Ironically for English theatre maker David Woods a lack of interest in his studies turned into a successful career. “I was studying English literature,” he says “and I got tired of reading all the books so I took all the theatre options I could because plays are much smaller.” This sparked his interest in performing arts, which led him into a drama school. His original intent was to be a director but after two years of solid acting training Woods ended up a performer with his own company, Ridiculusmus, which has toured the world for the last 21 years.
The company’s success caught the eye of several local directors and Woods found himself in a number of high profile Australian productions. He starred alongside Geoffrey Rush in Belvoir’s 2007 Exit The King and joined forces with Frank Woodley and Barry Otto in Malthouse’s Optimism in 2009. It was during the latter that Back to Back Theatre’s artistic director approached Woods with a proposition. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I would work for them,” says Woods, “I thought [Back to Back] produced the best work I’d seen in Australia and I definitely wanted to be involved.”
And Woods isn’t the only one who holds Back to Back in high esteem. The theatre ensemble, founded in Geelong in 1987 to create theatre with people who are perceived to have a disability, has since toured the world garnering praise wherever they travel. One such example is the first work Woods was involved in, Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, which had its Melbourne debut in 2011 and will have toured to four continents by the end of this year; heavyweight The New York Times and the Victorian press heralded the play. But now it’s Sydney’s turn – for the first time, a new work from Back to Back will premiere at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1.
Super Discount uses the classic narrative of the hero fighting back from early setbacks to interrogate notions of representation and power, particularly in relation to disability. The play’s subject matter extends on themes explored in Ganesh explains Woods: “You know The Bourne Supremacy,and how Casino Royale going into Quantum Of Solace knicked the idea that the next film starts where the previous one finished? It [Super Discount] was a bit like Ganesh part two.”
Super Discount centres on the moral and ethical responsibilities that come with playing a character with a disability. One of the stories that informed Woods’ thinking was that of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the film My Left Foot. “He plays a character with cerebral palsy and he would get into the role privately,” says Woods. “I don’t know if this is apocryphal, but this is what I read. The crew would have to knock on his dressing room door and come and lift him out of his trailer – [he was] in character so he couldn’t do it.” This left Woods thinking about who can play what and at what point does something become offensive.
With such contentious material it’d be tempting to throw the issues out there and let the audience decide whether or not ‘speaking’ on behalf of others via the means of acting is ethical or not. But Woods assures us that this question is resolved in a transformative and empowering way. “Hopefully everyone will be able to see a pathway to their own voice and it might make those people who think they can speak for others question that assumption.”
BY SIMON BINNS