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

Time Out New York: Could you describe the structure of the piece? Is there a moderator and a translator throughout?
Jérôme Bel:
The structure is very simple. The piece is showing the way we have been working together. I wanted to be as transparent as I could with them and the audience. The problem with mentally challenged people is their consciousness of what they participate in. The issue of the manipulation of them by the director or anybody else is crucial. I knew from the beginning that I should try to not hide anything. So nobody would accuse me of manipulation.

Time Out New York: Did the actors in Theater Hora reveal something to you about your work, your thinking and/or your process?
Jérôme Bel:
Yes. I understood finally why I was so moved when I first saw them on DVDs. I understood that the way they behave onstage is what I was looking for for many years. I was looking for the presence of the performer, against the reproduction. I mean that the performer has to be as much as he or she can in the present, not in the reproduction of something which has been done before during the rehearsals. And the actors of Theater Hora, because of their cognitive alterations, can do this easily. They are connected to the present in a way that others are not. They are connected with their emotions in a way that others aren’t. And this theatricality was what I was looking for, because I knew this would be powerful and intense onstage. More personally, they have helped me to understand how much I was hiding my emotions, how I was alienated by social rules. How I was in pain sometimes because of what we call “good behavior.” I started to respect my feelings more, and it felt better. I started to realize that all the people I know—including myself—were disabled in some parts of our lives. I understood that maybe I was a good performance maker, but in a lot of other fields I was disabled, and this relieved me in a way. I am not able to do this or to deal with that. I shouldn’t feel guilty about this, I just should be very humble and ask for help.

Time Out New York: How important is movement in this work? Did you find a breakthrough through dialogue or movement?
Jérôme Bel:
Language is not their easiest way to express themselves, but their dances are eloquent. My last pieces have been very discursive, so I started to ask them to tell me things, but it was very difficult; then, I asked them to dance and suddenly I realized how expressive they were, how revealing of their reality, how I could read through their dance their relationship to the world. I could see what they were thinking, I could see their mental structure. I rediscovered with them the power of dance. They brought me back to dance. This was very unexpected.

Time Out New York: I’m curious about how this may have changed your approach in any way—it seems that after people watch it, they emerge altered. Did that happen to you?
Jérôme Bel:
Well, the experience is quite strong for everybody, I think. I haven’t seen anybody indifferent to this piece. Some can’t stand it and some love it. There is nothing in between. Why is this happening? I think disability is a real issue for now in society, in our historical moment of late capitalism. The ideology of progress is so internalized by everybody that disability is somehow unbearable. There is also a “Darwinian” issue. Evolution. We think in terms of progress and evolution. Disability is the opposite, and that’s why it is so hard to confront ourselves with it. That’s why it is hidden, that’s why disabled people are not represented. And I think it is a mistake. Foucault explains how during the 18th century, at the time of the Enlightenment, the crazy people were put in institutions. For the sake of progress, of humanity, disability has been hidden. Until then, they were part of the society, they were integrated in a way. Disability is one of the most unthought issues of our society. And I think that is why the reactions to the piece are so strong. Audience can not really rationalize this issue yet, because there is a lack of knowledge. Society has to be educated about this situation, and then the relation will be more peaceful. As usual it is a simple question of knowledge and education.

Time Out New York: What were your feelings about people with mental disabilities before the piece and after?
Jérôme Bel:
Before, I was afraid of my feelings for them, I was uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to behave. Now I am so happy to be able to connect with them, and I know how to get in contact with them, I mean they are all different, but at least I am not afraid anymore. I have trust in myself and in themselves.

Time Out New York: Will you continue to work with Theater Hora? Is it strange to move on to something more conventional?
Jérôme Bel:
No, I won’t work with them again, at least not for now. And no, because I see disability in every human being now. So I will keep on working on disability, vulnerability; I will go on trying to give visibility to the hidden ones. In the theater, as audience, you are protected. You can look at things that you wouldn’t look at somewhere else.
Jérôme Bel is at New York Live Arts Nov 12–17.

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