Disabled Theater – The Beginning of a Shift of Emphasis in Reception

Sarah Marinucci (PhD Student and Research Assistant), University of Berne, Institute for Theatre Studies/Zurich University of the Arts, Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Prof. Dr. Andreas Kotte (Supervision of PhD thesis)

The focus of the dissertation is put on the reception of theatre by and with professional actors with cognitive disabilities. The starting point for the research question is the beginning public effectiveness of this theatre practice thanks to the production Disabled Theater, which Theater HORA developed with French choreographer Jérôme Bel in 2011/2012. This performance helped disabled theatre to gain visibility at prestigious festivals in Europe, which is why critics, researchers as well as practitioners looked into the theatre and dance practices of mentally disabled performers for the first time. Disabled Theater resulted in an enormous growth in interest, even though it took place in the mode of “otherness”. But how does this shift in interest exert an influence on the ways in which the work of cognitively disabled performers is talked about?

On the basis of the reception analysis done for Sarah Marinucci’s Master thesis, the following can be stated: Disabled Theater has put into effect two shifts of emphasis in the reception of theatre and dance by and with performers with cognitive disabilities. On the one hand, there is a change in the media coverage of theatre and dance by and with disabled performers – there is a shift from the focus on the entire ensemble towards the focus on individual performers. This shift in focus reaches its climax in Julia Häusermann being awarded the Alfred Kerr Actors Price, the most important Actors Price in the German speaking area. On the other hand, there is a development from “speaking about” to “speaking with” performers with cognitive disabilities in the four-year reception process. The members of the Theater HORA ensemble are being interviewed on TV as well as in the feuilletons and are present in audience discussions. Thus, the often asked question “Who speaks about whom?”, which is subject of discussion again and again in the discourse on Disabled Theater, gains in relevance as well as urgency.

Discourse analytical methods are used in order to examine this shift of emphasis in the media coverage. The focus is put on how the discourse on theatre by and with disabled performers has changed between 2007 and 2017. The development from “speaking about” to “speaking with” disabled performers is analysed in exchange with theatre practice and the study at Zurich University of Arts. In the context of Freie Republik HORA, various formats of audience feedback are developed and evaluated.