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.