The Democratic Set is a process-orientated residency project in which Geelong's Back to Back Theatre invite audiences to contribute a 10-second long performance, filmed by a camera on a motorised dolly, capturing their performance. These snippets of personal expression are then strung together with other people's performances, in a rolling montage.
Part of a 10-week Australian national tour for Mobile States, the Democratic Set makes a very simple analogy between performance and democracy, celebrating difference and self-expression.
This project has toured to all kinds of places around Australia and the world and the results are always strangely hypnotising and watchable. What's the secret?
It makes a very simple analogy between performance and democracy. Performance, like democracy, allows people to be heard. In a way, the piece is a kind of visual soapbox; it's a very simple frame that allows performance to occur. We're a company interested in the idea that all people can have an opportunity to experience perform and have a voice and have a kind of commentary on society and the Democratic Set is a small gesture in that direction.
What is "set"? and how is it "democratic"?
The rooms, the boxes, in which the performances take place are the "set". It's a box about 2.3m by 2.3m by 6m deep. It's very plain, an egalitarian space. It's always the same.
We had Ted Ballidu performing in one of the films we made in Geelong, and the mayor of Leuven in Belgium, there's just something equalising about the space, where you see the person as the person, not necessarily as their role. They're a body in space.
Do you have to participate and perform to experience the event?
You can come and sit and watch it being filmed, and that's an interesting experience in itself.
Although there often seems to be a different theme for each reel, there's an addictive consistency to the performances which makes it strangely dramatic.
The presenting partners often have an agenda, a specific thematic, but in theatre having really tight parameters is a real gift. We first developed this project working with about 10 choreographers. We wanted them to come in individually and work with our ensemble here at Back to Back. This project was originally about creating some very tight parameters to give the choreographers an opportunity to work with the ensemble. We said, "Look, we're not looking for an hour long show. We're looking for short moments of performance. Then we'll string them together in a video, to collect them." So in a way it's a collection, like a football card collection, except instead of football, it's theatre, theatrical moments.
It started as a kind of professional development. We didn't have the sense that it was going to become this ongoing project. We actually made one film as professional development, then sent that out as like a Christmas card to a number of different festivals and partners who we'd worked with and then people invited us to come and make it in their own respective communities.
Do you always set yourself and the ensemble these kind of parameters at the beginning of a project?
When you're working as a theatre director, there's an interesting dynamic there to play with, and that's between chaos and control, and you're very invested in the idea of control, but total control will actually kill the piece, and so chaos and a sense that anything can happen is pivotal to the performance having life. So in some ways, having some parameters that allow life to exist is what you're looking for, to be able to offer a structure that means life can breed in that.
What's your own feeling when you watch these collections?
When I watch it , I kind of fluctuate between going, oh, it's the same image, it's the same image, and at the same time, I can focus on the difference, and think, oh, that individual is just so different from the previous one. I'm kind of drawn between two extremes. The beauty of the project for me is that people can look the same, and yet the differences are also highlighted.
Kind of like the philosophical idea of "repetition" as an essentially unique series relying on difference?
The individuals are different, so for me there is an inherent beauty in it. I think it's kind of poignant, that with these people with disabilities there's this kind of quest for equality, or kind of sameness in society, and so what do we do with difference?
It's got very modest outcomes. We'll work filming for four days with a diverse range of community members who volunteer their time. People block in a twenty-minute spot, and whoever turns up we collaborate with them in that twenty-minutes. The outcome is really going to be a film that is about eight minutes in length. A small document of a moment in time.
It is about an engagement with a particular community in a particular time. There is a kind of repetition of the same process or formula in different places. The ongoing existence of the project does start to feel a little bit like a film itself, a frame after a frame after a frame: a lifetime after a lifetime after a lifetime, or a generation after a generation after a generation.
Come along to watch or participate in filming from Tuesday 7 to Thursday 9 of August. Screens Saturday 22 September as part of The Other Film Festival.
Continue reading our interview with Bruce Gladwin as he discusses Back to Back Theatre's second project at Arts House in August, Hell House