To Boycott or Not to Boycott: Jan Fabre’s ‘Mount Olympus’
Is art made by bad people still worth our time?
November 12, 2018
Last Tuesday, my Theater professor, Brandon Woolf, steered the class discussion away from my performance class’s group projects to talk about “Mount Olympus: to glorify the cult of tragedy.” Although the performance was optional, most of the class had expressed interest in going. “Mount Olympus” was having its North American premiere at the Skirball Center for Performing Arts and almost everyone wanted to see the 24-hour, one-night-only performance.
So when Professor Woolf told everyone that the director, Jan Fabre, had been accused of sexual harassment by his former company members, the class fell uncomfortably quiet.
The former company members of Troubleyn, the group that performs “Mount Olympus,” had alleged in an open letter in the magazine Rekto Verso that Fabre had verbally abused female company members on set, adopted a “no sex, no solo” working environment and punished female company members who refused him by forms of “stalking, verbal humiliation, aggression and manipulation.”
Six members of the company have resigned in the past two years citing complaints of sexual harassment.
Skirball informed Fabre that he was not invited to attend the performance, but that they would not cancel the show as to not punish the cast and crew members.
One by one, my classmates denounced the actions of Fabre and lamented the working conditions that were employed to create “Mount Olympus.” Could a piece of art ever be valuable enough to overlook the suffering involved in making it? My classmates decided it couldn’t and boycott the performance. I decided to go anyway.
“Mount Olympus” took my breath away. Watching the first act was like watching an unrated music video in real time. Within minutes, actors were on their knees performing oral sex on each other. During the several obscene scenes, the audience did not giggle nervously; they laughed wholeheartedly. “Mount Olympus” did not take itself seriously — even in scenes filled with bloodshed and rape, there was comedic relief. The production’s vulgarity, nudity and gore was well-advertised on the Skirball website.
Cast members got tired and gave up jumping chain-link rope in the middle of an Ancient Greek gym class; men wore bras and panties filled with raw meat and twerked; a woman in a wig and high heels mimed performing fellatio on two different men in a hilarious solo act.
There was plenty of symbolism to be interpreted, but more importantly, watching “Mount Olympus” was an absolute blast. The cast was outstanding and their endurance was remarkable. But if I had boycotted the show, I never would have been able to experience it.
Do I condone Jan Fabre’s behavior? Absolutely not. And when I read Skirball’s program and saw Fabre likening human beings to simple animal bodies, I was revolted. Yet, it is the truth; those are Fabre’s thoughts and opinions, and they played into the contents of the show.
The only place that Skirball addresses the accusations against Fabre is on its website, and the information is hidden at the bottom of a secondary page for the event. If Skirball had included an addendum to the program with the context of the performance, or perhaps even a copy of the letter in Rekto Verso, it would have better served its audience.
But, even now, aware of the fact that I am writing an article to rationalize my attending the controversial performance, I am falling into the same trap as the very institutions that I hope to condemn. In discussing the #MeToo context of “Mount Olympus” and Fabre’s sexual harassment allegations, I am allowing Fabre’s name to overshadow the names of the performers and cast in the Troubleyn company that did such an outstanding job tonight.
More than 45 people are responsible for the making of “Mount Olympus” in the NYU Skirball program. Three are given profiles in the very back — Fabre, Jeroen Olyslaegers, and Dag Taeldeman. One of the three is accused of abusing his directorial power. Should the other 46 other people involved suffer from the allegations against Fabre?
I want Jan Fabre to be blacklisted from the theaterœ establishment and to never harm a person under his direction ever again. But in boycotting pieces that have already been produced by sometimes hundreds of people, you are not just hurting the perpetrator; you are hurting the survivors.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 12 print edition. Email Claire Fishman at [email protected]