Following a series of workshops with Vancouver theatre artist Niall McNeill, a remarkable poet, playwright, actor and creator with down syndrome, I set out to discover more about Disability Arts practices. Specifically, I was seeking pathways toward facilitating director/ creators with cognitive disabilities. In my research, the only organization I could find with practice specific to this was Zurich’s Theater HORA.
Theater HORA was founded in 1993 with the aim of doing theatre with people with disability primarily for artistic reasons and to contribute to the artistic scenes, rather than as an outgrowth of policy or (occupational) therapy. Working with well-known artists of the Swiss and international arts communities, projects include theatre and installation projects, dance and music projects, and fashion shows.
The ensemble’s long-term project, Freie Republik HORA, is a laboratory for self direction, choreography and performance by intellectually challenged artists and currently occupies a central position in their artistic work.
With over 50 productions since its inception, alongside projects led by founding Artistic Director Michael Elber, projects have ranged from the fashion show Drehum: La Mode folie to Disabled Theatre directed by provocative French choreographer Jérôme Belwith. Drehum: La Mode folie had both disabled and non-disabled professional models taking to the catwalk and featured 40 outfits created by fashion designers with disabilities under the leadership of the German artist and sculptor Ursula Sax; Mars Attacks! with Berlin puppetry collective DAS HELMI and German performer and musician Cora Frost.
HORA’s work has been featured across Switzerland, and internationally in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria, Russia and North America and featured at such festivals as World Stage (Toronto), the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels), Festival d’Avignon (Avignon), Festival d’Automne (Paris) and HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin).
In addition to the ensemble, the company has two other streams of practice. The HORA’BAND under the leadership of Roli Strobel operates independently and the Professional Acting Training for people with disabilities headed by theatre educator Urs Beeler.
HORA is the only professional theatre company in Switzerland whose ensemble members all have a state recognized disability. The company employs 26 company members who are all entitled to federal disability benefits across the actors’ ensemble, the training department, and the HORA’BAND.
Having recently wrapped a UK tour with Vancouver’s Theatre Conspiracy, I had elected to stay behind and throw on my backpack for a while rather than return immediately to Canada. I hopped on a Flixbus to Switzerland.
Arriving in Zurich early evening in December, I dumped my gear at the youth hostel and went for a walk through the cobblestones of the old town stopping at a couple Gluehwein stands at the Christmas markets. European Christmas markets at night never get old for me, cobblestones, old stone buildings, Christmas lights, sticky sweet warm alcohol in cardboard cups and, if you are lucky, something with melted cheese. There was even a hint of snow in the air.
Co-Artistic Directors Nele Jahnke & Michael Elber had kindly invited me to join a rehearsal. So the next morning, after a series of city train mis-adventures, I arrived just a bit early. The troupe had completed a presentation out of town on the past Friday and the excitement had continued through the weekend off. Today’s activities were focused on the wind down. After a series of stretching and group warm up activities, the company hunkered down in a circle to discuss what worked, what didn’t and what could be improved upon.
As when entering someone else’s home it is my responsibility to open up to the artists in the room. Here we faced language barriers (Zurich is a Swiss-German speaking region), minor cultural barriers and barriers related to understanding experience and capacity (primarily on my end). Fortunately, the company made it easy.
The company members were just as curious about me as I was about their practice and them. Why would a Canadian “normatif” come all the way across the world to watch their rehearsal?
A young woman with an American parent took it upon herself to act as my translator and several other company members made it their duty to ask questions about my work and share their own production adventure stories. On a break, several of us crowded around a Mac and watched part of a previous production, complete with interjections, explanations and laughter. After lunch, we were back to work in a series of games improvisations using music, sound and movement. The bravery on display in the HORA rehearsal hall was such as one could only wish for in a professional hall back home.
Between a quick coffee with Nele and sitting down briefly with Michael once the day was over, we were able to speak about the formation of Theater HORA, the successes and challenges facing the company, the artists, the artists’ families and allies, and what comes next.
The root of the HORA practice is Empowerment and Collaboration.
Explained in their workbook compiled over their years of practice, approximations to “normal” or “main-stream” theatre are of no interest to the company. What excites them is encouraging “all kinds of people to show their individual and unique world-views, and to express their understanding of the world.” And by doing so, to give disabled artists the confirmation that they can be different and that that individuality is an advantage on stage. The majority of the company’s exercises are concerned with strengthening the autonomy of the individual, promoting the pleasure of performance, and building self-esteem.
“There are some simple rules in place”, Michael explains to me over a beer at Rote Fabrik cafeteria – a former factory transformed into a music venue and cultural centre.
“There is no right or wrong – Everything must be allowed.” With some notable exceptions “No real violence. No sexual abuse. No destroying things. Everything else is possible.”
“Intellectually disabled actors have no need of exercises to help elicit authentic emotional moments. They already live in the here and now, and are therefore authentic and in close contact with their emotions.”
Much of the work is developed through the company’s “improvisation from zero” format, Die Lust am Scheitern, developed in 2000 by Michael.
“It is the essence of our work.”
The work focuses on placing the external stimuli in place and improvising through movement, gesture, voice, facial expression, music and text – and text consciously put at the end of the list and last in importance. “We give no ideas. We facilitate what the artists want to do – as they like it.”
Nele explains in a later email:
“We wish to make this a great way for disabled artists to perform accessible work and be visible to the greater public. To let the artists express their art – to expand the spectrum of art, languages, ways to interact and communicate in the world. To give more space to things which are not in the logic of efficiency, to keep poetic spaces. To do something against the homogeneity of this day and age.”
“On the one hand, we don’t want artists with disability to be normalized by the usual structures of Theatre, but we also want artists with disability to become more visible so that it’s nothing special or unusual when they are on stage. Ideally through greater synergy with other artists. We want these artists to be seen as individuals, not as a group of disabled actors. We want them to be empowered to create their own structures and art and not to fulfill those of others.”
“Never lose the humor. Be flexible and open. Enjoy absurdity. Don’t become too rational. Empower and be patient. Never treat disabled people as patients, don’t have the feeling you need to look after them. Don’t forget to look after yourself. Enjoy and take pleasure in failure.”
Wise words for any arts practitioners, with disability or not.
I owe a tremendous thank you to the HORA company members who welcomed me to their rehearsal hall and shared their generosity in person as well as in practice.