title : Disabled Theater (2012)
concept : Jérôme Bel
dramaturgy : Marcel Bugiel
with : Remo Beuggert, Gianni Blumer, Demian Bright, Matthias Brücker, Nikolai Gralak, Matthias Grandjean, Julia Häusermann, Sara Hess, Tiziana Pagliaro, Fabienne Villiger, Remo Zarantonello
assistants : Simone Truong (live translation on stage), Chris Weinheimer, Maxime Kurvers
production : Theater Hora - Stiftung Züriwerk (Zurich), R.B. Jérôme Bel (Paris), Festival Auawirleben (Berne), Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Bruxelles), dOCUMENTA (13), Festival d'Avignon, Ruhrtriennale, Festival d'Automne à Paris, Les Spectacles vivants - Centre Pompidou (Paris), La Bâtie – Festival de Genève, HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin)
with the support of :Stadt Zürich Kultur, Kanton Zürich Fachstelle Kultur, Pro Helvetia, Stiftung Denk an Mich, Ernst Göhner Stiftung
thanks to : Sasa Asentic, Tom Stromberg, Andreas Meder (Internationales Theaterfestival Okkupation!), Stiftung Züriwerk, Fabriktheater Rote Fabrik Zürich and the audience of our public try
duration : 1h30 approximatively, no intermission
language : Swiss German with English translation
administration : Theater Hora, Giancarlo Marinucci (General director, Svetlana Ignjic (Head of production) et Conny Marinucci (assistant)
artistic director Theater Hora : Michael Elber
actors training Theater Hora : Urs Beeler
websites : www.hora.ch www.jeromebel.fr
I emailed Jérôme Bel in October 2010 and asked him whether he could imagine doing something with actors from Theater Hora, a Zurich-based company consisting of professional actors with learning disabilities.
As a dramaturge specialising in this quite particular kind of theatre, Jérôme Bel’s work had always been an important benchmark for how I see disabled performers. Pieces like Le dernier spectacle (1998), The show must go on (2001) and Véronique Doisneau (2004) with the classical dancer from the Opéra de Paris helped me understand that the on-stage potential of actors with learning disabilities not only involved the social and political, but also the aesthetic, and that their work as actors touched on major issues around contemporary experimental theatre.
Bel, at that time working with virtuoso dancers, replied and said he was surprised by my proposition. He initially refused, but asked me for DVDs of shows performed by Hora’s actors. Intrigued by what he had seen, he suggested meeting the actors for three hours and then seeing them again for five days. It was only then that he decided to do a piece with them: an account of their initial encounter.
A choreographer, Jérôme Bel has been interested since his early works in what stands beyond representation. In his choreographies, the rules of dance and theater are treated like the syntax of a language that is analyzed and eventually put into play. Danced and spoken by professional as well as by amateur performers, his choreographies could also be seen as statements in favor of the democratization of dance, which he pursues by way of a non-virtuous approach.
For his performance Disabled Theater (2012) he has worked with the mentally disabled actors of the Theatre Hora, based in Zurich. A source of distress for a society defining itself as essentially normal, disability constitutes the limit against which the category of normality runs up. Its intellectual declension — i.e. mental disability — is generally thought of in terms of complete otherness to the condition of the intellectually keen and cultivated public of experimental theater. Bel chooses to bring this handicap to the core of the attention of this public, adopting it as a key to the reading of what enables us to think of a common dimension.
What is at stake for Bel in working with the actors of Theatre Hora is the opening up of a space where disability is not expelled from visual and discursive practices, nor hidden behind the screen of political correctness, but is instead internal to a discourse that has a bearing on both the aesthetic and political dimensions.
With Disabled Theater (2012), Bel sheds light on the dynamics of exclusion that leads to the marginalization of those who are considered unable to produce, exposing how, on the contrary, they are able to question the very mechanisms of representation, and to hint at existence as a non-partitioned mode of presence.
There’s one thing I’ve continually looked for and which runs through all my pieces to varying degrees. Something to do with incapability. I’ve actually always asked people I work with to do something they don’t know how to do. And my intuition told me that the way Theater Hora’s actors had of being on stage, which is impacted hugely by their learning disabilities, could reveal it, could make it evident. In a way they perform failure in theatre, something that pushes back the limits of what I thought I’d marked out in my own work. I’ve thought a lot about theatre codes; I’ve questioned them, deconstructed them and subverted them. But these actors go even further than me! It’s this inability to perform the usual work expected of an actor that interests me most with them.
People with learning disabilities have no representation and there are very few discourses about them. They don’t exist in the public domain either. They’re excluded from society. The gap between the majority and this minority is unfathomable. There’s a partition there which is intolerable. One of the challenges for me is to make the community these actors represent more visible, to show that these undervalued actors can enrich experimental theatre, that their uniqueness is full of promise for theatre and dance, just as their humanity should be for society in general.
Interview about Disabled Theater (2012)
Marcel Bugiel: Do you remember what you first felt about the actors from Theater Hora, the feelings you had when you saw these individuals with learning disabilities for the first time?
Jérôme Bel: The first time I saw them was on the DVDs you’d sent me. The emotion I felt was so strong that I couldn’t think. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to understand this emotion, which is unusual for me. My desire to work with them came from this first experience because I needed to understand what had happened to me the first time I saw them.
Marcel Bugiel: In a way Disabled Theater reconstructs the situation of your first encounter, including the assistant who was meant to translate the things you were asking them to do into their own language: Swiss German. There’s a huge distance between you and them which initially was perhaps due to the circumstances. But you seemed to want to maintain it, perhaps to go against this initial emotion or be more able to understand it...
Jérôme Bel: The circumstances didn’t help bring us any closer: the actors live in Zurich, I live in Paris. I don’t like rehearsing so we didn’t meet up very much and, more than anything else, they only speak Swiss German, which I don’t. But I’m generally quite distant with people I’m working with. I find it really hard to maintain a friendly relationship with performers during rehearsals. I think it’s because I don’t want affects to get in the way of the artistic project. It’s only when the piece is finished that I can get closer to the performers. (I’ve always thought that the audience should identify with me, that they should re-live the different stages of the work I’ve done. The pieces are always the chronological story of the work I’ve developed alone or with the performers. The audience should therefore go through the same emotional and intellectual stages that I myself went through during the research. They follow the experience and then draw the conclusions they want.)Distance helps me contain my emotions better, that’s for sure, so that I don’t let myself be overtaken by them in order to be more capable of analysing the challenges of the piece, to be as precise as possible in the discourse it produces. This distance is also one of the key parameters of theatre, of stage performance. Actually the real distance between the theatre and the stage, between the audience and the performer, is one of the conditions necessary for the theatrical event to take place. It’s this distance which the audience has to cover, this energy which the audience has to put into it, that makes them spectators. If there’s no distance or separation, there’s no theatre, it’s just life and in life there are no spectators, just actors. That’s why as a director I have to maintain this distance, I have to distance myself in order to see what the audience will see. This position produces a particular aesthetic which is mine. It’s part of me and I can’t change it. Whenever I’ve tried to, it’s been a failure.
Marcel Bugiel: In this aesthetic, theatre is primarily an observation device. And the main subject of observation is... the individuals on stage, the performers. Focusing on their individuality was the subject specifically of your earlier works, solos with dancers like Véronique Doisneau and Cédric Andrieux. The audience is invited to discover the individuals behind the brilliant performances which these dancers are normally meant to give. And yet this piece isn’t called Theater HORA, it’s called Disabled Theater.
Jérôme Bel: It’s precisely the splicing of disability and theatre that interests me, this disability/theatre pairing. How theatre is modified when it’s done by actors with a learning disability, and what theatre does to actors with a learning disability. My artistic project is theatre, trying to understand its structure, how it works, what its power is. Each piece is a sort of scientific experiment for this research. Just like Véronique Doisneau or Pichet Klunchun, you could say that the actors with learning disabilities are guinea pigs of a kind, allowing me to advance my investigation into theatre and dance. Working with all these performers allows me to learn about theatre and that’s why I choose to work with them. In the case of Theater HORA’s actors, what fascinates me is their way of not incorporating some of theatre’s rules. Indeed I’ve worked a lot myself from theatrical and choreographic conventions naturalised by performers, by the audience and by choreographers and directors. I’ve worked on deconstructing these prescriptive conventions. Given their cognitive distortions, actors with learning disabilities haven’t incorporated some of these conventions. It’s an extremely interesting situation for me because in a way their theatre is freer than that of standard performers. Their freedoms reveal theatrical possibilities that I didn’t know existed. The first question to ask is what theatre these actors perform. The second is why they perform this theatre. And the first thing to ask yourself is: Who are they? That’s when another research field appears, that of the individuation of performers. It’s impossible for me not to use that. The performer is the heart of my theatre: he or she must appear on stage as an artist, worker, citizen, subject and individual in his or her most absolute uniqueness. It’s this uniqueness that can reveal to me just what theatre is capable of. Disabled (or incapable!) actors open up new possibilities, new powers!
Marcel Bugiel: Aren’t you afraid that some in the audience will think you’re staging a freak show, that you’re exploiting these actors and exposing their disabilities, that there’s an element of voyeurism in the show?
Jérôme Bel: That doesn’t worry me. For me theatre is precisely about being able to see what you’re not used to seeing, what’s hidden and concealed from view. Theatre that shows what you know by heart, that doesn’t take a risk in the performance, that doesn’t question the performance, that doesn’t push the performance to its limits is of no interest to me. If you don’t go to theatre to be a voyeur and see what you’re not allowed to see, I don’t understand why you go. When I go, that’s all I hope for. The question of performance by people with learning disabilities is complicated because these days it’s highly unthinkable. You don’t know how to react when you’re confronted with them, their presence is hugely embarrassing because they’re not represented in the public domain. And for as long as that is the case, there will continue to be embarrassment and uneasiness. The only method is confrontation. You have to be able to be in contact with them. The theatrical device is a way of provoking this encounter. Sure, it carries risks due to disabled people’s exclusion in society and our lack of knowledge about them. I’m absolutely convinced that this community has to be given greater visibility. It’s the only way for relationships with them to be “pacified”. I’d say that I’d prefer to show badly than not to show at all.