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Interview with Paul Röttger on Culturele Vacatures



This article is a translation of an interview by Nienke Piena on Culturele Vacatures. To read the original article, go here.





Inclusive theater: let it show, that disability


interview with paul röttger
by nienke pina for


Scene from Livestream New Theater Makers © Brecht Hermans


Theater Babel makes inclusive theater: theater where no one is excluded. The company consists of actors with and without disabilities and creates interdisciplinary performances on social issues. Paul Röttger (67), director, manager and ‘theater activist’, explains why inclusive work should no longer be an exception. “I don’t want people to pretend they don’t have a disability. I want to show everything. I love the imperfect more and more – but that imperfect has to be done very well.”


“What is your disability?” is often the first question Röttger asks players without disabilities. “And then someone says, ‘but I don’t have a disability at all!’ Okay, then I want to answer myself. I have a lot of disabilities, I discovered that here. For example, we learned that if we have back pain, we should dance as if we didn’t have back pain. Inclusive work has taught me to show it and include it in what you do. Only then will you get new forms in theater.” Those new forms, that’s what it’s all about, he emphasizes. “People often forget that when they talk about inclusive art. It often seems like they just want those people with disabilities to be there. Then we force them to work the way we do. No, we have to start from the other person. We have to look for innovation.”


Paul Röttger © Studio Lonne Wennekendonk, Carel van Hees, Rene Castelijn

A conversation with Paul Röttger, active as an actor, director and teacher since his graduation from the Arnhem School of Drama in 1976, is cheerful. His words resound with empathy, adaptability and curiosity. Röttger’s way of making theater clearly works through his personality – or would it be the other way around?


When you started working inclusively, did you have to learn to empathize with “the other,” as Babel calls it? Or have you always felt more like the other?


“I’ve been a stage performer all my life. So I learned from a very young age to empathize with another person, otherwise you can’t get to acting. When I started working inclusively, it went a step further: not only did I have to concern myself with the roles my actors with and without disabilities were going to play, I also had to immerse myself in the actor himself much more than I used to. You have to deal [with inclusive theater] with people with all kinds of disabilities, who often react to the work from that disability. I started to immerse myself in syndromes and backgrounds – up to and including families and living situations. As a result, I started doing the same with the people without disabilities. That has proven to be a huge benefit. Actually, I have become much more patient. It goes beyond just asking an actor: do you want to do this or that. It has everything to do with the person ín and behind the actor or actress. I would like to grant this to every artist in the world: by working inclusively you get much closer to the other person – and therefore to yourself.”


“My view is that an artist should confront the audience with what they don’t know or even don’t want to know,” you said in a previous interview. “Thanks to actors with disabilities, I dare to stage my opposition to social developments more than before.” Does good art always have a social message?


“At its core, I think art is always social, even if you paint abstractly or sing in a language that someone else doesn’t understand. Especially in the subsidized system in the Netherlands, this also gives you a social function. You teach people to think in abstraction. I am not saying that everyone who makes art should be socially engaged, but I do want to be. I want to use my art to respond to society, to break taboos and make things discussible. For example, in the world of health care it is not common to talk about death, intimacy, sexuality or gender situations. When I started doing this work, there were people – especially family members [of people with disabilities, ed.], but also people from the care sector itself – who thought I shouldn’t talk about these subjects. Then I said: you should ask someone else. I can’t make theater if I’m not allowed to talk about these topics.”


Because these matter to everyone, whether you have a disability or not?


“Yes. Play Romeo and Juliet, Chekhov or Strindberg: there too it is always about lust, love, death and hate. It is of course very painful that in that world, the world of disabilities, it is still such a big taboo. In that sense it’s only logical that [my work] has a social impact.”



“I want to respond to society with my art, to break taboos and make them discussable.”



Suppose we already lived in a fully inclusive society. What would the productions of Babel look like then? Would it matter?


“I hope so! But: I hope that my performances will also look different in a year’s time, because I want to move with what is happening now. I always want to move with the times and the things that are happening around us: the fear we experience now, the worries we have. I can’t help but do something with that. And I work very much from my players. They also change by year, by experience.”


Do you think non-inclusive work is outdated?


“I do. I never want to work non-inclusively again. I do it because I really like it, and need it, but also to make a gesture. In that sense, I now also call myself – for the first time in my life – a theater activist. I think we exclude too many people in the arts. That starts with the art academies: my colleagues who have a disability are not even allowed to audition at a drama school, dance academy or conservatory. I think that is a bad thing. It’s not just a matter of the drama school or art academy, it’s a political issue. Theater Babel has been involved for years in an EU project [Crossing The Line, ed.] with seven countries, so I know very well how those countries work on inclusive art: we can’t match that. The Netherlands is twenty years behind countries like Sweden and England. There, there are theater groups where actors with a disability are subject to the same collective bargaining agreement as I am, in which they also receive a salary – here, it’s all paid for on a day-to-day basis. That says something about the value placed on the work of people with disabilities. I find that offensive. I want my colleagues with disabilities to be paid as well as the others who don’t have disabilities.


What is also striking: if I apply to a fund or to the government for money for our work, I must first prove that the art I make is also professional. We always have to take that hurdle. In other countries, particularly England, Sweden and France, inclusive art has been recognized and there is a budget specifically for inclusive art. It is up to the politicians to recognize inclusive art here as well.”



“I never want to work non-inclusively again.”



Theater Babel has been in existence for seven years and performs around 150 times a year in-house and in 70 ‘theater workshops’ for secondary schools. The company has 34 (guest) actors with and without disabilities. Röttger would like to involve people from other groups – addicts, refugees, sex workers. However, funding streams in the arts sector are a limiting factor: the level of financial support for Babel forces the choice to work only with people with disabilities. The company strives to make its methodology for inclusive working transferable and spread to other art institutions, the government and the business community. It also wants to increase the visibility of professional inclusive theater. “I want to do everything possible so that Babel does not remain just a local activity. We are looking into whether we can get a national function in the next culture plan and thus play outside of Rotterdam,” says Röttger. If more people see that you can also make art on a professional level with people with disabilities, more companies will invite them, he hopes.


Actors at Babel have not been able to follow a regular art education and therefore receive daily training in acting, singing and movement with the company. At auditions, it’s not technical ability but learnability, discipline and motivation that are decisive, Röttger explains. “It’s not about whether you can move or sing beautifully, but whether you want to include your disabilities in that singing and moving. I don’t want people to act as if they have no disabilities. On the contrary: I want to show everything. I love more and more the imperfect – but that imperfect must be done very well.”


“It’s not about whether you can move or sing beautifully, but whether you want to bring your disability into that singing and moving.”



In the past year Theater Babel and the Erasmus University Rotterdam made Als je het ons vraagt, a series of 42 video monologues based on the stories of clients, their relatives and caregivers in residential and home care, meant to start the conversation about self-determination in care. Where the creation of a new performance at Babel is normally an organic process, with conversations and improvisations based on a theme, this time existing monologues were used. It surprised Röttger how well his actors were able to deal with this thanks to the internal training. Their development through this project has suddenly gone “two, three times faster than hoped for,” he says. “It turns out that many of my colleagues are now also very good with texts written for them. A next challenge will be to take a classic [theater] text and do it with them.”


Scene from Ik via de ander © Dominique Mol


“We need to get to know each other, so that misplaced moral views will fall away,” you said in an interview about the performance From J. to Jessica. Does more contact with each other always lead to more understanding? Or should that contact be carefully directed, for example through art?


“It can be done both ways, but I do think you have to facilitate it. Even before I worked inclusive, I wanted to eat [after the performance] with our audience. We cooked vegetarian and organic then – sometimes people didn’t want that. Then we said: we don’t have anything else. That’s how you already get conversations, and not just about the performance. Theater, if it goes well, is an experience from the moment you enter somewhere until you go home again. And if it goes well, you think about it in the days after as well. We never perform in front of more than a hundred people, because I want to greet everyone personally. After the performance, our actors serve the visitors and have dinner with them. Theater is a very sensory experience, and that includes food, a glass of wine, or tea. It’s about all your senses, I want to decondition them.”


In what way?


“If I go to a regular theater, I can sit in that chair and the lights go out. Nobody sees whether I’m watching or not – I often fall asleep if I don’t like it. I think that’s what makes theater old-fashioned: you have to look much more for the personal contact with the visitor. Isn’t it worrying that in many theaters there are only old people? We [theater makers] have to stimulate, challenge and invite younger people, to go along with their language and interests. We do that [as Babel] by working a lot in schools: education is decisive in everything we do. Not only for regular audiences – because they also learn with us, myself included – but especially for young people, they are the future.”


“Working inclusively means increasing your empathy – I always say your heart needs to be even bigger than usual.”



Can anyone make inclusive art?


“No, not everyone can. But it starts with the question of whether you want to. Making art is complex and confronting anyway: that is already a choice. Working inclusively means that you have to increase your capacity for empathy – I always say that your heart has to be even bigger than usual. You have to want to immerse yourself in all the worlds you encounter: the world of care, the diagnoses, the syndromes. You must be able to do more than when you only work with people who, like you, have no disabilities. The people without disabilities who work with us often have a harder time [than the people with disabilities]. At first, they have to unlearn things, like certain methods of role construction or dramaturgy. You have to put that kind of conversation [here] in a different form to be able to communicate with everyone, on their level. I have colleagues who want to hug every day, especially those who have difficulty communicating or can’t talk. You have to be open to that.”