Back to Back Theatre goes from stage to screen with ‘Oddlands’

Sonia Teuben in ‘Oddlands’. 

In the past decade, Back to Back Theatre, which has an ensemble of actors with a disability, has presented 48 national and 74 international seasons of its stage shows. In the process, it’s earned a slew of awards, including a Helpmann Award and an Edinburgh International Festival Herald Angel Critics Award International Award.

Oddlands, premiering tonight at the Adelaide Film Festival ahead of a run on the ABC next year, now sees the theatre company branch into filmmaking for the first time.  

Produced with Matchbox Pictures, Oddlands (formerly Bungholeis led by Back to Back actors Sonia Teuben and Simon Laherty (Noise) who are members of a clean-up crew in a toxic wasteland. When the duo stumble cross what they believe is the area’s last human survivor, they have to decide between saving humanity or saving themselves. Jacek Koman (Jungle, Breath, Mustangs FC, Jack Irish), Robin Ramsay and Brian Tilley also star.

Back to Back’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin, who both wrote and directed the half hour short, said the crossover to screen appealed for a number of reasons. The first was the idea of collaborating with another company – in this case Matchbox – and the creative potential and knowledge sharing afforded through that.

The second reason, he said, was an agenda about getting actors with disabilities on screen: not just in guest roles, but as fully-rounded, sophisticated and complex main characters.

Redfern Now’s celebration of Indigenous actors and stories acted in part as an inspiration.

Redfern Now is a great example of a series that seems to have expanded audiences’ concept of Indigenous story and Indigenous actors on the screen, and [I hope] that we could move towards making something like that,” he told IF.

In that way, Gladwin said Oddlands is a “pitch towards something that’s bigger,” and he has ambitions to turn it into a series.

Oddlands is a product of the HIVE Lab and fund, a joint program run by Adelaide Film Festival, ABC Arts, The Australia Council and Screen Australia. The initiative aims to connect filmmakers to ideas and collaborators from other mediums, and to inspire other creative practitioners to consider making screen works.

Gladwin attended the HIVE lab at Adelaide Film Festival in 2015, motivated by what other theatre directors, like Windmill Theatre’s Rosemary Myers (Girl Alseep) and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page (Spear), had produced through the HIVE program.

Initially he intended to try and adapt one of Back to Back’s existing plays, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, into a feature. However, with difficulty securing a producer and time restraints, he instead settled on writing a half hour TV project. Oddlands began with the idea of creating a contemporary ‘Ship of Fools’, and like all of Back to Back’s work, the script was developed in collaboration with the actors.

Stephen Corvini (Hyde and Seek, Safe Harbour), Brendan Campbell (Seven Types of Ambiguity) and Back to Back’s Alice Nash produced, while Debbie Lee and Julie Eckersley EP’d along with Mandy Chang for the ABC.

Shot over five days in Geelong in May, Gladwin said he wasn’t fully prepared for the differences in working in screen as opposed to theatre – particularly TV’s rigid schedules – but found it a welcome challenge.

“I think we thought there were a lot of skills that we would be able to apply from one to the other – and there were – but it was a massive learning curve in a lot of ways,” he said.

“But a great learning curve; I feel like it’s re-energised the company, and it’s re-energised the actors because there’s this intensity to the shoot for the actors that’s just unlike theatre.”

And while Gladwin said they have approached Oddlands with a philosophical agenda to get people with disabilities on screen he believes “it’s quite possible someone could tune into the show on a Tuesday night at 10.30 on the ABC, watch it and not even click that they’re people with disabilities. They might just go, ‘Oh, they’re kind of unusual characters for lead characters’.”

“It’s not self-evident in the storyline and part of me likes that. I don’t think we set out to make some sort of didactic message. I’d be a bit devastated if that’s what it amounts to, some sort of didactic message about people with disabilities being on screen and here they are in this heart-moving story.”

Oddlands screens tonight at the Adelaide Film Festival as part of the Art on Screen program.