Artistic director Robert Softley Gale: Panto offers best chance to break down barriers for the disabled
Last year, 2.9 million people in the UK went to a pantomime. It’s one of the most important ways that the UK population engages with live theatre – and often the only time during the year that they do. They are our festive theatrical version of the soap – accessible, entertaining and, until recently, lacking much diversity in the way they profile disabled actors.
As a director creating new, inclusive work, a major aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible. More people seeing disabled performers on stage, and engaging with disabled people’s narratives, has to be a good thing, right? The sooner we normalise this experience, the sooner that it will be no big deal.
There’s a growing body of work by disabled artists in theatres across the UK.
Artists such as Jackie Hagan, Jess Thom, Nickie Wildin and Simon Startin are making and directing work in mainstream venues. They are reaching audiences who, even five years ago, would never have gone to see work by disabled artists. But there’s a crucial next step – where we as disabled artists go from creating our own work to also being cast in everyone else’s. So what’s stopping this from happening now? Fear has a big part to play – directors worrying that audiences will not engage with a visually impaired Cinderella or with Buttons if he’s a short person. But they just have to take the leap; exposure to difference is the only way to move things forward. Audiences are much more adaptable than we give them credit for.
Quality used to be a common excuse, but that no longer holds. Drama schools are training more disabled actors now. Amy Conachan – whose first professional gig was in Wendy Hoose by Johnny McKnight, which I co-directed – has now been in Hollyoaks for over two years. So where soaps have made great inroads, our pantomimes and Christmas shows must follow.
Imagine the impact of a Christmas season where theatres were full to the brim with diversity. Young people seeing disabled folk as role models, in such a familiar and positive context as a pantomime, means that when they go to school with disabled children or meet disabled parents, they don’t see this as strange or unusual. Things are slowly improving. Fantastic disabled actors in Christmas shows this year include Garry Robson in White Christmas at Leicester’s Curve this year, Stephen Collins in Beauty and the Beast at the Unity Liverpool, Joseph Fletcher in Cinderella in Manchester and Ali Biggs, directed by Nickie Wildin, in Jackie Hagen’s The Forest of Forgotten Discos at Contact.
One of my big lessons from making My Left/Right Foot – The Musical was that strong politics and a sell-out run can go hand in hand. Audiences want to be challenged and made to think, so long as they’re also made to laugh at the same time. It’s time for musicals, pantomimes and theatres across the UK to say of this lack of diversity on our stages at Christmas: “It’s behind you!”
My Left/Right Foot runs at Dundee Rep next May