Sabenation. Go home & follow the news

By Haug / Kaegi / Wetzel

"With Sabena you’re in good hands!"

This optimistic slogan is now nothing more than a discarded item up for sale.

"Go home and follow the news!"

is all Sabena employees were told on 7 November 2001.

Rimini Protokoll, Midnight Special Agency in 2003, are inviting old Sabenians on stage.

They were part of a glorious and colonial Belgium

and symbolised the country’s technological progress.

Let down by privatisation and globalisation,

what do they have left of themselves?

This is theatre like a pirate copy of the world,

as experienced by those most affected.

The letters were torn off long ago from the rear window of Redcap Johann’s runway vehicle, but he can still read the word in his rear-view mirror today: Sabena. Dust sticks to what’s left of the glue.

When the news broke on 7 November 2001, all the doors had been locked, 12,000 badges deactivated, 12,000 telephone extensions, PO boxes and e-mail addresses useless, 12,000 identities crumpled. The management said nothing more than: "Go home and follow the news".

Ninety years after Sabena’s first commercial flight, the Belgian airline turned into a scene of devastation - comprising official receivers, fairs for devotional objects and self-help groups. Established as the colonial power’s transport company, it became the carrier of euphoria for the future in the 1950s: the Atomium and Sabena uniforms were icons for the emergence of the New Belgium. Employees knew themselves to be safe in the bosom of the Sabena family.

Ex-Sabenians find themselves in a paradigmatic situation for the 21st century, on the threshold of different identities: as employees who are part of a state-run object of prestige and then becoming part of the debris themselves with the superstructure’s crash — "they didn’t just take my job away from me, they took my life".

The writing-directing team Rimini Protokoll began research for their theatre project "sabenation" during last year’s Midnight Special Agency, their first contribution to the KunstenFESTIVALdesArts.

To be kings and queens for a day

Last year in 23 short monologues that were each shown at midnight in the Festival Centre, they presented 23 people who live and work in Brussels speaking about their theatre — as a traffic policeman, a priest, a street trader, a real estate manager, a bird seller, a chess player, a political adviser, a fortune teller… Every night another person from Brussels got up on stage in the window of the first floor of the Maison de la Bellone’s inner courtyard and (re)presented themselves. If the world’s a stage, then what’s my role? What’s my costume? What are my lines? The driving force behind the monologues was the question about theatricality in every day life, about forms of representation and the "as if" in places and ways of life that constitute the city away from the world of theatre and art.

With "sabenation" Rimini Protokoll are taking a more intense look at this issue, a kind of panoramic journey to a place where all the sights have gone missing. Ex-Sabenians represent their former company on stage and ask: what is left of the dramatis personae of the great state-owned company two and a half years after its last act? What are the phantom pains experienced by people trying to put together another life plan after this prestigious national company — constantly manoeuvred into crises — finally crashed and burned?

On screen the story of the company resumes after the stock market crash: Virtual Sabena was created in October 2001. "A virtual airline functions like a real one", according to its website, "except that most of it doesn’t really exist". The only non-virtual part is the pilot. What Sabena now represents for these pilots is something like the body of a whole-body amputee.

Remarkably few former Sabenians have set up their own businesses — salaries in the state-owned company were good and the risk for freelances is large. Beneath the mother company’s wings you were looked after. Who would make the leap from the benevolent company in such a nation of their own accord? In the outplacement office in Brussels, barely one tenth of those made redundant have registered so far. There was plenty written in the media about the fate of stewardesses and pilots, yet most of the people who were made redundant were ground staff, not speaking many languages, but often used to fantastic working conditions. Only a few technicians have been retrained, becoming experts at repairing fridges or lift mechanics.

Rimini Protokoll is bringing together Ex-Sabenaians for another take-off. On stage the fallen angels and the dreamers with their heads in the clouds, but without their blue uniforms, breathe in the different layers of intertwined corporate identity and employee identity. They collect fragments of the big bird as an experiment. Like a huge stage ghost, the family airline is being pushed onto an imaginary runway by its children once more. Is there a fear of not flying?

The company table-tennis team and the mini-football team continue to play under the company name today. A flight engineer is now conducting tours through the spare parts warehouse in hangar 6. After 143 unsuccessful job applications, a stewardess is now giving courses for people who want to become what she was. The Vice-President’s chauffeur appears as King Albert II’s double on a TV show. A security expert for African airports works with asylum seekers. A former drug pusher inspects the packaging of anti-depressants on the conveyor belt. A plane fanatic, who for decades had worked his way up from ground staff to flight engineer, needed just 3 more months before getting his pilot’s licence when the firm went bankrupt. Now he’s made himself a flight simulator at home.

"sabenation" is not a nostalgic look at the wreckage, but a taking stock of the here and now. Job and role descriptions are being rethought and made more flexible. "sabenation" is not just a play about a paradigmatic financial crisis and its victims, but a reflection on the progress of nations by other means.