Disabled Artistic Director talks about his work and the importance of inclusion

Robert Softley Gale is an Artistic Director at Glasgow-based theatre company, Birds of Paradise. He’s been acting and working in theatre for 15 years.

For World Theatre Day, he talks about his work and why inclusion is so important.

Getting in to theatre

I was at Glasgow University studying Business Management and I got a phone call from a theatre company in Edinburgh looking to employ disabled actors. At that point I’d never done any performing so I thought there’s no way I’ll get this job. I’d done a bit of amateur theatre but only ever backstage – directing or writing, stuff like that. But I was your typical cocky 21-year-old so I thought I’d give it a go, and I got the job. After that I just kept going.

Creating my own work

The amount of opportunities for disabled actors have come and gone over the years. I felt if I wanted to keep working I had to start creating my own work. I worked with the National Theatre in Scotland on a piece called ‘Girl X’ which did well, and I did a one-man show called ‘If These Spasms Could Speak’ that toured all over the world. When the job at Birds of Paradise came up, I felt ready to go in to making more of my own work and on a bigger scale.

I think there’s much more pressure on disabled artists. If I make something that’s crap, people go “oh he’s disabled, of course it’s crap”, but overall it’s a great challenge.

Making the arts more accessible

There are so many barriers for disabled people to work in the arts. A lot of it is attitudinal. People just don’t think disabled people can do the job. As a disabled actor there will be things you can’t do – but everyone has limitations. Every actor brings what they have to a role.

I worked for the Scottish Arts Council for two years, helping organisations become more accessible. When that role came to an end I set up flip with a colleague, to continue that. When organisations are advertising for roles, for example, where do they advertise? Do they say that they want to employ disabled people? If you don’t say that specifically, a lot of potential disabled employees will presume that the company won’t want them, because that’s been their experience over the years.

It’s also about expanding their networks. A lot of directors in Scotland say “I want to employ disabled actors but I don’t know any”. Well get off your bum and meet some – I can introduce you to about forty! On the whole, organisations want to do better. There’s just a lot of fear around getting it wrong and because of that, some people would rather do nothing.

Why it’s important that the industry is inclusive

I think the visibility of disabled artists is going to change attitudes generally. The fact that there are now disabled characters in soaps is a massive step forward. It normalises disabled people. They’re part of society so they should be part of film, TV, theatre or whatever. Disabled people’s stories haven’t been heard, so by putting us on stage, you’re putting our stories on stage. And that creates more interesting, more dynamic theatre that’s better for everyone.

I imagine a lot of non-disabled people think that if you’re disabled, all you’re ever thinking about is your disability but it’s not the case. It would be so boring if it was! To me, talking about gender or sexuality or politics, any of these things, it’s how we become more human and more real to people. That’s what I try to do with the work I make. Because if non-disabled people can look at us and go “well actually you’re not that different from me”, then we can change their perspective.

Robert’s latest show – Purposeless Movements – has been touring in Scotland.

‘Wendy Hoose’ by Johnny McKnight runs at the Soho Theatre, London from 12 April to 7 May. 

A fresh ‘voice’ in theatre

32 year old Kate Caryer has cerebral palsy, no speech and uses a communication aid. She co-runs The Unspoken Project CIC, a company that is currently fundraising for the stage premier of Speechless, a unique coming-of-age play about someone without speech.  

Kate believes it’s time that the authentic voice of disabled people is heard and what better day than World Theatre Day on 26 March to make a pledge to make it happen.

My name is Kate Caryer and I am a rude, pink-haired theatre lover, who also happens to have cerebral palsy and no speech.

I use a communication aid to speak (think a punk Stephen Hawking), but the words that come out of my computer will quickly shatter any stereotypes you might have about disabled people.

Alongside my mate, Paul C. Mooney, trained actor and director, I run The Unspoken Project CIC.

A poster for the Unspoken CIC theatre group

We are an inclusive theatre company set up to give opportunities to disabled and non-disabled actors, writers and theatre-makers. We also believe that it is time to hear the real voices of disabled people, beyond the sob stories about pitiable, pathetic caricatures, desperate to ‘overcome’ their tragic disabilities.

Our first major drama production Speechless – written by me – intends to set the story straight.

The story of Speechless

Kate with her cast members

Speechless tells the tale of Rebecca Walker, a teenager with cerebral palsy and no speech nor access to the communication support to allow her devious teenage thoughts to be heard.

Like most teenagers, she is keen to rebel against her parents, and craves the freedom of being an adult. We follow Rebecca on a journey of dark humour and disabled villains to arrive at an important conclusion: you don’t need speech to have a voice.

Will Eddie Redmayne be playing the teenage protagonist? For once, all the disabled parts will be played by disabled actors – company policy for the inclusive theatre company.

Speechless provides opportunities for disabled actors to be part of a professional production that tells their stories from their own perspectives.

The Unspoken Project CIC, is currently fundraising for the premier of Speechless. It is time the authentic voice of disabled people is heard. For more information, or to pledge to support this project, please visit our Kickstarter page.

The Unspoken Project also provides opportunities for disabled performers through their variety nights, quiz nights and workshops in schools. Our Rude Games Night is coming up on 21 April from 8pm in the Clisshold Arms, 105 Fortis Green, East Finchley, London, N2 9HR. All welcome. Over 18s only!