Disabled Theater stars actors with intellectual disabilities—and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen

Disabled Theater stars actors with intellectual disabilities—and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen

The Argument: Centre Stage
(Image: courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)

Live performance can feel starkly, claustrophobically intimate. In Disabled Theater, a strange and stimulating new Harbourfront production, that closeness is cunning, because it forces the audience to look at people we might typically turn away from. The production is composed entirely of professional actors with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. If you are like me, you have deliberately trained yourself to ignore their difference. But Disabled Theater gives you no choice: the performers speak, dance and engage the audience directly without the filter of characters, telling you who they are and how they see the world.

It’s risky entertainment. Will it offend or alienate? Will it objectify or moralize? In the most primal way, a show like this creates anxiety that claws at everyone who sees it. The show stokes joy, anger, tenderness and fear—all of it real, all of it compelling and none of it like anything I’ve seen before.

Disabled Theater comes from Jérôme Bel, a buzzy French choreographer in demand across Europe and North America, known for fusing elements of dance, performance art and documentary into works that are beautiful, exotic and touching. He likes to ratchet up the tension between the demands of his choreography and the abilities of the performer: in his most famous piece, The Show Must Go On, Bel throws 18 lay people together and has them dance awkwardly to Top 40 hits like “Macarena” and “My Heart Will Go On.” In another, he makes the French ballerina Veronique Doisneau sing her own accompaniment, gasping and panting as she pirouettes across the floor. As a director, he seems intent on showing how arduous—physically and mentally—performance can be, dragging audiences into the strain.

In 2010, Marcel Bugiel, the dramaturge for the Swiss company Theater Hora, invited Bel to create a show starring an ensemble of performers with intellectual disabilities. Bel gently turned him down. “I didn’t know anything about mentally disabled people,” he has said. “I knew it would be very difficult because of political correctness. I would be tied up; it would be very slippery for me.” When he finally watched DVDs of Theater Hora’s past productions, he was struck dumb by their intensity and changed his mind. “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.” What ultimately made him say yes was the thing he’d initially feared: feeling tied up and slippery.

Onstage, disability is often used as a metaphor for some failing aspect of character. It’s a marker of distance between the strong and the defective, a flaw made flesh that promises tragic ends. In The Glass Menagerie, Laura Wingfield’s sickly countenance and bad leg flag her doleful vulnerability, just as Richard’s hump augments his scavenging, predatory hunger in Richard III. As for developmental delays, those characters rarely appear in traditional theatre. At best you might see an adult rendered as a forever child, as in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, where slowness masks evil. Another metaphor.

The performers of Disabled Theater are not metaphors. Bel created the script—more of a set list, really—based on interviews he’d conducted in rehearsal with the ensemble, a way of getting to know the cast. That initial Q&A carried through the process, eventually becoming the conceit that frames the show.

The production I saw opened on a semicircle of plastic chairs arcing across the dark stage, water bottle set beside each. Offstage, a woman introduced herself as a translator and interpreter—the performers only speak Swiss German—then proceeded to ask the cast who they are and what they do. “I’m a little bit slower than the others,” said Sara, an actor in her late 20s. “And when I speak, you notice it.” Another woman, Fabienne, approached the microphone shyly, one side of her face hidden in a fall of blond hair. “I have Down Syndrome,” she said nonchalantly. “So what?” In the background were quiet whispers and private moments—unselfconscious gestures of kindness, as when Matthias, a flirt in a shiny tracksuit, took a moment after he finished speaking to adjust the microphone for the smaller Fabienne.

The performance took a turn about halfway through. “Jérôme asked the actors to prepare a dance solo,” explained the interpreter. “Each actor chose his own music and made his own choreography. Jérôme chose seven out of them.” The tone shifted palpably: several performers were not allowed to dance, and this caused a cascade of unhappiness across the ensemble. After the soloists danced, the interviewers asked the cast how they thought the show was going. Gianni, a confident young man in a blue jersey, was outraged at not being able to perform. “I was very angry not to dance. I am the best dancer,” he said. It felt cruel and unnecessary, a purposeful exclusion that’s also random—like disabilities of the mind and body.

Disabled Theater is, at its core, a disabling of theatre: it replaces our default conventions—rollicking entertainment, virtuosic performances, dazzling set pieces—with a bare stage, turbulent technique and spontaneous emotion. The performers are candid and guileless, indulging their urges and baring their feelings. They brim with wisdom and humour, cruelty and anger, selflessness and selfishness—qualities they share with each other, and consequently, with us.

It’s as much a piece of performance art as it is a showcase for people who are otherwise hidden from sight. “They exist in their families, in their institutions, but not outside of them,” Bel has said. “They are not represented in the public sphere. And if one is not represented, one doesn’t exist.” This is what makes the show so special. People who are typically erased from the world’s mise-en-scène, people who refuse to be confined to metaphor, speak while we listen in the dark. They exist.

Disabled Theater
By Jérôme Bel
Fleck Dance Theatre
March 25 to 28