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The Creative Minds conference key question: what makes for ‘quality’ in theatre? / 29 October 2015

photo of an actor dressed as an elephant standing next to an actor dressed as Hitler

Last year Back to Back theatre came to the UK with their production 'Ganesh Versus the Third Reich'

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Coming back from the Creative Minds conference in Ipswich I was mulling over the day's discussion about 'quality' and remembered how six years ago I had the privilege of sitting in on a theatre-devising workshop with Australian theatre company Back to Back. It was very different from anything I’d experienced with learning-disability arts organisations in the UK. 

Their community company ‘Theatre of Speed’ were being asked to express something about family relationships and share pieces of dialogue. One of the members became upset because they’d been reminded of a loved one who’d died. They wanted to leave the workshop but were encouraged to stay with the emotion and work with it. 

The artistic director, Bruce Gladwin was clear in his respect for the person’s feelings but was keen that the actor remained present, despite the difficulty of being immersed in grief. It was clear that ‘quality’ for Back to Back was a serious matter. 

As Gladwin said at the time: “The underlying approach at Back to Back stems from the idea that the truth is the best starting point for creating a compelling piece of theatre. That starting point is to delve deep to find out from the performers what they want to express. What stories they want to tell.”

Jez Colborne of Mind the Gap pointed out in the Creative Minds debate about ‘quality’ that assumptions are often made of what people with learning difficulties can and can’t do. Gladwin was clearly not putting any limitations on the company’s expectations. There were clear ground rules in place to support the actors to express themselves on stage – as themselves – rather than trying to emulate an idealised ‘norm’. 

Some people might have seen Back to Back as misguided or even cruel. Demands were being made, without concession, in the way a theatre company might make demands of any actor. The expectation was that the people in the workshop were actors, coming from the standpoint that an artist brings everything, all of their experience, to what they do on stage. 

Gladwin was looking for authenticity from his troupe and demanding they live up to their own expectations to be taken seriously as actors. That surely is what makes for ‘quality’ in theatre.