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Narrative, expectation, experience: disability in contemporary European theatre and film

Narrative, expectation, experience: disability in contemporary European theatre and film

More and more often, characters with a disability are cast with individuals who have a genuine impairment. Having said that, the roles played in particular by people with a cognitive impairment in theatre and film is a topic that has hardly been researched much at all so far. An international team headed by Professor Susanne Hartwig (University of Passau) is aiming to change that. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the project to the tune of some 460,000 euros over a period of 36 months.

In three sub-projects, Professor Susanne Hartwig (Passau), Elena Ecudero (Madrid) and Dr. Soledad Pereyra (Buenos Aires) will be analysing theatre performances and films in which individuals with real cognitive impairments have a part to play. The objective: systematic recording and analysis as the basis for a more precise picture of how cognitive impairment is portrayed in theatre and film, not only in the storyline, but also at the level of behavioural expectations and emotional experiences. 'The aim of this picture is to enable the diversity category "disabled" to be described more precisely, in particular in those aspects in which it differs significantly from other diversity categories', says Professor Hartwig. 'And we will also be endeavouring to derive general statements about inclusion in the medium of theatre and the medium of film from the results we obtain.'

Passau approach to tread new ground in cultural science research on disability

With its focus on cognitive impairment, the team will be dedicating itself to an area on the map of disability studies that has hardly been researched at all so far. Whilst it is true to say that disability studies have already been anchored as a field of research in sociology and the educational sciences for some while, the Passau method, i.e. that of approaching the topic from the point of view of communication, cognition and emotion research, is new, like its European focus. The latter is mainly on productions from Spain, France and Italy from the last 30 years, but internationally recognised productions including theatre and film from other countries such as Germany and Switzerland will also be analysed intensively.

'In disability studies, theory-of-difference approaches are the rule, and they concentrate on power discourses and powerful distinctions', explains Professor Hartwig. 'Our descriptive model complements these. We want to look at concrete planes and mechanisms of communication, which are effective in stage plays and films but can also be undermined.' Of particular interest is the way the texts deal with patterns of perception, thought and feeling which have become habitual. 'These are the conditions of inclusion in the artistic process too, but the artistic process can handle them more freely than – for example – social institutions.' To investigate the potential and impact of these two audiovisual genres, the researchers will also be taking part in rehearsal processes and interviewing audience members about the impressions they gain.

Theatre and film: mirrors and door openers to help society deal with disability

The keywords ambivalence, contingency, comic element and acting are of particular interest to the researchers. 'We will be asking general questions about the insights our analyses gain for core issues of disability studies, in particular about the significance of ambivalence in the way society deals with disability', says Professor Hartwig. We also aim to bring medium-specific potentialities of the texts into focus, for example the directness of the stage situation or the editing and montage techniques used in film-making.

"Socially, disability is a thing we don't really like to spend much time thinking about – although it could affect any one of us at any time", emphasises Professor Hartwig. 'Often enough, it is not in fact the disability itself that compromises the person affected, but the way it restricts his or her social participation.' Theatre and film, she adds, are very appropriate when it comes to sensitising people to this topic, which is otherwise so often avoided: 'The patterns of our normal everyday life are more elastic in fictional worlds. There, we can rethink more easily and prepare to embrace new ideas.'

Coming to terms with the idea of breaking up patterns also means being prepared to challenge numerous stereotypes. 'Very often, we find clichéd roles such as that of the comical fool, the highly gifted, introverted autist or the sad figure who despairs of the world.' Equally frequent is the prejudice that productions featuring individuals who are cognitively impaired are not artistic products of the kind that can be taken seriously. 'I have experienced theatre performances and films which, without taking cognitive impairment into account at all, were artistically convincing from all points of view; yet in spite of that, the fact that people with cognitive impairments were the actors and actresses gave them "political" added value. As I see it, these approaches are the ones that set new standards. How they manage to do that, what new type of inclusion we find there and why they develop a special kind of impact – those are the things we are trying to find out.'

Caption: The photo shows the actors Helliot Baeza and Manuel Cañadas of the Spanish group "Danza Mobile" in the piece entitled "Encuentros y Saludos".

Principal Investigator(s) at the University Prof. Dr. Susanne Hartwig (Lehrstuhl für Romanische Literaturen und Kulturen)
Project period 01.06.2020 - 31.05.2023
Source of funding
DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft > DFG - Sachbeihilfe
DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft > DFG - Sachbeihilfe

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