 (as I understand it, he hadn’t seen the work or read the script). At the Walker, we’ve had a handful of members and visitors express concern over the photo we used on our magazine cover of actor Brian Tilley as Ganesh and Simon Laherty as Hitler. Did you know that bringing together the Holocaust and a Hindu sacred deity would cause anger, or did you assume the theater was a safer place to create stories and explore issues?

Gladwin

We didn’t go in with our eyes blinded to the potential risk. There’s a large Jewish population in Melbourne, where the work was originally presented and there’s an ongoing discourse in media circles about representations of the Holocaust. Each time there’s a Hollywood movie such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, there’s an ongoing dialogue about who has the right to talk about which stories and about creating a fictional world within a point in history for which there’s particular sensitivity. We were very conscious about that. With the Hindu themes, we, of course, researched as much as possible. We’re not theologians, but we consulted with academics in terms of the representation of Ganesh onstage, in terms of translations of Indian texts that were relevant to Ganesh, and the use of Indian deities in performance, both theatrical and film, and felt fairly comfortable about the decisions we’d made in terms of Ganesh’s representation. I think to some degree we always felt reasonably confident that what we were presenting was acceptable within the palate of previous presentations. But, you know, you can never calculate where and what will be fired at you. I don’t think, perhaps, we expected to be subjected to a kind of campaign that was instigated from the other side of the world.

Schmelzer

Back to Back has been around for more than 25 years, and you’ve been artistic director since 1999. Your works have always included (as you say) “actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities,” but it’s only now that you’re overtly addressing the moral and ethical questions around working with such actors. Why? Did some event spark your decision to do so?

Gladwin

The last work we made, Food Court, was well received when it toured for several seasons in Europe, Australia, and the US. But some of the criticisms about the work that arose were about authorship. Are the actors empowered in the decision-making process? Has someone put words in their mouth? Are they ultimately puppets within the work—which is really a question of exploitation. I think they’re all really great and healthy questions to ask. We thought it was a great opportunity to explore those issues in a work, which really is a fictionalized autobiography of the company and our process of making something.

The two narratives in the piece play off ideas about power. One is about the leader of the National Socialist/Nazi party in this kind of fascistic dictatorship, while the other plays off a more subtle abuse of power. It’s the relationship between a director and an actor, but it could be between a parent and a child or a doctor and a patient or a psychologist and a client or a priest and a congregation. These are more subtle manipulations of power that exist in our everyday life. As a director of a group of artists who are employed to work as actors, who are all perceived to have intellectual disabilities, I’m really aware of the potential abuse of power that exists within that relationship. So the work talks about that, but I’m also experiencing it on some level every day of my working life. There’s a responsibility of judicious care, but I think the work is also about the dignity of risk—the opportunity for people with disabilities to have an opportunity to take risk within the work.

Schmelzer

There are some uncomfortably funny moments in the piece, although I hesitate to even call them funny because of the difficult themes and the fact that they’re delivered by actors with intellectual disabilities. Scott Price, rehearsing his role as an SS officer, stumbling over difficult words and hearing an off-stage voice helping him out: “Auschwitz,” “crematorium.” The painfully blunt reaction by the character David (Luke Ryan), the Ganesh play’s director, to Scott questioning Mark Dean’s intellectual capabilities: “Mark, do you think of yourself as having the mind of a goldfish?” Can you talk about the role of humor in a work that tackles such serious subject matter?

Gladwin

I can’t give you a precise understanding of it myself, but I think it’s something about the audience being complicit within that arrangement. For it to be funny, the audience has to be a willing participant. There’s an element to being an audience member where you’ve paid your ticket and you’ve sat down and, to some degree, there’s a kind of moral boundary that could be crossed in that scenario, and your only way out is to get up and leave. I think the show is disorientating because it takes place over multiple narratives and you’re joining together two things that seem unlike to create a narrative in your own head about what’s going on. But, yeah, one minute you’re invested in an emotional journey about a Holocaust survivor, and the next minute you’re kind of laughing. It’s disorientating, and ultimately, I’d like to feel like it’s strategic and intentional.

Schmelzer

Another moment that stood out was when David, the director character, was instructing Mark on how to play Hitler: “You like Charlie Chaplin, don’t you? You know how he’s got that big globe of the world and he’s dancing with it and he feels real powerful? That’s the sort of egomaniac we want you to be.” It’s a humorous image, yet an embarrassingly extreme reduction of the evil of Hitler. It’s somehow sweet because of how David is working to make a difficult concept easier to grasp for Mark, and it seems to underscore a problematic part of the play: if we ourselves can’t comprehend the evil of Hitler, how does it work to have actors with cognitive or developmental issues addressing the Holocaust onstage?

Gladwin

It’s also the question of going how can you ever represent it? Any representation of it is in some ways disrespectful to the actual experience of what it was. It could be the biggest, most expensive Hollywood film production and it would still be inadequate representation. In some ways, the performance here is as good as Bruno Ganz’s in Downfall. Both performances are inadequate, and both great. That’s what I think.

Schmelzer

Your process involves a lot of improvisation. Do any of these stories—the Charlie Chaplin scene or Scott convincingly shouting, “I don’t want this play to be shit!”—come from improvisation or from an intentional blurring of the line between reality and acting?

Gladwin

All of it. When we started making this play, we talked about the idea that it’d be like us as a company, making a play. I’d try to articulate that to the actors, and then they’d walk onto the rehearsal room floor and start an improvisation. Toward the end of the process, the actors became so fluid between shifting from discussing the work to creating it through improvisations. There was a lot of blurring of the two realities—of us as makers and as the characters.

Someone would start talking and you wouldn’t be sure if they were playing the character or just being themselves. At one point, for instance, after Scott had launched into an improvisation, Nicki [Holland], who’s a devisor of the work but isn’t acting in it, came back from the toilet and had missed the previous discussion and thought Scott was flying into a rage. She told him to fuck off and then stormed out the room because she was so outraged by his behavior. We had to bring Nicki back in and explain what had happened. Even though there was often a blurring or confusion, what was important is that we understood that everyone had consented to that going into that process. At times, it was blurred for all of us, but there was an agreement that there was a value in that blurring. What we would discover in that territory, where there was confusion, was something that would be theatrically engaging for us and ultimately for our audiences.

Schmelzer

That gauzy line between reality and fiction is an explicit theme in the work. The director character at one point says: “People have problems with us blurring reality and fiction because you are a group of people with intellectual disabilities, who nominate themselves as being perceived to have intellectual abilities. They have an issue with that, but they don’t have an issue with nondisabled actors blurring reality or fiction, being deluded or mad.” One of the themes of Out There this year is the new ways that contemporary theatermakers are obscuring lines between real life and fictive reality—not through documentary theater but through more complex strategies where, as you say, maybe you’re not even sure when it’s reality or fiction. Are there other ways you see your company doing that?

Gladwin

We presented a work a few years ago at the Walker called Small Metal Objects, which took place in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The audience had headphones and the actors were radio-miked, really discretely, and they blended in the crowd in the garden. When the show started, you heard two people in dialogue, but you would look at maybe 20 people who were walking through the garden and you’d have to work out who was having this conversation. In some ways, taking work outside the theater and placing it in the context of the everyday, that’s another device we’ve utilized. It’s fictionalizing a real space—implanting a narrative in the everyday.

Schmelzer

How does that notion of blurring lines between reality and fiction relate to that powerful moment when David, the director, confronts the play-within-a-play’s imagined audience, accusing them of being “perverts” for wanting to see a “freak show” or a “zoo” filled with intellectually disabled actors?

Gladwin

I’m often surprised—I’ve had friends who are savvy who are quite shocked by that moment in the show and feel quite uncomfortable. For me, the character is illustrating a point about the blurring. In my mind, when the character of David says that, he is genuinely believing that he’s facing an empty auditorium. That’s the reality he’s existing in within that rehearsal room. It’s the fact that we are there. Also, what he proposes is also depends what you as an audience member bring to the show. Some people come to our work and can be incredibly confronted by it, purely for the fact that they’re sitting in an auditorium facing a stage with a group of people with disabilities. That can be incredibly confronting. For other people who might have a family member with a disability, there’s an acceptance with it and a degree of comfort that doesn’t necessarily place the actors on the stage within the category of the Other. They’re just human.

Schmelzer

It goes back to our earlier conversation about humor. As an audience member, our relationship is often one of entertainment: we paid our $18 and we expect to be entertained. To then be confronted by this changes the relationship from one that’s transactional, perhaps, to one that’s more human.

Gladwin

Yeah. The work is not Hello Dolly and we don’t profess it to be Hello Dolly. We’re interested in that point that creates a situation where people do think about the strangeness of their own thoughts. And as much as the work brings people together in some sort of understanding of what humanity is, it also separates them. It creates a sense of division and debate. That’s the type of work I’m interested in. It’s not a specific kind of didactic message.

Schmelzer

Without giving too much of the plot away, there’s a moment late in the work when the usually composed David—the director of the fictional theater company onstage—becomes frustrated with the cast and, well, loses it. I’m wondering to what degree you’re David. Or, to what degree are any of us David?

Gladwin

Well, yeah, I think we’re all David to some degree. And to some degree, I am David. There’s a scene in the play when David’s trying to get Mark out of the toilet, and I’ve been in similar situations. I’ve felt like I’ve visibly seen some line that could be crossed where my position as the director of this company would place me in some sort of morally compromised position, or like there’s a moral boundary that potentially could easily be stepped over and that the relationship could potentially be abusive. I feel like I can say those lines quite regularly.

Schmelzer

Tell me about about the founding of Back to Back Theatre. Was it initially founded as a social service or was it more exclusively focused on artistic production?

Gladwin

It started at the point of deinstitutionalization in the mid- to late-1980s. There was a shift in governmental policy about housing and support for people with intellectual disabilities. Previous to that, a large percentage of people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized in large Victorian buildings on the outside of cities. As those institutions got closed down, resources were made available for housing, activities, and employment for people with disabilities. In Geelong, where we’re based, there’s quite a vibrant art scene, and a number of artists took the opportunity to start running workshops for a group of people with disabilities.

I think those initial artists were driven by a kind of outsider, brute art aesthetic, but that genre of art is so associated with the visual arts, which is about solo vision, the obsessive vision of artists. Theater is different. It’s almost impossible to make theater unless you collaborate. So, it’s about what happens when those idiosyncratic ideas are approached with craft in the context of theater. That was the interesting mash-up of those initial ideas. The company has evolved since then. The scale of the works they made early on was quite small, and they toured to small community art centers and theaters. As we’ve progressed, the scale of work has developed, and now if we held an audition we’d see actors that have already got five or six years experience. There’s just more artists within the community with intellectual disabilities who’ve already been working on community projects.

Schmelzer

Before Back to Back, you went to school for animation and drawing and worked as a freelance actor and director. Has this company stretched you in unexpected ways?

Gladwin

I find an incredible sense of freedom in the company. Part of it is about the company’s location; it’s outside the cultural epicenters in Australia. It’s in a regional area. It’s small and isolated in some ways, and we get to make what we want. I’ve enjoyed that. There’s a different process where the work starts with the actor. Part of my challenge is to curate a work that is going to engage each individual actor on a creative journey that will push or challenge them. I think so much of theater comes from a point of the end product, where the actor is the last point in that process, where they’ve auditioned for a particular role that’s already been written or a particular process that’s already been conceived. This is really going: “What are we going to do with Mark in the next show? What would be a really great role for him, and what’s going to keep him engaged for the next three years as we make this?” Often the writing process is written around both challenges.

Schmelzer

Lastly, can you tell me about the part of Back to Back’s mission that refers to artists “perceived” to have intellectual disabilities?

Gladwin

Not all the actors see themselves as having a disability. So even though audiences will look at someone on stage and go, “That’s definitely a person with a disability,” the actors themselves don’t engage in that discussion. Simon has never talked to me about disability. Ever. They don’t see themselves as a person with a disability; they don’t see it as relevant. Scott will engage in a discussion about the politics of disability. We say “perceived” because it’s a label that comes from the outside in rather than the inside out. It seems more appropriate, really.

“There’s a responsibility of judicious care, but I think the work is also about the dignity of risk—the opportunity for people with disabilities to have an opportunity to take risk within the work.”

“The work is not Hello Dolly and we don’t profess it to be Hello Dolly. We’re interested in that point that creates a situation where people do think about the strangeness of their own thoughts.”

Brian Tilley as Ganesh and Simon Laherty as Hitler in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

Photo courtesy the artists

Holocause survivor Levi (Simon Laherty) meets an SS officer (David Woods) on a train

Photo: Jeff Busby

Nicki Holland and Rita Halabarec in Food Court

Photo: Jeff Busby

Ganesh as he sets out on his journey to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis

Photo courtesy the artists

A traincar in the play-within-a-play in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

Photo: Jeff Busby

Simon Laherty and Sonia Teuben in Small Metal Objects

Photo: Jeff Busby

Ganesh, played by Brian Tilley

Photo courtesy the artists

Back to Back Theatre ensemble members

Clockwise from top left: Mark Dean, Nicki Holland, Simon Laherty, Brian Tilley, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price

Photo courtesy the artists