"Small Metal Objects" is about two friends, Gary and Steve. Steve's frustrated with his lackluster love-life.
It's not unusual story - but it's the first layer of an unusual production
On a sunny afternoon lots of people wander around the Walker Art Center Sculpture garden. On this particular day what most of them don't know is they are also walking across Back to Back Theater's stage.
"It's a very voyeuristic play, said Bruce Gladwin. "It has an element of anthropology as well."
Bruce Gladwin directs "Small Metal Objects." He says the play has two storylines. There's the play itself. And then there's the narrative involving the public place where the play unfolds.
There are four actors each wearing microphones so tiny that they are hard to see even up close. An audience of 150 watches the action from bleachers, listening in through headphones.
"But the general public are free to roam around the performance space," he said. "And so in a way our audience are both spectator and spectacle."
The company has performed in train stations, shopping malls and even the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Through the headphones the audience also hears a musical accompaniment. Because the actors don't have to project to be heard they can be a long way from the audience, so far in fact they are hard to see at first.
And then when the first two characters do appear, it's hard to keep your eyes off them. It's partly because Gary, despite his bushy moustache is played by a woman named Sonia Tueben.
"The transformation is, I get to play a bloke," she said in a thick Australian accent. "Everybody looks at me and is like,'Is that really a bloke? But you can't see that I'm a female because I'm covered up with all these elastics and that. But it's a tough role, put it like that, it's a tough role."
Both Teuben and Simon Laherty who plays Steve are described in Australian as "intellectually disabled." Back to Back Theater was formed 21 years ago in Melbourne to create theater with people perceived to have a disability. What they have been focusing on ever since is challenging the boundaries of theater itself.
Teuben joined the company 18 years ago. She created the role of Gary and came up with a twist. Gary is a really great guy, but he's a drug dealer. In the play two lawyers approach him wanting to buy thousands of dollars worth of drugs for a party.
In time they move in on Steve and proposition him, leaving Gary with the dilemma of making a large profit or helping a friend. The play is about the values people use to define one another, and the importance people put on those "Small Metal Objects," also known as money.
Sonia Teuben says it's a very satisfying show as an actor, even if people walking by sometimes stop to ask what's going on.
"You just have to stay in character," she said. "You just have to shoo them off."
Which can be hard. Director Bruce Gladwin says passers-by usually see the audience before they see the actors.
Some people start to perform themselves. They've had buskers, and breakdancers. They've had people strip naked.
People get involved in what's happening in the play without realizing its a performance. Gladwin says in one scene a character gets really angry and verbally abuses another character.
"During the course of the show in Copenhagen we had an elderly lady who must have been about 80, who was defending one of the characters in the play and was off to tell the police about what she had witnessed," he said.
Gladwin says despite touring with "Small Metal Objects" for three years, he still looks forward to every show. He says like all the other spaces they've used he expects the four shows at the Walker Art Center will provide their own variations.
"It's a play full of happy accidents," he said.
He says despite all they interruptions they've never had to stop a show.