“Normality and abnormality are not individual characteristics but express the view of those who decide what normal is” (Zauberflöte Nr. 6). This is the mantra chosen and championed by the dynamic team at Zürich-based theatre company, Theatre HORA.
Established in 1993 by theatre-pedagogue Michael Elber, Theatre HORA - so named after Master Hora, a character from Michael Ende’s Momo (1973) and the first show the theatre company produced - seeks to embrace and exhibit the extraordinary talent of people with learning disabilities. From performing professionally to partaking in art exhibitions, playing in the band, directing, engaging in workshops and studying Theatre HORA’s theatrical training programme, Theatre HORA looks past disability to the creativity and artistry within.
Becoming a part of charity Züriwerk in 2002 - the largest institution for people with disabilities in Kanton Zürich - Theatre HORA remains the country’s only cultural workshop of its kind. Speaking with PETRIe, actors Matthias Grandjean and Gianni Blumer, both of whom suffer from Down's syndrome, along with Nele Jahnke, Director and Artistic Associate at Theatre HORA, share their experiences of working for the unique theatre.
[The below interview answers have been translated verbatim from Swiss-German to English by Theatre HORA Producing Manager, Ketty Ghassia, and reflect the voices and phrases used by the actors and actresses. Their words have not been edited.]
Elizabeth Neep: What is your favourite thing about being involved with Theatre HORA?
Gianni Blumer: I enjoy that I can be different on stage and try new things. I like acting in [the] Freie Republik HORA - a theatrical experiment in which actors and actresses with disabilities are directing, and with [dancer and choreographer] Jérôme Bel, indeed in everything.
Nele Jahnke: I like to be together with absurd people, emotionally extreme, and people who are able to create so many different things, like surprising situations that I don’t expect them to create. I like being involved in so many different projects - and I completely agree with the HORA philosophy of considering our actors as autonomous artists rather than wanting to help them.
EN: Theatre HORA has now produced over 50 performances since its inception in 1993. What has been your favourite production to date and why?
Matthias Grandjean: Favourite piece, work here, nice people, help and in pieces to play several characters. I liked very much a piece that was about love and evil, Herz der Finstemis [performed in 2007 and based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness]. We are here, everywhere, with other people creating something.
GB: Everything, but my performance [in] Hunger Games within the framework of Zürcher Theatre Spektakel [Zurich Theatre Spectacle] was the best. I like the most Katniss Everdeen and Jennifer Lawrence they perform very good on stage. My new performance [is] Schlitternfahrt in Elm [to go sledging in Elm].
NJ: The workshop Into the Wild, which is based on the HORA improvisation experiment Desire to Fail [described on HORA’s website as “a mobile, inclusive laboratory for research into the social reality of both disability and normality”]. This workshop brings so many strange people together and takes them on a trip, without anyone knowing where it is going to end up. Also, Freie Republik HORA, because it’s a new experiment to see the HORA actors [learn how to] direct. It is a big challenge to never say what I like or dislike about their work. It is also challenging to be always awake and to develop new tools to make this project possible and keep the process running.
EN: What are the biggest challenges you face in your role at HORA?
GB: It was very difficult to perform in the piece Paganini und Ich because I had to learn by heart a lot of script and where was my place, and it was quite difficult.
MG: With words, my words, and then also by heart, learn my text, I can be very good by heart. Difficult is the language, I can be myself.
NJ: The most challenging thing is to be considered by the theatre world and the public sphere as a professional theatre company and not as a social project, and to have the actors be seen as actors and not as disabled people in a social project - and [that] this is completely independent from who is directing the actors and actresses.
EN: How do the public and your audiences usually respond to what you do?
MG: The audience laughs, claps, to clap in rhythm, and look - the audience enjoy. At the end, when we bow to the audience, they enjoy a lot. [At] festivals, sometimes there are flowers. It’s very good, actors and actresses are very happy if there are flowers.
GB: There are different audiences when we are on tour. Sometimes they enjoy it, and sometimes it’s tight. They join in by my solo with clapping. And in other parts, they look at the other actors. I find them nice sometimes and sometimes they are tired. The most important thing for me is that the audience comes and sees the performance.
NJ: I regret that most of the critics are always questioning the ‘exhibition’ of the actors, so they are reduced to their disabilities and not considered as professional actors.
EN: Why do you think there are not more theatre companies doing the same?
GB: There are not more theatre companies like us because they are not in the mood of it, or they are in a bad mood. But I’m on stage.
NJ: As you can see from the history of Theatre HORA, it takes a long time to build up a theatre company with disabled people and it needs people with a lot of strength, ideal, conviction and persistence to make such a theatre company possible. It also needs different structures [from those of conventional theatre] to be able to work with these actors.
EN: What does the remainder of 2015 hold for Theatre HORA?
GB: We will go on travelling, that’s simply cool, what will happen in this new year. It will be tough, because, for instance, the tour of Jérôme's performance [titled Disabled Theatre, and in which chorographer Jérôme Bel uses both professional and amateur performers to challenge the marginalisation of those that do not conform to society’s norms] and then there is a workshop of Michi Elber’s [founder of Theatre HORA] Into the Wild, and the rehearsals with Kraut [for show Human Resources], it's new to work with them. And above all, less holidays.
MG: There is a new stage, a new rehearsal place.
NJ: There are many new productions: Human Resources, Bad Advice - a mischievous review featuring the HORA band and Normalitat: Ein Musical [based on interviews with both disabled and non-disabled contemporaries on topics such as life, reality and the future], as well as performances from our existing repertoire. And hopefully, a lot of things I don’t know about yet.
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Words: Elizabeth Neep
Photography: Hugo Glendinning