RISING 2021 Podcast

Back to Back Theatre with John Safran and Vikrant Kishore

Episode Transcript

Mahmood Fazal
John Safran
Bruce Gladwin
Scott Price
Vikrant Kishore

Mahmood: This episode of the rising podcast contains references to the Holocaust and may trigger distress to some listeners.

In this episode of the Rising Podcast, John Safran interviews director Bruce Gladwin and actor Scott Price from Back to Back Theatre.

In their play Ganesh vs the Third Reich, led by an ensemble of neuro-diverse performers, the Hindu god aims to reclaim the Swastika from the Third Reich.

For this reason, this interview features additional commentary from Dr Vikrant Kishor who provides context for Ganesh and addresses the Hindu nationalist backlash against the play.

Bruce: One of the starting points for, uh processing peoples disabilities and once the Nazis came into power, processing people and then signing death sentences for them and then they were gassed and then that the whole gassing process was developed, well the technology for it was starting to be developed in this institution so it was kind of in some way, seen, the company seen that just going, we are a company with actors with intellectual disabilities and uh, this is a moment in history where a whole lot of people with disabilities have not had a voice and just going, not to say it felt like it gave a license but it felt like it gave us some skin in the game in term of exploring that material.

John: G’day I’m John Safran and I’m here talking to a director. He is wearing a beret and his name is Bruce Gladwin, how are you?

Bruce: Good thanks, John.

John: I’m also talking to a performer. What’s he wearing as a performer.

Scott: Zelda shirt.

John: We’ve already confused things because we’ve described you with a lie and you with a truth because you’re not in fact wearing a beret but you are in fact wearing a Zelda top. Scott Price you’re a performer and the play is called Ganesh versus the Third Reich.

[Play Excerpt]
Actor: Long before Myth, in an ancient world without language. Man organised himself around symbols carved on the walls of caves and riding on the tails of comets?

Bruce: It's a story that's set in Geelong, it's a story about Brian, who's a young man with autism who is obsessed with Ganesh, who decides to write a play called ‘Ganesh vs. the Third Reich’ and, recruits his,kinda friends to realise this grand ambitious story of Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany. And the whole story falls apart when it becomes evident that his friends from the local disability centre that he's recruited, aren’t super clear about what's actually going on. And it also falls apart because of the moral and ethical dilemmas of one, representation of Hindu deities and the Holocaust, but also the representation of people with disabilities on stage. And the third one is that he contracts a non-disabled director, who becomes a tyrant.

Scott: Yeah, he basically takes over the whole play and the scripts.

Bruce: Yeah, so in some ways, I feel like the framework of this is, we're not actually representing Ganesh. We're representing Brian's interpretation of Ganesh, which I know there's still sensitivities around and there will be people that will be offended by Brian's interpretation of Ganesh.

John: It's a really good tip for writers I think, because immediately you'd think, if you're addressing something, it's narcissistic, if I bring myself into it. When really, there's this tension, where that actually makes it more humble. Because you're not pretending, you're representing the Ramayana, or the Holocaust or whatever. So, by making it bounce off yourself, and give it a personal thing, just, I reckon makes things a lot more humble. Because you're not pretending that it's representing everything.

Bruce: Yeah, we felt like we had to write it from a position that we could write it from. And that was what we did. It was the only position we could write it from.

John: Can describe Ganesh? ‘Cause I'm sure even people who don't know Ganesh will know Ganesha as soon as you describe him.

Scott: Yeah. Look y’know he's like, some masks and like, he’s an elephant headed God.

John: The famous elephant headed God, although, I think, I don't know whether Hindus like that or not. I remember once I was talking about Hanuman, who is - what? - perceived to my eyes to be a monkey God, but then I was in India, and when I was doing my pieces to camera, filming, and some guy came up to me and said, “Listen, it's not like a monkey to us.” So yeah, I don't know.

Vikrant: Yep. Ganesha as a god, it’s one of the most revered gods, okay, so the Hindu Pantheon or the Hindu culture is quite fresh. And Ganesha’s origin, in fact, has multiple kind of stories happening. Ganesh as a god, he is considered as the son of Shiva and Parvati, though it was Parvati, you know, the consort or the wife of Shiva. It was she who created Ganesha, one of the mythological stories says that while she was going to take a bath, and she was going to the pool, from her body she created this particular boy called Ganesha, and she asked him to guard her while she's taking bath. Meanwhile, Shiva comes in, and he sees this particular boy guarding, you know, Parvati, and he wanted to go in, and suddenly he stopped. So then Shiva gets angry, and then he in his anger, he just destroys his head. Okay, so he kills him, destroys his head and Parvati comes and she becomes furious. All The gods gather together and then one of the solution given by Vishnu was about finding the first head, Shiva goes out and the first thing he finds is an elephant sleeping. And then he cuts off the head of the elephant and then puts it on Ganesha, his head and that's how he becomes elephant God. And so I would that is the most widely accepted belief of origin of Ganesha.

John: Now, I guess we've got to get the starting point, because the connection between those two things is that in Hinduism, there's this great symbol, the swastika, and then in the Nazi toolkit, there's a swastika. So that's the very broad, kind of, trigger point for the play.

Bruce: Yeah it's the kind of crazy unifying moment, and I guess in some ways creates it as a kind of contested symbol.

John: Yep.

Bruce: One one for good and one associated with evil.

[Play Excerpt]
Actor: The heinous crime was committed, the theft of the ancient Sanskrit symbol, wretched from the Gods by the Nazi’s to be used for evil.

Vikrant: So, Ganesha as a god, like he is very widely rivard and worshipped, He is the God who removes obstacles, who brings in Good luck, and he also brings in that positive energy. That swastika as a kind of, you know, sign or as a kind of motif of Hinduism, the four hands of swastika actually represents the hands of Ganesha as well. Okay, the different aspects of Ganesha. So, swastika becomes one of the most important so whenever you are worshipping Ganesha in Hindu culture, you'll see that every the even the pundits or the monks, the Hindu monks, they will first create a sign of swastika and then start praying to Ganesha. So swastika becomes very important. It's, it's like a kind of representation of Ganesha, it's also a powerful symbol that helps in removing those obstacles and bringing in Good luck, again, our representation of Ganesha. So, if you look at most of the Hindu houses, you know, in the first you know, the at the entrance, you will generally find a Ganesha, you know, statue generally welcoming you. So it is not only welcoming you, but it also making sure that it avoids any obstacle that will enter your house. So this in this play, when I saw Ganesha trying to reclaim that, I thought, it's a very good message for the wider audience in the Western society as well as the western country as well, that they understand the relevance and the kind of value swastika has. What was totally degenerated and, in a way, created as a monster when you say swastika, kind of Nazi wave that looks like a monster.

John: And how was this play written?

Bruce: It's, it's devised. So it's not like a single author. So there's the cast. There's five actors in the cast, myself, and then a range of other dramaturgs, and writers, who all contributed to the devising and the making of the material.

John: And how long did that take?

Scott: Was it three years?

Bruce: Yeah, it was made over a number of years

Scott: Maybe a little bit more. Yeah

Bruce: Not us working full time, like, we're working during other work, etc., and then we come back and then spend some time on this. And when we first conceived the idea, we just thought, Oh, that's a great idea, but we'll never make it.

Scott: And you did.

Bruce: Well we did, yeah.

John: And so that started off in Geelong?

Bruce: That's right, yeah, the company’s based in Geelong.

John: Called back-to-back.


Scott: Haha theatre, yeah.

John: Now what's the idea behind that company? Does it have an angle?

Bruce: Scott? How would you describe it? What’s the angle of the company?

Scott: Ah, like, in your face. I mean, yeah, like, in your face, for provoking y’know,? And intriguing. Yeah.

Bruce: We make contemporary theatre, but I guess that one of the defining elements is that the company’s built around a core ensemble of six actors.

Scott: Yeah.

Bruce: Who are perceived to have intellectual disabilities or some of the actors prefer neurodiverse.

Scott: Yeah, well, I think I'd prefer neurodiverse because I just think like, all the other local (unknown) which is like what you’d call alternative needs, which is basically just like, a part of having a disability.

John: And did you think when you came up with the idea that it was “oh my god, this is really touching raw nerves and really stepping on landmines here”? Or, not really at all? Right? ‘Cause I'm totally desensitised, so for me, it’s just like “yeah, that's a really interesting idea!” But maybe I'm just in a very rare demographic that's, like, desensitised to things like this, because you're touching on Nazism and also Hinduism.

Bruce: Yeah. Well, one of the starting points for us was we did a creative development where we were just throwing up ideas for new shows. We spent about a week just drawing. And we had one actor in the company, her name was Rita Helen Barrick, and she was obsessed with Ganesh. So she just kept constantly drawing pictures of Ganesh. And we also had another actor, Sonia Turban, who we were playing with pitch-shifting all the actors voices down a couple of octaves, and putting a lot of reverb on their voice. And she created this neo-nazi skinhead character. So we had these two subjects of Ganesha and Nazis.

Scott: And, you know, and it was a product of Google as well, right?

Bruce: Yeah, so then someone said “lets Google ‘Nazi’ and ‘Ganesh’.” And then we found a number of websites dedicated to this idea

Scott: Ohhh, you’re kidding me, oh my god!

Bruce: Of the Nazis appropriating the swastika. At the same time the actors and I were working on the idea of like, exploring the hero's journey, you know, the kind of classic Hollywood film structure.

Scott: And, you know, and it was a product of Google as well, right?

Bruce: Yeah, so then someone said “let's Google ‘Nazi’ and ‘Ganesh’.” And then we found a number of websites dedicated to this idea of the Nazis appropriating the swastika. At the same time the actors and I were working on the idea of like, exploring the hero's journey, you know, the kind of classic Hollywood film structure.

Scott: There were lots of examples. I mean, there's Lord of the Rings...

Bruce: Star Wars.

Scott: Star Wars, yeah, Napoleon Dynamite…

Bruce: Yeah, which is great, because all the actors had this kind of canon of reference, and we thought, “oh, wouldn't it be great to make a show about Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika?”, and then we thought “well, we'll never make it because…”

Scott: We thought we’d never make it.

Bruce: Because it would rely on cultural appropriation and touch on a lot of sensitivities in terms of representing the Holocaust.

[Excerpt from play]

I’m sorry, I’m concerned. Brian’s playing an Indian deity, do you think that’s ok?

I think anyone can play anything, isn’t that what’s good about what we do?

I’m not seeing it that way.

Vikrant: There are three things which comes in appropriation, okay, cultural appropriation, which has a negative connotation in it, but it can also be something about collaboration okay. And if appropriated with a certain understanding, then it can be fine.

Then there is misappropriation, which is blatant misuse of certain, you know, symbols, things or any anything from a different culture by a dominant culture or dominant group and trying to flaunt it as if you know, it's kind of a fashion which has often been and that's why you know, misappropriation has always looked down upon. And then there is something called fusion where two people collaborate and bring in lots of, you know, bring in their aspects and try to collaborate and you

Ganesha versus Third Reich for me, it was a kind of an understood appropriation. Okay. So when Bruce grabbed gladwyn says that, you know, this particular theatre happened because of Google and they googled, you know, Nazi symbol swastika and Hindu symbol swastika, but that did that end up, you know, making them understand the, the whole, you know, aspect of Ganesha swastika, and its misappropriation within the Nazi thing, which I rarely do. When I saw this particular play, I really found it close to the Indian folk theatres, where most of the dance forms are theatre forms. It's all about the one particular you know, aspect, good winning over evil. Okay? that is what the Hindu theatre dance all the kind of representations about Gods are there it is there and when in essence, if Ganesha was his Third Reich is able to claim that and is able to work on that kind of storyline, I think it is in a way totally giving a homage to or respect to the Hindu theatre and Hindu art culture.

John: Yeah, and I also think outsiders commenting on things - I mean, all this is a grey area and it just depends, depends, depends, just enlivens things and gives a new perspective. Like, I remember when Justin Bieber. He went to Anne Frank’s attic and on the tour, and he wrote in the visitor’s book that Anne Frank if she was alive today, she'd be a ‘belieber’ or whatever. And the instant thing is to be offended or “he's such a narcissist”, this stupid guy or whatever, but if you think of it more deeply - It's like it really humanises Anne Frank and makes her not this black and white figure. He’s like “Oh, no, she was a real girl, a teenage girl, and she probably would have been a Justin Bieber fan.” So it gives her this whole humanity

Bruce: It wasn't until we were performing another show, Food Court, in Kunstenfest in Brussels.

Scott: Brussels, yeah.

Bruce: And we finished the show and we're doing a q&a with the audience and someone stood up in the audience and said “I don't believe these actors made this work. I don't believe they're capable of making the work”. And, which - Scott took the microphone and told the guy to get out of the auditorium.

Scott: Yeah, I did. I did. I think I actually do remember now, I think it's coming back to me because like I yeah, I just remember, like, I'm always on the stage and I just remember him yelling out.

Bruce: You know, it raised this idea... There's a lot of interest in the company in terms of, I guess, how we make work and the power structures, the relationship of me - as an non-disabled director - working with a group of actors who identify as having a disability, and what are the kind of power dynamics around that. And so we thought we'd make a work that is like a fictionalised Autobiography of us in the process of making a work.

John: Did I read right - I read a Guardian article, so if this is not true, I'm throwing Guardian under the bus or I misread it - So either Guardian’s wrong or I can’t comprehend, but did you guys visit a concentration camp?

Bruce: We did.

Scott: Yes we did, we did.

Bruce: We were working in… go on Scott.

Scott: It wasn’t Auschwitz, Was it Wehrmacht?

Bruce: No it was Linz, in Austria.

Scott: I must have visited Wehrmacht and then you must’ve went to Linz.

Bruce: Oh yeah you went to Wehrmacht too.

Scott: Yeah John, it was actually harrowing. Like, it was one of the most harrowing experiences. I mean, there were leftover crematoriums, and there’s this map… I remember there was someone on the tour who had said he had visited before, and he didn’t want to go back again. Just saying like, yeah all about the Jewish people living in Melbourne, because they wanted to try to get away from Europe because of the wars - for me it was harrowing and I think I just couldn’t comprehend the whole program to say the least.

Bruce: Yeah. So, the show performed in Weimarch and the artistic director of the festival when he saw the show, said, “You have to come and perform it, and you'll be performing in the theatre where Hitler held court and made a number of speeches and…

John: Oh, God.

Bruce: Yeah. So it had quite a strong significance for the city - or the town.

Bruce: Yeah, it was one of the starting points for processing people with disabilities. And once the Nazis came into power, processing people and then signing a death sentence for them, and then they were gassed, and then the whole gassing process was developed. You know, the technology for it was starting to be developed in this institution. In some ways, the company’s seeing that and just going, “Alright, we're a company with actors with intellectual disabilities, and this is a moment in history where a whole lot of people with disabilities have not had a voice.” And just going - not to say that it felt like it gave us a licence - but I thought it gave us some skin in the game in terms of exploring that material.

[Play Excerpt]
Actor 1: Your German is impeccable. You could work in Berlin.
Actor 2: You know what the difference is between you and me?
Actor 1: Nope
Actor 2: That you don’t think
Actor 1: Yeah, your right
Actor 2: I mean, we are out here and you are talking and those words just came out of ya, your good, your very good
|Actor 1: Yeah, thanks
Actor 2: Problem is that mental issue you have…
Actor 1: This intellect
Actor 2: Intellectual, yes that’s it, no wonder you are such a pain in the ass.
Actor 1: True
Actor 2: No don’t know how to control your mouth, you say fuck you, screw you or go to hell or suck my dick.

John: Okay, so, not everyone's like me, let's go through the two groups represented in this. What kind of feedback have you had from the Hindu people?

Bruce: Well, when we premiered the work, which was in 2011, getting close to the premiere of the season, there was a protest that started in Nevada in the US from a Hindu spokesperson who had issue with what would be the programme image, and it would have been online as well, which was of one of our actors who had made his own Ganesh mask, so it was like a kind of cardboard structure. And that was the start of, I guess, what was a form of an online protest.

John: So what year was this?

Bruce: This was 2011.

John: And was the play playing in Australia?

Bruce: Yeah, it premiered in the Melbourne festival in 2011.

John: But the protests was in Nevada.

Bruce: Started in Nevada.

John: But did you get any good feedback, or not really?

So that initial protest from Nevada then sparked a response here in Australia. And so leading up to the performance we met with a Hindu Leadership Group here in Australia. And of course, the image that was offensive, we agreed not to use, was an early publicityimage. And we also invited the leadership group to come and see the performance. And they gave us feedback, we made a number of changes to the show, which we were really happy to accommodate. And since then the show has been on I think, 35 seasons.

Scott: Yeah, 35

Bruce: Around the world at arts festivals, and this season coming up at Rising is a return to Melbourne, somewhat.

Vikrant: One of the biggest problem now, between Hinduism and Hindutva. Okay, Hindu is most about the religion, it's about the religious practice. I'm a proud Hindu, you know, I do, I'm critical of that certain Hindu practices and things like caste issues or lots of other things, but I'm a practicing Hindu, whereas Hindutva It's a political kind of thing, which has come in with a very right-wing mindset. And this right-wing mindset is very protective about things like oh, you have used the name of the Ganesh now, you must be doing something wrong about it. The problem happened because someone who read somewhere Ganesha was a Third Reich and without watching the theatre, which are without going to the play they started making meaning out of it, which I find as problematic, then, which is a part of that so-called fundamentalist side of the right-wing Hindutva. Okay, where that you start jumping, without even knowing the particular context. And that was the problem. And that's why, you know, when few of these Hindu community leaders who are called upon to watch the play, no one had any issues with it.

Okay. And I had the discussion with the multicultural Commissioner at that time, who was an Indian, and he loved it is I don't see any problem. And I like, he asked me about my opinion, I said, plain and simple known, there's no problem as such, okay, I have problem. And if there is a problem, I would instantly say that, but in this play, I thought it was very well done. It was something and it is something which should be celebrated. In fact, I would want it to be, you know, could they should be a play for the Indian community in Melbourne or in Sydney, so that they can understand how good collaborations can bring in really good research. And we have seen in recent times, we have seen some really good collaboration happening between Australian artists and Indian artists around Australia. So I think this is a powerful moment that we should, you know, really support this kind of a play, and also utilise it to tell other people about the richness of the culture that we have.

Vikrant: Whereas the Hindutva, the kind of very politically loaded kind of element has is destroying that and I find it difficult. And I find it problematic, where people, opportunistic people utilising these kinds of events, as a kind of platform to prop themselves up as political, or community leaders, I think there is a problem there.

[Play Excerpt]
Actor 1: If you mess with the Holocaust.

Actor 2: You add fuel to the deniers

Actor 1: No you will offend a lot of people

Actor 2: I went to talk to David and I got really good news. Do you want to play Hitler, Adolf Hitler, you know the chancellor of Germany.

Actor 2: It’s a good part

John: And what about the Jewish community, get any bad feedback from them?

Bruce: No.

Scott: No we didn’t, no.

Bruce: No, we’ve had generally positive feedback.

John: Yes. My people are good.

Bruce: You know, I always kind of feel like going “alright, did we consult enough? Did we, initially when we started, did we talk to enough people?” And maybe the fact that the Jewish community only came back with positives, maybe we didn't search for enough dialogue.

John: And has the script developed along with the time, or just stuck pretty much what it is?

Bruce: Scott?

Scott: I can’t really say, I think you’re probably best to answer that one.

Bruce: Okay we’ll ping-pong it back to me and say that it's pretty much stayed the same. Although after that initial consultation with the Hindu leadership group, we made some changes, they were more around physical images and the function of the mask on stage. So they had some really clear ideas about how the masks should be treated.

John: Ohhh Cool. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

Bruce: Thanks, John.

Scott: Anytime, anytime

John: Director and developer Scott Price and Bruce Gladwyn. No, you can’t change around because I said actor first, and then it was changed to the performer.

Bruce: Ok

John: Then I was corrected on the performer, so I was just going along with that, so you can’t now when I say performer go actor.

Mahmood: The rising podcast is created by Litmus Media. It’s produced by me, Mahmood Fazal. The associate producer and editor is Eugene Yang. Music for this podcast is composed by Johan Johannson for Ganesh vs the third Reich.