Jérôme Bel talks about Disabled Theater

Jérôme Bel talks about his collaboration with Theater Hora, a Swiss troupe of actors with learning and mental disabilities

This fall, a performance highlight is Jérôme Bel's Disabled Theater. Co-presented by New York Live Arts and Performa 13, the piece features Theater Hora, a Swiss company of actors with learning and mental disabilities.

The best art often takes the biggest risks. In his haunting Disabled Theater, Jérôme Bel collaborates with Theater Hora, a Swiss company of professional actors with learning and mental disabilities, to explore ideas about representation—a favorite subject in his works—and humanity. People with disabilities are ordinarily shunned; here, Bel challenges our conventions—just as working on the piece changed his.

Time Out New York: How did you learn about Theater Hora?
Jérôme Bel:
I didn’t know anything about Theater Hora until I received an e-mail from their dramaturg, Marcel Bugiel, asking me if I would be interested to work with this company based in Zurich composed of actors with mental disabilities. I immediately refused, as I often do. I receive a lot of invitations of this kind: “Would you be interested to work in Seville with flamenco dancers?” “We are a music group from Germany, we love your work, would you like to work with us?” “Vladimir Malakhov wants to meet you for a new production for the Berlin Ballet.” “The München Opera would like to know if you would be interested in staging Saint François d’Assise by Olivier Messiaen.” I  usually answer, “Thank you very much for the invitation, but I am very sorry, my schedule for the next two years is full”…etc., etc. In the case of Theater Hora, I added, “I would love to see the work of Theater Hora, could you please send me some DVDs of the performances?” I refused to work with them, because I felt that it was not for me; I didn’t know anything about mentally disabled people. I knew it would be very difficult because of political correctness. I would be tied up; it would be very slippery for me, as I have no expertise at all on this issue. A few days later, I watched the DVDs, and I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Their ways to be onstage were very surprising and overwhelming. I wrote them that as I was coming to perform in Zurich in three months, I would be interested to meet the actors for three hours. After those three hours, I asked for five days. And after those five days, I said I would like to make a piece with them.

Time Out New York: Have you worked with learning-disabled performers before?
Jérôme Bel:

Time Out New York: Could you describe what your ideas were for this piece?
Jérôme Bel:
I didn’t have any idea at all. I knew I was there because of this emotion I had watching the DVDs. I wanted to know why I had been so deeply moved, I was crying watching them perform. I couldn’t explain this emotion to myself, so I needed to work with them to try to understand this totally unexpected reaction.

Time Out New York: Why was it important not to mask the performers’ disabilities? What did you most want to reveal about them?
Jérôme Bel:
What was so extraordinary for me was their disabilities. I didn’t want to hide them. I wanted to understand their reality, and why they were like this onstage. In my education, I was taught by my parents not to look at disabled people, because if I would look at them they would feel uncomfortable. So in fact I have never had contact with them. And I realized this is the same in society. They don’t exist; they exist in their families, in their institutions, but not outside of them. They are hidden, ostracized. They are not represented in the public sphere. And if one is not represented, one doesn’t exist. And representation is my job, so I realized that maybe it was a project for me because there was a problem of representation. All my friends and collaborators were against this decision; they all said it was too risky. Of course, this pushed me to do it. My goal was to give a representation of them, a representation of what they are.

Time Out New York: Did you ever feel lost in this process?
Jérôme Bel:
Yes. It took me four weeks to understand that I shouldn’t do anything with them—I mean that I shouldn’t direct them. I finally understood in the last week that my job was to create a space and a time for them to be free onstage, to let them do what they wanted, what they liked. It was weird to understand that I shouldn’t do what I usually do: direct, organize time and space, make choices. But once I understood this, I knew this was the work. To step back, to surrender to them, to their freedom, because that is where they are so alive and singular. Their liveness, their emotions, their desires shouldn’t be restrained again. They all have to behave a certain way to be accepted by the normative rules of society; I thought theater shouldn’t alienate them again. Theater, performance, the stage should be a place of freedom, a place where they could be themselves.

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