December 1982, Liege, Belgium. I was younger, Jan Fabre was not yet 24. I’d come to Liege to participate in a conference. I got bored and went to a church where a performance was going on: Fabre’s This is theatre as it was to be expected and foreseen. I want to take you back to what remains of that performance in my memory; and in Fabre’s.
My memory is a lot different, radically less, than what I’ve dug up through research, reading my notebooks from those days, watching the two DVDs of the performance, emailing Fabre about it, and skimming through the 2009 bilingual French and English book about the production. Fabre does a good job at documenting his work. The book is a detailed action-by-action, description of the staging, the words spoken (usually not dialogue in the conventional sense), introduced by a brief two-page panegyric by Luk Van den Dries. The DVDs are from a primitive period of archiving: a performance in the gloom, a few really bright scenes, ritually repetitious words, semi-songs, and actions, exchanges of clothing, and not much drama as understood from, say, Ibsen or even Ionesco. Not Beckett either. Uniquely “early Fabre.” But what is that?
To give you a sense of what I experienced, I need to go back into my memories. I wrote nothing about the production in my notebook. But to this day I strongly remember BIRDS. Lots of birds. I went into the church not knowing what kind of performance was going on. I had never heard of Jan Fabre (who had?). It was dark and cool and huge in the church. In front of me, some performers doing something I don’t remember, speaking a language I could not understand. But I did fathom — that’s the right word, signifying diving deep — what was happening. Not quite Robert Wilson in its progression of images, its slow pacing, its enormous extension in time — hours and hours. But “post-dramatic theatre” before I coined that term later (and H.T. Lehmann borrowed it). Fabre’s group was “existing” and “doing” in the big space, not “acting.” They were absorbed into themselves. And the birds flew around the church, high up into its ribs and skull. I sat for about an hour.
Then I left. I walked the streets of Liege. I did not want to go back to the drone of the conference. Finally, I returned to the church — and the performance was still going on, as if nothing had happened during my absence: another sign that this was “performance,” not drama.
About a month ago, knowing I was going to write something marking Troubleyn’s 2018 Skirball appearance, I emailed Fabre asking about the 1982 performance. Here is what he wrote in response: “Liege, December 1982. We are invited to the Festival International du Théâtre. Today we rehearsed, tried and failed all day. The space is a large chapel. Beautiful but impractical. Poor sight lines, difficult acoustics. It is now four o’clock at night. I am writing in a hallway of the youth hostel. The situation is gaga and outrageous. The organizers are taking advantage of us. We are fifteen and play eight hours of theatre for 20,000 franks. We sleep in beds without sheets and with tingling gray blankets. Welcome to reality.” Then: “The dress rehearsal was a conquest of the space. […] The performance had the right impulse. The group is talking in the hall, laughing and playing the guitar. The atmosphere is good.” Later: “Standing ovation for twelve minutes (I’ve timed it). Richard Scheckner [sic] founder of the environmental theatre, funder of the legendary Performance Garage [sic, again] in New York and also one of the most brilliant theatre scientists in the Northern Hemisphere, was on the second row. He immediately stood up and the whole room followed. I was not so satisfied with the performance myself. But who am I? I did not give the actors and dancers an aftertalk so that they could immediately party and taste their success.” Finally: “It seems that success is inspiring for theatre organizers. We are sleeping in a good hotel tonight. We each have a room with a bed with white ironed sheets and a bathroom. The group enjoys this artistic victory. WE ARE READY TO CONQUER THE WORLD. We will transcend fragmentation. And we will be the guides for a new kind of theatre.”
And the birds? Fabre emails: “Yes there was a scene where the performers, blindfolded, had on their fingers a small yellow parakeet, on a small string. The birds were wearing small leather jackets. […] They flew above the stage, and a little above the public, but they came back to the stage. […] The blindfolded performers untied the birds and walked together back of the stage.”
So what’s real? Fabre’s notebook detailing an almost mythic progression from rejection to acceptance, failure to triumph? His email of a few weeks ago about the birds? What of his attributing to me some of the public success, my leading the standing ovation? I have no memory of that or even of seats! I think of pews, of standing and walking around the space. I do not recall leading a standing ovation. Of course, from this distance in time, the scholar Schechner has to trust Fabre’s recollection, written at the moment; and his recent email. But for me, over the ocean of time, the performance in that Liege church was beautiful, quiet, dark, extended, and wholly realized in the flights of birds.
Richard Schechner is a theatre director, author, and the editor of “TDR: The Drama Review.” He is University Professor Emeritus, NYU. His latest book is “Performed Imaginaries” and his latest theatre production is “Imagining O.”