To Boycott or Not to Boycott: Jan Fabre’s ‘Mount Olympus’

Is art made by bad people still worth our time?

Claire Fishman

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. 

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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]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. How can you be certain that Jan Fabre is a ‘bad person’? Has he told his side of the story? Has he been convicted by any court of law? Do you think that the performers you watched on stage were abused by him? Why are they still performing on stage for the insane duration of 24 hours if they think that the way they perform is a product of abuse? Did you see sexism on stage? How about the Carolle Scneemann reperformance, did you think that a misogynist male put it on stage? Have you ever watched any other work by Jan Fabre? Have you read about his training methods? The easy thing is to boycott and be on the safe side. It is an option indeed. But you were there. Did standing ovation mean that audience praises the performers and the creative team and not the creator himself who was preparing this for five years?
    After what you have experienced are you comfortable with saying that Jan Fabre should not be allowed to do theatre any more? Should this kind of theatre seize to exist? Have you ever experienced anything else like this?
    Are you comfortable with watching Christiano Ronaldo playing football? He has been accused of rape but his career is flourishing. Jan Fabre is not accused of rape. And allegations against him were not made officially to a public prosecutor. Do #metoo allegations equal a conviction?
    In other words, after what you have experienced can’t you even give Jan Fabre the benefit of the doubt?

  2. Sylvia makes important points.

    This has become a difficult and painful issue not only for the Troubleyn company (including Fabre, its founder and leader for over thirty years) but also for anyone who has come to recognize the importance of Fabre’s uniquely powerful artistic achievements over the past four decades.

    One thing I can say is that the kind of zero tolerance approach this writer is advocating for is the wrong way to go.

    According to press reports, Troubleyn is taking the situation very seriously and actively taking measures to improve things. NYU Skirball responded in a way that recognized the seriousness of the allegations while at the same time honoring the work of company members – thus enabling us audience members in New York to experience what had clearly been shaping up to be one of the most remarkable stage productions of the 21st century.

    This is a difficult situation that needs to be treated seriously. Both Fabre and the company need to be given time and space to figure out how best to address it without outsiders passing judgment on the basis of incomplete information.

    As an American who continues to be an avid follower of international stage auteurs like Fabre, I am dismayed by what I perceive as an increasingly narrow spectrum of international work that reaches US stages – exposure to which can lift (as has been abundantly the case in the past) the quality of work by US artists. If extreme positions like the one advocated in this article are taken up by future leaders of our arts community without more thoughtful and informed consideration, the quality of all our work in the US is bound to suffer.

    A more positive contribution this writer could make would be to reach out to Troubleyn, NYU Skirball and others who have been closely involved and ask for their perspectives, then make a report to the fellow students who had decided to boycott this event.
    If these class members genuinely hope to be successful future leaders of our community, they should welcome this kind of input.

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