Disabled Theater, which played recently at the Festival d’Avignon, is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had as an audience member. The piece is a collaboration between Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA, a Swiss German company of professional actors with mental disabilities. Bel’s first reaction when the director of the company approached him to work with them was an unequivocal “No.” But he asked for DVDs of the company’s previous work and after watching them agreed to meeting with the group for a few days.
The piece is structured around the series of questions and tasks that Bel put to the actors during those first days. In their responses, the actors are given total freedom of expression: Their responses are set and remain the same from night to night, but nothing has been scripted or choreographed for them. What we as an audience experience is a result of the tension between a direct encounter with the actors, and a series of subtle but vital interventions and critical distancing that Bel sets in motion. And in that tension there is a kind of defiance, a challenge to theatrical conventions , but even more so to social ones.
Bel’s series of requests are delivered by an onstage translator. (Bel speaks French, the actors Swiss German.) But the intervention of the translator between Bel and the actors, and between the actors and the audience is not just a linguistic necessity but a vital part of Bel’s overall structure. It’s the first in a series of techniques that give us the space to engage critically as well as emotionally.
The first three segments of the play are responses to requests by Bel for the actors to: one, Enter the stage and stand for one minute in front of the audience; two, enter the stage and state name, age, and profession; and three, enter the stage and name or describe their disability. In this first series of questions each actor shares the stage only with the translator. We encounter them one by one, as individuals.
For the next series of requests, all the actors remain onstage, sitting in a semicircle behind the one performing and forming an alternative audience for them. The next request that Bel made of the actors was to compose a dance of no more than three minutes, choosing the choreography and the music themselves. He chose seven to stage, and it is those we watch. That second audience behind the performer provides for another critical distancing. The sense of voyeurism is circumvented by this onstage audience: We watch the performer, and we watch them watch the performer, and they watch us watching. To a certain degree they give us permission to watch, and they short circuit what could be an unequal and uncomfortable balance of power. The gaze here goes both ways.
The next question Bel asks is also vital to this network of interventions he is building around the performers. Each of the performers comes forward to the microphone to say what they thought of the piece so far. The first actor looks at us dead on and says, ‘special’. There is a response later from an actor called Damian, who says that while he thought the show was great, his mother thought is was a ‘freak show’. And another’s sister had compared them to ‘animals in the circus’. Giving the actors the space to share their own critical response and to let us know that they are aware of potential reactions from the audience circumvents moral posturing or patronizing compassion. Bel allows the actors an agency onstage which makes easy or trite conclusions on our part impossible.
After hearing their responses, Bel decided to end the piece by asking the actors he had not previously chosen to stage their dances. In all of the dances there is a lack of self-consciousness, an absolute abandon. There is Michael Jackson, Crazy Frog, heavy metal. The only thing close to it that I’ve seen in theater is the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, whose first New York show, Once and for all we are going to tell you who we are so shut up and listen, was made all with high school students. As with the actors of Theater HORA, there was a feeling that they were not acting, just being, and in so being, forcing us to confront our feelings towards them in all their complexity. There were moments in that show where as an audience member I felt entirely a voyeur, and then the play would turn the tables, the power and agency shifting back to the performers. Bel and Theater HORA also skirt this line, pulling us back and forward, shifting the locus of power and agency from stage to auditorium and back again. In doing so they indulge and then question the most complex responses and impressions we have of disability. The form of the piece is incredibly simple. Watching it is anything but.