Back to Back Theatre, Australia’s prolific champion of alternative performance, is in LA for just a few days with its celebrated Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, as part of the CAP UCLA series.Â This ambitious production challenges audiences and its own actors to enter a collision of worlds, as the great Hindu deity Ganesh (the remover of obstacles) is charged with time-traveling to Nazi Germany and retrieving the sacred swastika from Hitler and his followers.
The creators of this piece went through a four-year period of doubt regarding their ability or even their right to tell the story. But through careful collaboration, they finally brought the production to the stage and to critical acclaim through the process of “devised work.”
“Devised work.” This pairing of words has been popping up with enormous frequency in world and academic theater for the last several years. It should be easy to define — after all, is it not simply a matter of acting ensembles improvising and ultimately turning the improvisations into final forms of script and production?
But through the efforts of several international theater troupes and theater scholars, the phrase has been imbued with a sense of mystery and set of unspoken expectations. It is nearly impossible to define, but there is a perception that the term indicates a not-quite-polished, roughly formed theatricality that isn’t based on playwrights or directors. The ensemble is the starting point. Then a single concept or word or notion becomes the seed, whose germination is a wild adventure.
Colloquies like the Arena Stage’s 2010 “Theater Outside the Box: Devised Work“ conference have tried to define “devised work,” only to underscore the difficulty of the task. Janine Sobeck’s report on the conference suggests, “The term “˜devised theater’ has proven slippery and hard to define. Although the participants in the convening — a cross section of the field that included large ensemble leaders, puppeteers, duos, interview-based groups, individuals, and many others — covered a wide variety of the diverse work done in this field, all acknowledged the implausibility of classifying themselves as a specific “˜group.’ Although many of these artists have united for the sake of drawing attention to their work, there is, in fact, only one fundamental truth they could all agree on: there is no cookie-cutter process for creating devised work.”
Sobeck’s report quotes Geoff Sobelle, co-founder of Rainpan 43, saying, “Part of the devised-ness of the work is a kind of DIY. This group of people is probably coming together because they didn’t want to just learn their lines, but build the set, [do the work.]’”
Continues Sobeck, “From being in a “˜room with some stuff’ to traveling to new places, the inspirations behind devised pieces are extremely varied. Artists agree that one of the most important elements in the process is simply time: time to sit with an idea, time to be together (if the work is ensemble-based), time to explore ideas, and time to reflect on what has occurred.”
The best way to define devised work, however, is to do it and present it. For a quarter century Back to Back Theatre — based in Geelong, Victoria, on the southeastern coast of Australia, near Melbourne — has been doing just that, long before “devised theater” became as fashionable as it is now.
From the troupe’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin came a concept of creating theater with an ensemble the company website describes as “made up of actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities, a group of people who, in a culture obsessed with perfection and surgically enhanced “˜beauty’, are the real outsiders. This position of marginality provides them with a unique and at time subversive view of the world. The stories they create explore “˜the cold, dark side’ of our times, be it sexuality of people with disabilities, the uses of artificial intelligence and genetic screening, unfulfilled desire, the inevitability of death, and what the fixation with economic rationality and utilitarianism means for people excluded from the “˜norm’.”
Kate Sulan, artistic director of Australia’s Rawcus Theater (which also works with intellectually disabled performers) has been part of the creative team with Gladwin since the inception of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. Sulan is keeping the production together on its North American tour. In an energetic phone conversation, she is remarkably articulate about the devising process. “The company works with performers who have a perceived intellectual disability — people who have unique views of the world and always interesting takes on life. Our work is a little bit out of the ordinary and it often it takes us into territory that is slightly uncomfortable. The company is interested in what the theater can ask. We are interested in asking multiple questions — questions that aren’t easily answered.”
When Sulan discusses the process of theater, she never speaks of writing or directing, but of “making.” Four years ago the company had embarked on “making” a project that was never ultimately finished. During that period, however, Sulan and Gladwin took note of the behaviors of two ensemble members that planted the seed for this production.
She recalls the beginning of Ganesh that pushed the other project aside. “This got made instead. At the time one of the ensemble members, Rita Halabarec, was obsessed with Ganesh. She would come to work with biro [pen and ink] drawings of Ganesh, piles of them. Another of our ensemble members, Sonia Teuben, came in with a shaved head. She was wearing a bomber jacket and created this kind of Nazi character using this voice pitch shifting device we had.
“We were really fascinated by both of these things and almost flippantly Googled Nazi and Ganesh. Up came incredible amounts of hits on the computer because the common thing is a swastika — we took great pleasure in imagining a story where the Hindu god goes to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika. It was a pleasurable experience, but we felt we could never make that work. It was not a work that is okay to make.” Gladwin shelved the idea for a year.
Then conversations between artists took him back to the concept. Ensemble members were musing about who has the right to tell what stories, Sulan says. “Part of the making of the work was a concern that we all shared about whether we had the right to do this story. We were concerned about appropriating the Hindu deity — none of the company is Hindu. Also concerned about making a fairy tale out of the Holocaust. The fact that it was really morally fraught and dangerous was what propelled us to make it. The only way we could answer the question was to make it. The work has the narrative of a hero’s journey of Ganesh going to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, but the other narrative is a group of actors attempting to make it work, exploring the moral dilemmas and the dynamics of rehearsal. It’s a work about power and many things. It is a play within a play, but they sometimes merge.”
Working with two companies whose ensemble consists of intellectually handicapped performers has been an “incredibly creative” experience for Sulan, she says. “I think I am lucky to have performers who have such an interesting take on the world. You want to work with people who kind of catch you off guard and have a creative spark that takes you to the unexpected and unknown. I get to do that with these guys…It is a great gift.”
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, northeast corner of the UCLA campus, near Hilgard and Sunset, Westwood 90024. Opens Thursday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. Tickets: $40-$60. www. cap.ucla.edu. 310-825-2101.
*** All Ganesh Versus the Third Reich production photos by Jeff Busby.