Friday, June 18, 2010
By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat
A ground-breaking theater in Malmö, Sweden, may be paving the way for a new theater movement – one that includes people with intellectual disabilities as equal partners in the creative process.
Kjell Stjernholm, the artistic director of the Mooms Teatern in Malmö, Sweden, visited the United States for the VSA International Arts Festival in early June, and he discussed the mission and history of the innovative theater program he runs with Media dis&dat.
Stjernholm cited his mother has an early influence in his work toward inclusive theater. She was involved in theater education, and when someone asked if disabled children could be included, she readily agreed. So Stjernholm grew up in theater with disabled kids fully participating with the non-disabled children.
When he began his own theater career, he sought artistic challenge for himself and those with whom he worked. At the time, he saw “drama and theater as a teaching tool and as way toward personal development,” but now says his work has only artistic objectives, no social, therapeutic or educational aims.
He saw that by adapting theater for performers with a variety of disabilities, he was “making several small revolutions.” Mooms Teatern was born in 1987 with connections to a prominent night school program in Sweden.
When they premiered their first performance in Malmö, he says,”No one had seen anything like it in that city.”
Early in the development of Mooms, Stjernholm says one performer showed that he felt more comfortable walking on his hands than his feet so the performance was created around that ability. Empowered by that experience, the performer went on to become the break-dancing champion of Sweden. Stjernholm added that his work with that performer taught him much that would assist in Mooms’development.
Stjernholm says disabled performers “revolutionize the material as well.” For example, one of Mooms most innovative, and well-received, performances was “The Evangelee of Special,” a large-scale musical in which Jesus is reborn as a man with Down syndrome. The 2003 musical explored themes of diversity versus genetic cleansing and executions by lethal injection.
Another performance was a play about developmentally disabled actors doing “Hamlet.” Pictured is actor Pierre Björkman performing in that play. And another performance reconfigured “Of Mice and Men,” with actress Gunilla Eriksson gender-bending the role of “Lennie” in 2009.
Mooms also tackles traditional theater pieces, which are adapted in collaboration with the disabled actors. So in “The Jungle Book,” Mowgli is reconfigured as a disabled character.
Stjernholm says all projects are developed with the actors helping with the adaptation. In its early days, Mooms had a longer preparation time so its performers could digest the material. Mooms stages several shows a year, and now all the performances are developed at the same speed as any other theater.
Mooms’ focus is “artistic equality,” Stjernholm says. “The actors have the right to fire me,” he explains.
Mooms always sought plays that didn’t perpetuate disability stereotypes. The theater has developed such an excellent reputation in Sweden that Stjernholm says, “We are now contacted by playwrights who want to write for us.”
That has led to plays that address the plight of intellectually disabled people in Swedish prisons and one that focused on the life story of a gay man with an intellectual disability, who is one of the actors in Mooms.
Mooms’ artistic success also gave them financial stability, through Stjernholm’s finesse of arts resources in Sweden. Mooms now operates with an annual budget of $1.4 million from national, regional and city arts resources.
But Stjernholm is most proud that all of the disabled actors receive fair market wages, are members of the Swedish Actors Guild, and receive training at the National Theater Academy. He personally fought for all the actors to receive equal pay for equal work.
None of this happened overnight, but Stjernholm’s aggressive lobbying for equal rights for intellectually disabled actors finally paid off in 2005. In the future, he hopes Mooms can lead the way to develop projects in arts accessibility.
Mooms is now an integral part of Sweden’s artistic world and all its performances target the general theater-going audience. During its first five years, Swedish theater critics took no notice of Mooms. But now theater critics regularly review its performances, and a Mooms performance even received a bad review, Stjernholm says with pride.