SMALL METAL OBJECTS devised and performed by Simon Laherty, Sonia Teuben, Genevieve Morris and Jim Russell, directed by Bruce Gladwin. Presented by Back to Back Theatre as part of Harbourfront’s World Stage Series. Opens Tuesday (January 22) and runs to January 26, Tuesday-Friday 6:30 pm, matinees Friday 3:30 pm, Saturday 1 and 4 pm, post-show Q&A on Wednesday. Eaton Centre (220 Yonge, outside south entrance to Sears). $30. 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com/worldstage. Rating: NNNNN
Glenn Sumi's Small Metal Objects podcast
Aussie troupe refuses to play dumb in World Stage opener Small Metal Objects
New York City – Manhattan’s Whitehall Ferry Terminal is nothing at all like Toronto’s grim, dated hunk of damp concrete. It’s a big, bright space with decent food kiosks, patrolling security guards and enormous pixelboards announcing the day and time as well as banal platitudes – “Have a nice day” – in 5-metre letters.
Through a window you can make out the Statue of Liberty, a reminder of what’s possible to the exhausted working-class commuters from Staten Island.
Tough New Yorkers boast they’ve seen it all, but today something different’s going down. Okay, maybe not so different. Two drug dealers and a couple of corporate types are hashing out a negotiation. But here’s the kicker: those two drug dealers are intellectually disabled. And an audience of 150 gets to eavesdrop on their conversations via headphones.
“Gary” is played – in drag, mind you – by Sonia Teuben, whose swaggering, ballsy performance, complete with nose ring and moustache, isn’t far removed from her high-energy offstage banter.
She’s strongly foiled by “Steve,” played by the soft-spoken Simon Laherty, who’s affable but somewhat nervous about talking or meeting my interviewer’s gaze. Then again, maybe he’s sensing my uncertainty about how to talk to them.
“Sometimes someone will walk up to me during the show and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here, mate?’” says the cocky Teuben. “And you can’t speak back unless you’re in character.” I can imagine Teuben giving the guy a mouthful; she’s got the stolid presence of a Lea Delaria from Down Under.
“I based the character on a drug dealer friend of mine,” she says. “He’s a guy in his 40s. He gave me a few tips, like when you meet your customers, you talk to them, get to know them – that’s good business. If he knew it was about him I’d probably get into trouble.”
Now that’s bravery.
When I ask Laherty – a dead ringer for Thom Yorke – about his unscripted experiences with audiences, he blurts: “One woman hugged me in public out in the street. I don’t know why she did it. I just stood there and stayed in character.”
Teuben, Laherty and their two – how to put it? – non-disabled colleagues, Genevieve Morris and Jim Russell, star in Small Metal Objects, the international site-specific phenom from Australia’s Back to Back Theatre Company which helps kick off this year’s World Stage Festival.
The Toronto production’s taking place at the Eaton Centre, in the big area outside the south entrance to Sears. As it’s been throughout the show’s two-and-a-half-year globe-trotting history, the effect is coloured by whatever space it’s performed in and the people watching.
In the show, the two corporate slicksters try to coerce Gary and Steve to hand over the drugs, and use every financial, verbal – and in the case of the female character, sexual – trick to do it.
The audience confronts power, money and friendship up close and personal. And we’re implicated, too. Seated in a formal raised seating area with those headphones, we can hear what the miked actors are saying. But passers-by are just as curious about us as they are about the four people intermingling among them.
“There are two narratives that play out,” explains Bruce Gladwin, the company’s artistic director and director of this show. He’s tall, lanky and laid-back, like an Aussie Lyle Lovett. I can easily see him having the patience and openness to deal with actors of different capabilities.
“There’s the narrative between the four actors, with a somewhat traditional script, and the narrative that’s played out between the audience and the general public. Power keeps shifting. Sometimes the power sits with the audience, who can feel quite confident and comfortable. But then someone will come up to you and ask what you’re looking at. And the same thing happens in the script. You’re never sure who’s in control of the situation, the two dealers or the buyers.”
The fact that two of the show’s characters are played by intellectually challenged actors ups the stakes. But this isn’t a gimmick. And neither is it the focus of the show, as it has been in some previous works.
“This is my favourite show I’ve done,” says Teuben, who’s been with the ensemble for 17 years. “Some of the other shows are too dark and you can’t get out of it.”
In Soft, for instance, which dealt with the ethics of genetic screening, Teuben played a mother pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome. In the show, a performer with Down’s actually played the doctor treating her.
Gladwin says that particular show was developed after a newspaper in the company’s hometown – Geelong, outside Sydney – asked them to comment on a recent statistic linking the decrease in the number of people born with Down’s syndrome and an increase in the abortion rate. The theatre company’s research included talking to ethicists, mothers of children with Down’s syndrome and scientists responsible for those prenatal screenings.
“So we had the situation of actors with the genetic condition that was being screened sitting and talking to the scientists responsible for developing the test,” says Gladwin. “We were dealing with material questioning the actors’ own existence in society. Some of the ensemble members had never been told that they had a genetic condition.”
The company started 20 years ago, just as Australia’s government was implementing policies of social deinstitutionalization.
“There was a shift toward people with intellectual disabilities living in residential houses, integrated into workplaces and social life,” says Gladwin. “This would have been impossible before then.”
When I ask about the company preferring the phrase “intellectual disabilities,” he doesn’t flinch or even smile.
“It’s just terminology,” he says. “We don’t prefer it. It’s what’s used in Australia. We often refer to the actors as being ‘perceived as having an intellectual disability,' because not all the actors in the company see themselves as having one. It places the responsibility of the label on the community, not on the person.
“When we go to London or the UK, they use the phrase ‘learning challenged.’ All of it is terminology, and that keeps changing anyway. It used to be ‘handicapped’ or ‘mentally retarded.’”
When I ask if he deals with his intellectually disabled actors the same way he would any actor, he recontextualizes the question.
“In some ways, yes. I try to capitalize on their strengths. It’s about finding great roles for them to play.”
Each of the ensemble members has a unique set of talents, and I nod when Gladwin tells me about Simon Laherty’s watchability. For much of the show his character stands completely still, perhaps thinking about the drug deal, maybe thinking about his friendship with Gary, which is suddenly in jeopardy.
When I talk with Simon, I have to get up close to listen to his words, and his eyes look slightly fearful, in contrast to Sonia’s confident head-on gaze.
“When I first started working with Simon, I didn’t quite know who he was as a person, but I’d find myself transfixed by looking at him,” says Gladwin. “He can stand on the stage and I could look at him for a good hour and not get bored. And in this show, that stillness suggests a narrative line about someone who’s transfixed in the space.”
Ensemble member Jim Russell, who plays the snaky lawyer who’s trying to score the drugs (and who isn’t intellectually disabled), recalls a performance in Copenhagen when an 80-year-old woman berated his character for treating Simon’s Steve so badly.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like what I’m watching, and if you don’t stop this I’m going to call the police.’ All along, I was watching my back, thinking the cops were coming.”
After our talk, the actors and director walk out into the terminal, blending in with the commuters. A man sifts through the garbage looking for something to eat or drink, while others make deals on cellphones.
Back to real life.