On November 21-23 the Walker will present Disabled Theater, a collaboration between Paris-based choreographer Jérôme Bel and ten actors with disabilities from the Zurich-based company Theater HORA. Formed in 1993, Theater HORA took its name from a character in the company’s first production. The group has performed in numerous festivals around the world, including all over Europe and in South Korea, and has won multiple awards. Theater HORA members have acted for television and performed in a professional dance video, and one HORA actress, Julia Häusermann, was awarded the Alfred Kerr Acting Prize in Berlin last May.
Jérôme Bel was introduced to Theater HORA in 2010, and initially was not interested in working with the company. Nevertheless, he watched some clips of their work and was deeply moved: “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.” The premise of Disabled Theater is simple: it is a staged re-telling of Bel’s first interactions with the theater HORA actors.
While Theater HORA is one-of-a-kind in Switzerland, there are numerous theater companies around the world that include people with disabilities. Last January, Back to Back Theatre, a company based in Australia, came to Minneapolis to perform as part of the Walker’s annual Out There series (for more information on their work, check out this conversation between Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin and Walker Web Editor Paul Schmelzer).
Minneapolis is also home to Interact, a center for visual and performing arts whose mission is “to create art that challenges perceptions of disability.” Founded in 1996, the organization provides theater and studio art opportunities for more than 125 artists with disabilities.
The day after their arrival in Minneapolis, Theater HORA paid a visit to Interact Center, where they took a tour of the studios, galleries, and rehearsal spaces, and met many of the visual and performing artists. Since Interact actors are busy with their current show and will not be able to see Disabled Theater, Gianni and Remo of Theater HORA gave brief, spirited performances of their dances that they will perform at the Walker this weekend. Interact founder and creative director Jeanne Calvit spoke about her organization and fielded questions from the HORA actors, and Interact actors asked questions about Theater HORA, communicating through translators. To wrap up the visit, everyone joined in an energetic dance party that opened up a new realm of communication to easily circumvent the language barrier.
In addition to exploring their commonalities as theater companies with people with disabilities, the meeting between Interact and Theater HORA was a chance for each group to reflect on the cultural differences surrounding theater and disability. In her travels to theater festivals and events around the world, Interact founder Jeanne Calvit has experienced how perceptions of disability and the language used to describe it vary greatly across cultures. She explained, “[The language of disability] totally depends on the culture you’re in. In America, the convention is to put the person first and the disability second: first of all you’re a theater, and it includes people with disabilities. You’re an actor with a disability, or a painter with a disability, etc. But that’s different in different countries. In Australia, for example, there’s a movement that is all about ‘We are disabled artists’— it’s an important statement that the disability is put first.”
In a prior visit to Interact, I had the chance to interview Calvit about her experiences with theater and disability, and to chat with Ana Maria, John, and Yeon, three actors who have performed in many Interact shows and who have traveled around the world with the company. Creating visual or performing art at Interact is a paid job, providing creative, fulfilling work for people with disabilities who may otherwise have few options for work. As Ana Maria said, “We’re really lucky to have this place. I’ve worked other jobs—I used to sell coffee, I worked in fast food—but this is a really supportive place; everybody cares for each other, and we’re very tight-knit. We’re all creative here—everyone is a little bit of a poet, everyone has some type of gift.” They discussed the powerful impressions Interact shows can have on the audience: “It’s really great to see people with disabilities on stage not looking disabled, but looking like a powerful figure, looking like an artist. When you see someone on stage from Interact, you just see a character that’s powerful and funny and creative and bright… you don’t see a disability.”
Calvit also had much relevant insight to share about creating art with people with disabilities. She told me about Interact’s collaborative process: the actors and staff create their plays through improvisation, allowing everyone in the company a chance to contribute. She explained the effectiveness of working with actors with disabilities through improvisation: “If we did theater in the more traditional way, giving everybody a script and saying ‘this is your role,’ it wouldn’t have the same passion because they’re not invested in it. I think anybody who works through improv is going to have a lot more success with people with disabilities. A lot of them do better when they’re thinking on their feet and they can improvise than if you just give them a piece of paper and say ‘your role is this, you need to memorize that, and I’ll tell you where to move.’” Disabled Theater, in which the actors of Theater HORA play themselves, similarly represents the spirit of honesty and collaboration that underlies the creation of these works.
Nevertheless, many audience members have never experienced the creation or performance of theater with people with disabilities, and it is natural that some ethical and moral questions and concerns may arise. In an interview with dramaturg Marcel Bugiel, Jérôme Bel responded to the question of exploitation in Disabled Theater:
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… 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… this community has to be given greater visibility.
In its raw, honest fashion, Disabled Theater guarantees greater visibility of people with disabilities by placing them and their life stories on stage, necessitating that audience members confront their own preconceptions and assumptions about disability.
Calvit also shared interesting insights on concerns about exploitation, asserting: “I’m going to give a really different spin on the ‘freak show.’ When people say that, it says more about what they themselves are going into it with. If they believe that a person with a disability is like a freak, then they are going to worry about it being a freak show. But it doesn’t say anything about the people with disabilities. Many people are totally unaware of how intelligent people with developmental disabilities are—they’re just assuming that they’re clueless and that somebody is up there manipulating them like marionettes. But just from looking at Theater HORA and the people in our plays, they’re very cognizant, they’re very intelligent; they have a different type of intelligence. Do they score really high on IQ tests? Probably not. But can they improvise and do they understand theater and art? Absolutely. I know our actors, I’ve worked around the world with people with disabilities—they’re very aware of what they do.”
Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA present Disabled Theater November 21-23, 2013 at 8 PM in the McGuire Theater. Stay after the performances for a postshow reception with the artists (Thursday, November 21), a Q&A with Jérôme Bel (Friday, November 22), and a SpeakEasy discussion with local artists and a Walker tour guide (Saturday, November 23).