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Column Stevo Akkerman about Babel in Trouw

Theater Babel shows what the participatory society really is


This article by Stevo Akkerman appeared on October 15, 2018 in Trouw.

If people exist in the ‘with disability’ category, then people must also exist in the ‘without disability’ category. The undisabled. And the trick, of course, is to keep those two types apart. 

For this I underwent an exercise at Theater Babel in Rotterdam, which on Saturday played the premiere of the play ‘Piazza della vita’. A piece that leaves the visitor with two questions: What did I see? And: who did I see?

Director Paul Röttger brings 33 actors to the stage, half of them with a disability, the other half without. That is his trademark and his mission, and it means that as a spectator you look at the actors with an inquisitive, perhaps even judging look. Who is disabled, who is not? And what kind of disability is it? We sat in a former gymnasium, on blocks that matched the set, so that the distance between us and the actors was minimal. They were watching us as much as we were watching them. If we were undisabled, how? I felt very clearly that they were wondering.

Big moments from life

There was an actor (with disability, I think) who invited people to sit across from him. He would let his gaze rest on them for a moment and then send them away again with a simple hand gesture. Another actor, a heavy guy who exuded a certain menace, went around the room with dentures in his open hand. Whether you wanted to or not, you wondered if it was you who had dropped that thing from his mouth.

If this gave the impression that the performance had something cold, it is entirely unjustified. ‘Piazza della vita’ is an overwhelming story without words, a choreography that takes you past all of life’s great moments: birth, death, love, hate, acceptance, rejection, holding on to things, letting go. And all this to the accompaniment of songs sung by the actors themselves, mysterious and meditative songs in non-existent languages, written especially for this piece. It could hardly be more fragile: a singer with Down’s unsteady and searching voice touching a full auditorium.

But it is not because of that Down syndrome that it is so moving, it is the vulnerability of the performer and the beauty of the music. The last thing Paul Röttger wants to make is “ach-gossie theater,” he wants his plays to be appreciated for their artistic quality. For the actors with disabilities, this sends a powerful message: they are contributing to an art production that is not inferior to any other. They, like their “non-impaired” colleagues, receive training for three days a week for thirty weeks, and perform not only in the theater, but also a lot in schools: a total of 235 performances a year. “We break through invisibility,” says Röttger about this.

Outside the arts, this is called the participation society. Not a nice word, and often a concealing term for exactly the opposite. But at Theater Babel it is reality.

Three times a week Stevo Akkerman writes a column for Trouw in which he preaches the “rock-hard nuance” and the “implacable on the one hand-on the other’.