SITTING in the kitchen area at Back to Back theatre company headquarters in Geelong, Brian Tilley plays with a set of superhero figurines, including Batman and Spiderman.
‘‘I feel like I know what they’re going through, spending life as an outcast,’’ he says.
Tilley’s certainly not an outcast at Back to Back, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The company, which creates theatre with people perceived to have a disability, has become one of Australia’s leading creative voices, with many of its productions winning critical acclaim both here and overseas.
Its most recent big work, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, premiered at the Melbourne Festival last year, where it won The Age Critics Award. Back to Back has since performed the play in Vienna, London and Rotterdam, and will take the production to the United States, Canada and France in the coming year.
Australian audiences who missed Ganesh at the Melbourne Festival will have one last chance to see it in Geelong in February, in between US tours. It will be the first time that the company performs the play in its home town.
Tilley plays the titular role in the production, a play about the making of a play depicting the Indian deity who travels to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, which he claims is an ancient Sanskrit symbol that has been appropriated by the Nazis.
It requires Tilley to wear a heavy elephant head for much of the performance, designed by Melbourne sculptor Sam Jinks. A lighter version has been made for the upcoming overseas tour.
Simon Laherty, who has worked with Back to Back since 1999, plays three characters in the production, including Adolf Hitler.
‘‘It was quite hard at first, but after a while I got the hang of it, and now I just enjoy it,’’ he says. Laherty had to learn German for the play, which is performed in English, Sanskrit, and German. The complexity of the story – which deals with issues ranging from abuse of power to cultural appropriation – and the nuanced way in which the company presents the work within a work earned Ganesh three Green Room awards in 2012 and the Helpmann award for best play.
As well as rehearsing Ganesh, Back to Back is currently busy with creative development for a new play commissioned by Cate Blanchett for the Sydney Theatre Company. Laser Beak Man, based on the drawings of Brisbane artist Tim Sharp, will premiere in Sydney next September.
‘‘It’s first time we’ve really worked with an entity of that scale,’’ says artistic director Bruce Gladwin. ‘‘We’ve presented at some large festivals, but it’s the first time we’ve been commissioned to make something.’’
The camaraderie among the ensemble, who spend four days a week rehearsing and developing material, is palpable.
‘‘I do basically feel very privileged to be working with such a bunch of great people and just feel privileged to be here every day and working with these great guys,’’ says Scott Price, who plays an SS soldier in Ganesh.
The overseas travel is another obvious perk, and so too is an increasing sense of celebrity.
‘‘I was recognised one time by a chick at Melbourne Airport and she said are you from Back to Back and I said, ‘Yes, I am,’’’ says Price. ‘‘No joke, she was really hot.’’