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Simon Laherty (right) and Sonia Teuben (left) play Steve and Gary respectively in Back to Back Theatre’s small metal objects.

Hong Kong audience part of the show in Australian theatre group’s debut performances

Back to Back Theatre’s shows take place in public spaces around the world, and literally anything can happen, as audience members and even passers-by join in the action


What happens when you take a piece of theatre off the stage, out of a performance venue and into a public space? This is the question Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of Australian contemporary theatre company Back to Back Theatre, asks himself each time he puts on the show small metal objects in urban spaces such as public squares, parks and shopping centres.

The answer, it turns out, is you will never know.

When the company staged the show on a bustling street in Paris, the actors were lost among the crowds. At a ferry terminal in New York, they performed alongside homeless people and waves of commuters.

Passers-by sometimes strike up a conversation with the actors, creating a sub-narrative. At other times buskers, musicians, skateboarders and even break dancers take advantage of the audience the show draws to put on a show of their own.

The most dramatic incident Back to Back Theatre has seen happened in Perth, Western Australia. There was a stabbing in the background and the audience soon found themselves surrounded by police cars and an ambulance.

Bruce Gladwin, director of small metal objects. Photo: K Y Cheng
“Every show in each city is totally different, even if the script is the same. It’s energised by the environment it’s in,” says Gladwin. “In a way, there’s a chemistry that anything can happen. The only point of intervention we would put on the show is if someone in the act or in the audience is physically threatened. We don’t mediate the relationship.”

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The cast of small metal objects is in Hong Kong to take part in Freespace at Taikoo Place, a curated programme of performance art.

When Gladwin devised the work with two actors in the ensemble, it was intended as an experiment to explore the relationship between actors and architectural space.

“So much of the experience of the theatre is dependent on its physical structure and with it comes a history. So an audience in a theatre may have seen a Shakespeare company the week before,” says Gladwin. “We wanted to start with a clean slate. We didn’t want to be weighed down by the burden of history.”

Laherty (left) and Teuben have performed in many cities.
Members of the audience are given headphones to hear the dialogue and need to do some careful observation to identify the actors from the crowd. What is most unusual about this theatrical experience is that the audience are not just spectators, but part of the action.

When the work was staged in Taikoo on Wednesday evening, several passers-by stopped to snap a picture of what they saw was a big group of people wearing headphones and seemingly staring into space.

There is something special about the actors as well; the company’s ensemble consists of six performers considered to have intellectual disabilities, something Gladwin plays down.

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“It’s a tricky situation for us because in a way, it defines who we are and what separates us from other companies. But we actually find that within a group of actors, they don’t necessarily see themselves as disabled. In the end, what the disability is doesn’t matter. We are employing them as artists.”

The cast has been in countries where they hear old-fashioned descriptions such as handicapped or retarded. So wherever they go, they bring not just their performance, but also a broader discussion about people with disabilities and their potential as professional artists. For the Back to Back team, the former is the priority.

“Our objective is not some kind of social recognition, it’s really about making great art,” says Gladwin. “Any advocacy comes as a result of making great art.”

Small metal objects, Freespace at ArtisTree, PCCW Tower office lobby, Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay, Nov 3, 1pm, 6pm, HK$250. Inquiries: 2200 0010