Food Court, featuring live music by The Necks, makes U.S. debut at Philadelphia Live Arts Festival - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Photo by Tim Williams

Food Court, a theater and live music collaboration between Australia’s Back To Back Theater and the Australian experimental music group The Necks, makes its U.S. debut as part of the Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe. Opening on Thursday, September 20, the performance has a three-night run at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.

Founded in 1987, Back To Back has earned a reputation as being a politically, and morally, challenging theater company consisting of actors who, as Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin says, “are perceived to have intellectual disabilities.” For Food Court, a brutal, discomforting play about an emotionally and physically abused woman that takes place in a series of visually disorienting settings, Gladwin envisioned a less structured musical component to accompany the script-driven performance. The Necks, a long-running improvising trio that has recorded over a dozen albums, were a perfect match.

“There’s a tension between chaos and control that I always like to explore as a director,” says Gladwin. “With Food Court, the delivery of the text, and how the actors relate to each other, is very controlled. And the chaotic part is The Necks. It’s set in an optical illusion — a white void where you can’t discern what is the floor, what are the walls and what is the ceiling — and the actors sort of float around in this space while The Necks provide a wild soundtrack. But there’s a dynamic relationship between the two, as both somehow respond and inform each other in a unique way with each performance.”

“The Necks bring an element of risk,” continues Gladwin. “It’s the element that I can’t control as the director, and I don’t want to control it because that’s what makes the performance really come alive.”

Chaos and risk are nothing new to The Necks. Since they started playing together in the late-1980s, the trio of Chris Abrahams (piano, organ), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (guitar, percussion, drums), haven’t rehearsed once. Their music — a mix of jazz, drone, ambient, minimalism and noise — always happens in the moment. And so each moment remains a mystery, not just to the audience, but also to the band.

For Food Court, The Necks do not attempt to capture or reflect the action that’s happening onstage. “As with our regular concerts,” says Swanton, “we don’t rehearse, and there are no visual cues whatsoever. We simply respond to the musical messages we’re sending each other. Or, we choose not to respond, in that we have sufficient trust within the ensemble to know when one of us introduces something fresh.”

Back To Back and The Necks have presented Food Court about 20 times around the world, but Swanton admits that he has never seen the entire theatrical performance because he plays with his back to the stage. “I’d love to see the show in full sometime, but I guess that’s never going to be possible,” he jokes.

Despite the fact that Swanton hasn’t seen Food Court, and that The Necks’ live score isn’t intentionally connected to the onstage drama, he has noticed some sort of symbiosis unfolding each night.

“I think they relate to each other in subliminal ways,” says Swanton. “If everything’s flowing well for the musicians and actors, there’s a definite feeling. But, certainly, I think one of our roles as the musicians is to simply provide a separate, parallel layer of living, breathing, thinking, metabolizing humanity in real time.”

Food Court, with live music by The Necks, runs from September 20 to September 22 at The Perelman Theater at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 South Broad Street. Tickets are $30 and available here.

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