Disabled Theater or Freak Show?

In the interest of full disclosure: My older brother is considered “disabled”, as the term is applied in the oh-so-politically incorrect title of the work Disabled Theater. Over the course of his childhood he was diagnosed with various learning disabilities and eventually with a form of Asperger Syndrome.

This means that people perceived to have various varieties of intellectual handicaps have always been a part of my life. I can also still remember the years before I realized that society would treat my brother so differently from me. Before the teasing began at school, before the endless cycles of medications, before his job prospects started to sink from minimal to almost non-existent.

So when I sat in the HAU1 theater in November looking at the “disabled” actors present themselves and be presented in Disabled Theater, I didn’t instantly feel some sort of new and foreign “otherness”. But I also wasn’t looking for it. I had come to the theater to see Jerome Bel’s work, as commissioned by the Theater Hora in Zurich, so that’s what I was trying to pay attention to.

When it became clear that Bel’s structure was pretty simple – a series of instructions that were dutifully completed – I tried to understand his rationale for presenting these performers in such a fashion. And while it wasn’t entirely clear in the theater, I went through his website later, and saw in an interview with the piece’s dramaturg that the structure is basically a retelling of his initial encounters with the performers. This experience apparently had such an impact on him that he decided to keep it as the end product, allowing the audience to go through the same process of discovery that he did – which I guess I can understand as a charmingly naive and child-like approach to the subject of disabilities on stage.

Disabled Theater, Photo Michael Bause
Theater Hora performer Lorraine Meier in front of the rest of the ensemble during a performance of Disabled Theater. Photo Credit: Michael Bause

But it also comes across as a certain ignorance of the place of intellectual handicaps in society in general and theater specifically (in Berlin Theater RambaZamba and Theater Thikwa have been working with actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities for a total of over forty years). And while Bel’s experience may reflect that of society at large, his presentation brazenly fails to question it. Continue reading Disabled Theater or Freak Show?