Birds of Paradise artistic director Robert Softley Gale: ‘Let’s make space to tell others’ stories’
Inspired by the story of My Left Foot’s Christy Brown overcoming prejudice, Robert Softley Gale tells David Pollock he isn’t pursuing an ‘equality agenda’, but wants to make brilliant stories to get audiences to engage with inclusivity
For nine-year-old Robert Softley Gale, growing up in the town of Kirkintilloch to the north of Glasgow, Christy Brown was a hero. He was introduced to Brown via Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film My Left Foot, which adapted the autobiographical story of a Dubliner growing up with cerebral palsy so severe he could only control his left foot, who went on to be an acclaimed author, poet and painter.
“He was someone to aspire to,” says actor, writer and director Gale. We are in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rockvilla complex in Glasgow, where his new Edinburgh Fringe show is in rehearsal. Named My Left/Right Foot: The Musical – and co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and the 25-year-old Birds of Paradise theatre company, of which Gale is artistic director, it’s directly related to Gale’s own experience of cerebral palsy.
“It’s about a group of amateur theatre players who apply to a festival and think that getting involved in equality and diversity will win them more ‘points’,” he says. “They decide to adapt My Left Foot as a musical, but they get it all wrong.”
Casting “the non-disabled guy” is their biggest error, says Gale; he was the disabled boy relegated to backstage roles during his teenage years in amateur dramatics. “There were no disabled characters in Agatha Christie or [Scottish period classic] The Steamie, so that was that for me,” he says. “Instead I worked on lighting and sound and it benefited me in the long run. Now I have a more holistic technical perspective on what makes theatre work.”
Not that he resents Daniel Day-Lewis after making the disappointing discovery that an able-bodied actor was just pretending to be Christy Brown. “The casting of non-disabled actors in disabled parts was expected back then,” he says. “But it’s still happening now. Look at films such as Me Before You.”
After school, Gale studied business and management at Glasgow University, because applying to drama school and pursuing a career in theatre seemed futile for a young disabled man in the 1990s.
“Then, about a month after I chose my honours year subjects, I was offered a one-year acting contract in Edinburgh,” he says. “I was 21 and I thought: ‘Bugger it, why not?’” The contract was with the Theatre Workshop – since closed down – as part of a cohort of disabled trainee actors learning on the job. “At the end of the year I’d built up enough contacts to go out and get work,” he says. “That was 2002, and 16 years later I’ve still not been told to go home.”
He applied for BBC Radio Drama’s Norman Beaton Fellowship, ending up as runner-up and recording a drama with BBC Radio Scotland. He was also one of 25 selected for the BBC’s Talent Fund for Disabled Actors. Parts followed, including a brief cameo in the BBC Scotland soap opera River City, and his first roles with the inclusive Scottish theatre company Birds of Paradise.
Off stage, Gale started working in arts policy. In 2005, he ran a one-year campaign for Birds of Paradise called Agent of Change, which investigated barriers to mainstream theatre becoming more inclusive, then he spent two years as arts disability officer with the Scottish Arts Council, the precursor to Creative Scotland. He also co-founded a company named Flip, which was aimed at promoting and developing inclusivity among companies.
Alongside this, his performance work continued. In 2011, Gale appeared in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Girl X, a collaboration with Belgian director Pol Heyvaert. “Then when the job of artistic director at Birds of Paradise came up it made a lot of sense for me,” he says. “My friend Garry Robson also applied, and the board couldn’t decide which of us to go with, so they gave it to us both. They said: ‘Just work together and fix it.’”
Founded in 1993, in the wake of Glasgow’s year as European Capital of Culture in 1990, Birds of Paradise’s original remit had been for the education and training of disabled actors. “When I came to it in 2012, we were more about making high-quality work,” says Gale. “If the work isn’t as good as it possibly can be, we lose the argument before it’s begun. If we’re asking people to engage with inclusion, then unless we’re making great work they’ll think: ‘Why should we?’”
The first show he made for Birds of Paradise was Wendy Hoose with writer and co-director Johnny McKnight, a comedy about casual 20-something sex. “It had a big impact, and it proved we could make something accessible, inclusive, and of great quality,” says Gale. The show that made his own name was If These Spasms Could Speak, a 2012 solo performance about his relationship with his own body.
“It blew up after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe,” he says. “We took it to the US, Brazil, all around Europe. In India we played to audiences of 600, and people were coming up to me afterwards saying: ‘My uncle, my brother, my son is disabled, and they stay at home, they don’t come out in public.’ So the potential impact of having a visibly disabled actor on stage in Calcutta was pretty big.”
This fight for inclusivity runs throughout Gale’s work. He once wrote a play about being denied access to Alton Towers for not having a carer with him, and he was at the forefront of the response when Creative Scotland surprisingly withdrew public funding from several Scottish companies earlier this year – since restored, following public outcry – including Birds of Paradise, Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions.
He takes no pleasure in the recent departure of Creative Scotland head Janet Archer, and his time at the Scottish Arts Council tells him such funding decisions are never clear-cut. “But there’s a systemic issue that we have to address,” he says. “What is the role of public subsidy in the arts in Scotland? Is it to fund artists, or is it to fund networking organisations?
Q&A: Robert Softley Gale
What was your first non-theatre job?
HTML programmer in Washington DC.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Resident company actor at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh.
What’s your next job?
Quite enjoying this one. But artistic director of a building-based company would be good.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Trust your gut more – experience doesn’t mean being right.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The late, great Adrian Howells – he mentored me for a short time and was so generous.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Do something that’ll make them remember you. My first audition piece was Isn’t It Wonderful to be a Woman from The Steamie – it worked.
If you hadn’t been a theatremaker, what would you have been?
Something IT-related or generic management – I’d probably have gone mad by now.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really. But pre-show music is really important to me.
“It can do a bit of both, but if it’s not funding the people making the work, then what are the hubs for? A great network of theatremakers who aren’t making theatre. Where’s the value in that? My worry is that they fix things around the outside, and in three years’ time we’ll do it all again. We can’t do that, we need to have these conversations now.”
Gale jokes that Robson – who left his post earlier this year to go freelance – said in January that a quiet birthday year lay ahead for Birds of Paradise. Now he’s sole artistic director, Gale doesn’t plan to take any such thing for granted.
“I’m not an angry disabled person, I just want to ask how we can all make things better,” he says. “Not that disabled people don’t have a real right to be angry; to ask, why are we having to argue for equality? I’m here working with NTS, which is putting my story on stage – that’s great. Yet if I were a disabled actor wanting to be cast in the next Lyceum or Tron production, that’s not happening yet. Disabled actors aren’t part of that circuit. If we can find them, why can’t the Traverse? Disabled people make up 20% of the population in Scotland; 20% of the actors in Scotland aren’t disabled. Why is that?”
Yet the work Gale does with Birds of Paradise isn’t about pursuing, in his words, an ‘equality agenda’. “It’s all about the stories. We haven’t heard these stories before, so surely they’re more interesting than the same old middle-class, white guy. Not to say there isn’t a place for that, but we’ve had it for a long time, so let’s make space to tell all the other stories in the best way we can.”
CV: Robert Softley Gale
Born: Glasgow, 1980
• If These Spasms Could Speak, UK tour (2013)
• Wendy Hoose, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (2014)
• Purposeless Movements, Tramway, Glasgow (2016)
My Left/Right Foot: The Musical runs at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh from August 1 to 27