Theatre humain | Chokri Ben Chikha (Action Zoo Humain)

Let’s come straight to the point. What is our profession – our craft, our love, for the most social of all art forms, the art form that is so dear to all, (that should be at) the heart of society – actually worth to us, theatre makers? How much do we really want to be at the heart of that society? Not because it is imposed on us, as a condition for subsidy, but from within ourselves, as an autonomous wish, as the core of our mission? I ask that question to all the theatre makers, including myself. Do I really want my theatre to be at the heart of society? And what does that demand of me? Do I dare to take responsibility for claiming that place? Or do I settle for a little attention and a nice review with a few stars?

I have always believed in artistic, theatrical truth – as a very powerful, autonomous form of truth against the other forms of truth: the factual truth, the propagandist truth, bureaucratic truth, religious truth, you name it. The artistic truth offers a perspective on the world that is free but not free of engagement. It is a truth that can look behind things and tries to unmask and unveil what remains hidden otherwise. Because it has a poetic potential at its disposal. Without that artistic truth, we wouldn’t be able to imagine anything.

The question I want to ask you is what kind of impact that truth has on the real world. Do theatre makers actually have an impact? Or do we use our artistic abilities to dream away a little? And do we not get any further than some fine fiddling on the sidelines?
To find answers to these questions, I would like to take you back to the nineteenth century, to one of the great theatre innovators, who can easily hold his own with figures like Brecht, Shakespeare or Molière. He was a pioneer of realistic theatre, of documentary theatre, of multidisciplinary theatre, of intercultural performing arts, a pioneer of accessible theatre, with a fame and influence that every theatre maker today can only dream of.

I’m talking about the German theatre maker Carl Hagenbeck. Hagenbeck starts with zoos, bringing in wild animals from all over the world: bears riding a bicycle, monkeys dressed as man and woman doing a dance. And together with some reindeer he also brings over some authentic Sami, people from Lapland, to take care of these animals. And as it turns out, the Sami are more popular than those beasts. Instead of animals, he lets the Sami perform. It proves to be a hole in the market and they go on tour from Hamburg to Leipzig, from Leipzig to Berlin. The Sami become a blockbuster, a hit all over Germany. Then he brings Nubians to Germany: natives from Sudan. They are even more successful than the Sami and go on an international tour, in London, Paris, Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp…

Carl Hagenbeck deserves a place in the pantheon of the great theatre makers, for the development of the zoo humain
The principles of the zoo humain have been well understood by the current generation of politicians. Trump, Francken, Wilders, Orban and Le Pen brand foreign peoples on the basis of their stereotypical characteristics. The strategy of playing off differences between certain population groups against others is what I call ‘zooism’. Zooism is characterised by the craving for spectacle, the urge for voyeurism, the obsession with defining one’s own identity and the spectacularisation of difference.

The zoo humain developed by the genius Hagenbeck provided the model for an anti-enlightenment thinking and a policy of dehumanisation. This zooism makes victims on a daily basis. On a global level you can see, for example, how the Palestinians have been put in an immense cage. Closer to home, asylum seekers and migrants are often reduced to second-rate monkeys, especially if they are Muslim. In Belgium, this higher art form has even made it into a fixed line of policy. We have zooists and zoo directors in power.

We can laugh this off. We can put this into perspective. But then we are also laughing off ourselves. I’m not writing this to blame or to prove me right. I’m writing this to share a sense of urgency with you. It’s not that theatre makers don’t do enough. We work our asses off, we focus on public action, we go into the neighbourhoods and question ourselves again and again. For a long time now, we’ve been making much more than just theatre. More than ever, we are involving the world. But has the world itself really felt involved? What have we actually brought about? Is it enough? Are we really convinced that the foundations under our theatres – the temples of free thought and the democratic rule of law – are not irrevocably bursting?

I think the theatre has a job to do here. I think theatre makers should intervene. And not by making another play that puts things into perspective, but actually intervene in reality. That’s why theatre. We have something no one else has. Not the judges, not the police, not politics, not social workers, not education. We have a truth to tell: our artistic truth!
If so much lie is injected into society, as current political leaders do, then we have no choice but to organise a counter-power. With our artistic truth! Let’s get something going in the social debate. Let us claim the position at the heart of society to think something of the world. We are capable of stirring up emotions. With our artistic truth, we can unmask, confuse and model. Quixote, Robin Hood, Hamlet: we must not only portray them, we must become them. The noisemakers, the provocateurs, the fortune-teller, the fools, the oracles: all these are age-old role models for those who care about justice.

Dr. Chokri Ben Chikha is a Flemish/Belgian actor and theatre maker. Since 2007, he is a postdoctoral artistic researcher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. From this context, he founded the international performance group Action Zoo Humain. The company examines to what extent theatre can directly affect reality without losing sight of its poetic potential and sense of self-criticism.