Garry Robson: ‘Disabled performers are doing great things – there are real stars now’
Performing in Ramps on the Moon’s revival of Our Country’s Good, Garry Robson is a passionate advocate for disabled performers and theatremakers. He tells Tom Wicker how disability-led theatre is hitting the mainstream
Since switching to performing in the 1990s after working on civil rights in law centres, Garry Robson has deftly combined writing, directing and entertaining with raising the profile of disabled actors and theatremakers in the UK.
He has collaborated with disability-led theatre company Graeae, created the award-winning singing duo Blind Gurl and the Cripz, and founded disability-focused organisations such as Fittings Multimedia Arts.
We meet at a London costume shop, where Robson is being fitted for his latest role – midshipman Harry Brewer, in a revival of Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about class, imprisonment and the power of theatre in Britain’s first Australian penal colony.
It is a co-production between Nottingham Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of companies and venues supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund to highlight and create opportunities for deaf and disabled artists.
Robson, who uses a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child, says the time was right for Ramps on the Moon to tour “a straight play”, after the comedy of Gogol’s The Government Inspector and last year’s production of the Who’s legendary rock opera, Tommy.
“I just think the potential for diversity within Our Country’s Good was something that was attractive to the director, Fiona Buffini,” he adds. “It’s also about outsiders – a group of unwanted people, and sometimes that’s how it can feel as a disabled person.”
“Doing Tommy was a no-brainer, in a way, because it’s about deaf, dumb and blind kids,” continues Robson, who starred in that production as Uncle Ernie. “Casting a deaf actor [William Grint] at the centre of it was great. It made sense of Tommy where no one had in the past.”
With Our Country’s Good, Robson thinks that bringing together disabled and non-disabled actors sends an important message to the industry about casting: “It’s about broadening the potential of the sorts of roles we can play.”
He continues: “Ramps is saying, ‘There’s not only deaf and disabled actors out there who are good, but they’re versatile as well. They can play a variety of stuff.’”
This includes the “great character parts, like Brewer”. There was a time, early in Robson’s career, “where I was either an angel or a devil”, he recalls. “When I’ve done telly, I’ve either been a super-crip or a scrounger.”
Casting directors have to see ‘a logic’ for why you’d cast a disabled person in a role. I don’t think I’ve ever been cast as a lawyer or even a clerk
Robson points to disabled actor Liz Carr’s role as the drily funny forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery in the long-running BBC crime drama Silent Witness as evidence that things are improving. But while there’s progress, “it’s certainly early doors”, he cautions. “Casting directors have to see ‘a logic’ for why you’d cast a disabled person in a role. I don’t think I’ve ever been cast as a lawyer or even a clerk,” he notes wryly.
Growing up, Robson says, role models were virtually non-existent. Ian Dury, who was also disabled by childhood polio, was an exception. He inculcated in Robson a love of punk rock and a colourful theatricality that still informs much of the work he creates. In 2010, he wrote and starred in Raspberry, a touring show with music that was his love letter to Dury and the 1970s.
Since his days as an adviser to the North West Arts Board – the first organisation to tap into diversity funding for disabled artists , “which made a huge difference”, Robson has seen considerable progress in awareness of, and funding for, disability-led work. “Look to the 2012 Paralympics and its opening ceremony, and serious investment in deaf and disabled performers via the Unlimited programme, which has since continued.”
Q&A: Garry Robson
What was your first non-theatre job? I was a toe puff putter-inner. It’s the hard bit at the end of your shoe.
What was your first professional theatre job? Grimm (1994).
What’s your next job? Maybe a revival of The Tin Soldier or Blanche and Butch for Birds of Paradise. Ramps on the Moon is waiting to see if Tommy will go into the West End. It would be a great leap forward, a real landmark.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It can never just be about you. You start off having to prove yourself, often doing solo shows, so you can be a bit shouty. But discovering the value of the ensemble is so important. That’s what makes a show work.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Ian Dury. Improbable Theatre’s Shockheaded Peter, all those years ago, blew me away.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Relax, be yourself and learn it if you can.
If you hadn’t been a performer, what would you have been? I worked in civil rights for several years in law centres and would happily go back to that, but it’s an uphill struggle.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No.
Robson adds that the increasing profile of disability-led work has also needed “a few key artists to come through, who can show its relevance as an art form that pushes at boundaries, because it has to”.
He praises the likes of Jess Thom, who has incorporated her Tourette’s into powerful, funny theatre, and musician, writer and performer Mat Fraser, who has thalidomide-induced phocomelia.
“There are real stars out there now,” says Robson. “If you’re a kid and you’ve got a short arm, look at Mat; if you’ve got Tourette’s, look at Jess.”
Robson is heartened that many deaf and disabled performers are “going on to great things”. He’s a big fan of Nadia Albina, who performed with him in Graeae’s 2012 musical tribute to Dury, Reasons to Be Cheerful. He also praises fellow wheelchair user Amy Trigg, who acted in Tommy and played Laura Wingfield in Nottingham Playhouse’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 2016.
Nevertheless, Robson says: “I think it’s still quite hard.” When drama school is so important, he feels that more is needed to make that system inclusive of deaf and disabled students. “You’ve got great examples, like the deaf-acting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” he says. “It mingles with the other acting course, so the groups get used to working together. That’s critical. But I don’t see that anywhere else.”
As for his experience of venues, Robson calls touring the UK with Ramps on the Moon an “almost entirely positive” experience, “bearing in mind that it’s laid on a plate for us”. He continues: “The theatres are educated in disability-awareness, all that stuff, by Ramps itself. There’s a foot in the door before we get there.”
“The receptions have been terrific,” says Robson. “But there’s still the odd bod who feels you need to be treated with kid gloves. Some audiences assume that, as it’s a disabled performance, it must be a charity thing.” When it comes to smaller-scale touring, he says: “Some venues are better at marketing what we do than others.”
In this regard, Robson loved touring Tommy. “It was playing, first and foremost, to fans of the Who – not to the ‘cripperati’ if you like, or people who turn out for radical productions. A lot of these audiences were balding men in their 60s,” he says, smiling. “They didn’t know it was a disabled cast and they were blown away by it.”
But as passionate as Robson is about expanding mainstream opportunities for deaf and disabled artists, he says it’s as important to keep a space for their individual stories. “There are hidden histories out there,” he says. From an early age, if he saw disability somewhere, he would pick up on it, in a way wider society might not. “We need to see ourselves to see what a beautifully diverse country this is.”
When it comes to disability, it’s not just about who we see on stage – it’s who we employ to make the work
And when it comes to realising this diversity of stories on stage, Robson relishes the imaginative potential of disability-led production design. “With embedded British Sign Language and embedded audio description, there’s an art form we’re still exploring,” he says. By way of example, he enthuses about the chalkboard-style captioning in children’s show The Tin Soldier, which he directed last December for the Scottish disability-led touring theatre company Birds of Paradise. “It can’t just be a bolt-on.”
For Robson, the next big change for the visibility of disability-led work has to be backstage and at the top. “It’s not just who we see on stage,” he says. “It’s who we employ to make the work.”
Recent analysis published by ACE revealed that, in 2015/16, only 6% of leadership roles at national portfolio organisations were occupied by disabled people. “That’s appalling,” he says. “Because there is no doubt that having a deaf or disabled person on your staff changes attitudes – and programming.”
CV: Garry Robson
Born: 1952, Weldon
Landmark productions: Sea Changes (Interplay, 1995-6), Stepping Stones (Interplay, 1996), Two (Graeae, 1998), Raspberry (Fittings Multimedia Arts/Sounds of Progress/Tron Theatre, 2010), Reasons to Be Cheerful (Graeae, 2010 and 2012), The Threepenny Opera (New Wolsey Theatre/Graeae/ West Yorkshire Playhouse/Nottingham Playhouse/Birmingham Rep, 2014)
Awards: Herald Angel award for Blind Gurl and the Cripz (2007)
Agent: Louise Dyson, VisABLE Model Agency
Our Country’s Good runs at Nottingham Playhouse from March 9 to 24, before touring the UK