Disability and Accessibility in Theatre with Robert Softley Gale
We speak to theatre-maker and performer Robert Softley Gale about accessibility in the Arts and making theatre in Scotland.
In this episode of The Spotlight Podcast, we talk to Robert Softley Gale. Robert has worked in the Arts for over 20 years and sits on the board of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Robert is a writer, theatre-maker and actor whose work includes My Left/Right Foot, Girl X, Purposeless Movements and If These Spasms Could Speak. He's currently working on a new production for stage called Don't. Make. Tea, a dark comedy about the disability benefits system.
He's also the Artistic Director at Birds of Paradise Theatre Company and is an advocate of equality for access to the Arts, particularly for disabled people, be they artists or audiences.
We chat with him about his career, his work writing, directing and acting on stage, and making theatre accessible for cast, crew and the audience.
All episodes of The Spotlight Podcast.
Find out more information about Birds of Paradise's latest production and watch the trailer for Don't Make. Tea on the Birds of Paradise (BoP) website.
Kristyn Coutts: Can I start off by asking you how you got into acting?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. I mean, word got round about 20 years ago. I was at university at the time, at Glasgow Uni, and up until that point in my life I'd been involved a little bit in amateur theatre. My family were big in Edinburgh, in Scotland, but being a young disabled guy in the '90s, there wasn't really a place for me there. I would go backstage and would do sort of props and sets, stuff like that, a little bit of directing, but there wasn't room for me on stage. So I was at uni and I'd been doing a little bit of public speaking about disability and education, and someone came along to one of those who worked for a company in Edinburgh called Theatre Workshop and they said, "Have you ever thought about becoming an actor? We are recruiting for a resident company. Why don't you apply?"
Now, looking back, it seems pretty ridiculous. I went, "Yeah, yeah! I'll apply for that," but I was 20, so I was pretty cocky. I thought, "Why not?" So I applied for the job. I went for an audition. It was the first time I'd ever done an audition in my life and I did... There's a famous Scottish play called The Schemie, and there's a monologue called Isn't it Wonderful to be a Woman? So me, this 20-year-old disabled guy, got up and gave Isn't it Wonderful to be a Woman? I think that's why they remembered me and I got the job.
Kristyn Coutts: What was the reaction to it? How did that go down?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Well, I think they were surprised but also, I knew the play quite well, so I could give it quite a good spin and so they liked what I did, I got the job and I got a one-year resident contract. And then, from there, I made contacts and built up a network and I think, I know we all say this, but I think I always thought, well, I'll keep doing this until I get found out, until someone says, "Nah, you're not that great. Bugger off." And no one's done that yet, so I just keep going.
Kristyn Coutts: Long may it continue.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Well, whenever that day comes, I will work out something else to do.
Kristyn Coutts: Well, it sounds like you keep pretty busy though.Not only are you an actor, you're also a writer, theatre-maker, artistic director. You've got a lot going on.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: So I wondered what kind of inspires you when you're creating your work or putting those different hats on?
Robert Softley Gale: What inspires me? I call quite a lot of it 'the stories of disabled people' and the fact that, in our culture in the UK, those stories haven't been told that much, so I guess, for me, it's all about telling those stories in new ways that are interesting and entertaining and etc, etc. And that's quite vague and quite meta, but I guess that's what I go back to with every tour that I do, with everything that I write, I'm just telling stories that haven't been told before. I think that we're bad, in the UK especially, for telling the same stories that we've told for 100 years. And they're often written by white, middle-class, middle-aged men and we've heard it all before, whereas I think what I'm doing brings a different perspective, bring a different experience.
So that's what I keep going back to. And that could be things like stories about disabled drag queens or about my experience of am-dram, that went into a show. The stories are quite wide-ranging but they always go back to that core of the stories of disabled people, of what they could be.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. And then, on that subject, you're Artistic Director at Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, for anyone who might not be unfamiiar with them, can you tell us a little bit about them and about your journey into how you joined them?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. So Birds of Paradise was started in 1993, so almost 30 years ago. Obviously, I was far too young at that point, but it came out of the... The City of Culture was in Glasgow in 1990 and, like any City of Culture, they had a lot of activity around the time, and disabled people were getting involved in acting stuff and in theatre stuff. And then, when all of that died away, a group of disabled adults got together and said, "How could we keep going? How could we keep developing our craft?" So they formed Birds of Paradise as a way of developing their skills. So the company started as a training resource in a way, as a way for disabled adults to develop their acting skills and develop drama skills, and from there it grew and developed and got kind of where it is today.
So now the company... Yeah, we're almost 30 years old. We're quite a big producing theatre company in Scotland and we work with disabled and non-disabled actors and artists. People backstage as well. But we also do a lot of development work for young disabled people and older disabled people who want to develop their skills as theatre-makers. And then, lastly, we work with other companies around Scotland, and around the UK, who want to include disabled actors in their work, so we support them to develop their capacity to be inclusive.
Kristyn Coutts: And is that done through workshops? Is it going on-site? Is it them coming to you? I'm just interested in how that conversation happens and then goes into action.
Robert Softley Gale: I think, like any company, we'll do anything that we can get paid for. Whatever you want to make it work, we'll make it work. I guess a lot of the bread and butter is around the route of disability equality training. So we'll go out to meetings and to their staff, to the front-of-house staff and to their creative teams, a sort of disability equality training package. And that quite often can start a conversation about what they can be doing to better include disabled people in their audiences, but also in their creative teams.
But obviously from that could be some bespoke work where a company may ask us to come in to work with them on a longer scale, to look at how they can be more inclusive and how they can build that into their policies and practises. Things like that. So it could be a wide range of things, or it can be very specific, we quite often get asked to look at an organisation's website to look at how that could be made more accessible.
Kristyn Coutts: It's a whole range of stuff.
Robert Softley Gale: ... if we can get paid for it, we'll do it!
Kristyn Coutts: And we can do a little advertisement at the end of this as well.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah, exactly.
Kristyn Coutts: So, talking more about Birds of Paradise and about the kind of work that they put on, how do the productions come about?
Robert Softley Gale: That's a good question, because I think one of the common misconceptions at the company is we've got a sort of collective of disabled actors who we keep going back to. We always make the joke that we haven't got disabled people in a cupboard somewhere that we can pull out at any random point. It's not that. We're a small core company of five people, who are myself, the Executive Director Mairi Taylor, we've got a Producer, we've got an Education and Outreach worker, but then, when we're going to do a production, we bring on board actors, production managers, stage managers, etc. And the productions come up in a variety of ways, but usually there's an idea that we come up with as a company that we start to develop through workshops and development weeks, and then we'll spend a number of years working with artists to develop ideas and then eventually take it into production. It differs from show to show.
Quite often I've been the writer on the show, and that happens all the time, I'm involved in that capacity, but usually also directing. But our current show, Don't. Make. Tea., written by a writer that I know very well and have known for a long time, Rob Drummond, we started speaking about five years ago about a play looking at disability benefits but doing that in a way that was quite irreverent, quite a lot of dark humour and things like that, and Rob responded to that really well and worked with us writing the piece. So it really depends on the show and what's best for that show.
Kristyn Coutts: Mm-hmm. And is that what you're currently in rehearsal for at the moment?
Robert Softley Gale: Yes, so we're now in week two of rehearsal. We've got another two weeks of rehearsal and then we go into production week, so it's quite... And this is a 1h 48m show, so it's quite a big, two-acts beast. But it's a great piece. We also, as a company, we look to making our shows as accessible as possible to the audience, so we're build audio description, BSL interpretation and captions into the fabric of the show. So with this show, there's a big task of making it... So the BSL interpreter is on skage. The captions are built into the set. The audio description's going in the script. And all of these things add more complexity to the piece, but ultimately it also makes it, I think, a better-
Kristyn Coutts: But adds more audience as well, I guess.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Completely. Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: Okay. And then, for a show like that when you're... As you were saying, "it's a beast". So how do you go about casting?
Robert Softley Gale: Casting's quite an interesting process for us. Quite often we will cast and then build a show around the people that we've got. So we did a show back in 2016 called Purposeless Movements and that was about four guys with cerebral palsy, it was looking at their masculinity and their impairment and how that worked together. So we got the four guys together first of all and then we built the show around them.
This show's different, this show, as I say, was written by a playwright and the casting spec was developed with him, so we then had to go out and find those individuals and, I won't lie to you, finding disabled actors with specific impairments who are able to hold up a production is quite a big challenge. We spent maybe three or four months looking for a cast and getting the right people together. We kept going back to people and we kept looking and we eventually got there. There's a great team at BoP who bring all of that work together, and we just kept looking for the right people.
Kristyn Coutts: It sounds like quite an undertaking, I guess, if it's not made easy for you to find people and you want to make sure they're the right people, obviously, and when you were saying there's only... What did you say, five of you?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Yeah, it's a big cast and we're very passionate about making the highest quality work that we can. I know everybody says that, nobody's looking to make work that isn't great, but I think because we are actually representing disabled art, we feel a sort of added pressure of... I think, some things, the audience can come home thinking, "oh, isn't it lovely these disabled people are making work?" And that's what we want them to go away with. So we're very passionate about making sure that we get the best people that we can.
Kristyn Coutts: If someone, for example, you don't have your 'famous cupboard', but if someone maybe were interested in working with you, how would they go about finding out what you're casting for?
Robert Softley Gale: We are quite a small company, so quite often we're casting once a year, or maybe twice a year, so it's quite hard to say "keep checking back" because it's not that often. But I think do get in touch, do send us your information. We love having conversations with people and finding out who's out there. And quite often that then doesn't translate into anything solid for years ahead, but if we find the right people, we will keep going back to them to try to make it work.
Kristyn Coutts: And I'm just skipping back to something you spoke about earlier. We were talking about making theatre accessible for audiences, do you have any top tips off the top of your head about how a theatre-maker could... Just some things that they should be thinking about to make their work more accessible, both for the company who are going to be in the show, but also for the audience.
Robert Softley Gale: I mean, if you start with the audience, the thing that I always say to any theatre-maker, any director, the core job is to make an idea accessible. You've got the idea in your head and nobody knows what that's about until you tell someone. So you're making it accessible in telling someone. So all we do is take that further. So we take it and we look at people who are blind or visually impaired, or people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and we say, "Well, how do we make it accessible to them?" It's not some magic or some great skill. It's about going, "Okay. You can't hear that. How can we make it accessible to you?"
There's no easy answer to that sometimes. Sometimes it's complex. Quite often we use a lot of humour in our work or comedy, and that's great, but when you're also giving it in BSL and in captions, and when people might not get a visual gag, etc... So they've got to work out how to make a joke accessible, for example. So that is just about taking the idea and making it work for as many people as possible. You'll never make it completely accessible, because some people will need a different thing that will be the opposite of other people, but you can do the best you can and work from there.
And making it accessible for the cast and the crew. I mean, confusing. Before anybody comes to work for BOP, they get an access survey, a questionnaire, and I think there are four core questions around access that we actually put, so we can gather that information because we can't respond to things we don't know about. So that's the first step.
The second step is in the rehearsal room, the first thing we do is get around a table and we ask people, what do they require to do their best work. And that might be about disability, but also it might be about dietary requirements or heat levels or childcare. It could be anything. But I think basing it around what you need to do your best work is putting the onus on we're here to do a job and how can we make that work the best it can be.
Kristyn Coutts: I mean, that makes complete sense to me. I feel like that should be a thing that happens in every workspace.
Robert Softley Gale: Well, that's what we always say. Nothing we do is rocket science. It's your-
Kristyn Coutts: But it's doing it.
Robert Softley Gale: Well, just doing it, yeah. We're just trying it. We make a lot of mistakes. Look, we don't always get it right, but we hold our hands up and go, "We didn't get that right and we'll try to do better next time." And that also, I think, it's a big part of what we do. Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. So you mentioned it a little bit there, so obviously you're an advocate of equality of access to the Arts, but it's for disabled artists, but also you're a father. I know that childcare is often an issue that actors face because it's a creative, difficult job when you're also having parental responsibilities, so I just wondered, how are you balancing that?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. I think the pandemic made it interesting because my kids are quite young, so I had a good couple of years of not having to balance that because I was at home all the time with them. Now that we're back into the room and back making work, it is a real challenge. I think it's about knowing that you've got varying time periods where their mum is going to take a lot of the strain, and then will go into a time where I can take more of the strain, so that's quite a big part of it.
I think I'm dodging the question about how we run a rehearsal period. In the UK, we've been doing rehearsal periods for so long that we've forgotten why we do it that way. And there's no requirement to do it that way. Obviously, there's a limited amount of money and we're trying to make things happen for the least amount of money that we can, but there are other ways to do things. They can space it out more. They can make it more accessible to people in general. I mean, none of us make our best work when we are exhausted. Why do we keep doing it over and over again?
Kristyn Coutts: I think there's a long way to go with childcare.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Yeah. I completely agree.
Kristyn Coutts: I don't have any answers for it, I just, as a new mother myself, I'm feeling the pain of it.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. And I think a lot of that is about culture. And we've got a kind of culture in the Arts of you have to work every hour that you've got. I mean, we're recording this at 8:30 at night, because that's when we can fit it in, so it's how we work, but we don't have to work this way. Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. I think there are a lot of bigger conversations, aren't there?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: You start off talking about this and it sort of snowballs and you're like, "Ah, there's so much"- that should be, could be, done.
Robert Softley Gale: And I don't think we've got the answers, but we need to start looking for them.
Kristyn Coutts: Or at least start talking about it as well, I guess, because, I mean, there's a lot of people who must be in the same situation, right?
Robert Softley Gale: Completely.
Kristyn Coutts: So, I'm jumping around a little bit, but as a touring company as well, which Birds of Paradise is, you take work to theatre venues up and down the country, across Europe, what challenges does that bring in terms of the logistics of touring? When you have all this stuff you've got to think about, so with the captions, the BSL interpreters, access to the stage itself, the audience, so how do you work that all out?
Robert Softley Gale: It's a nightmare. I mean, it really is, because, look, this can work on home soil. We've got to know what we're having to work with. But if we're going somewhere where we haven't been before, we are going into the unknown. Quite often we try to send someone ahead of time to find out how accessible a place is, because, even if you ask people if they're accessible, quite often they'll say yes, but they won't know. If they're going, "Yes, we are," and you get there and there are two steps and they go, "Oh, we forgot about those two steps." So it's a real challenge. And also, from an audience development point of view, well, how are we going to develop an audience and get their trust and get their confidence when we haven't got control over what's going on? So it's a real challenge.
I think we are now getting better at it because we work with people who are quite big partners. We go to venues that are bigger, so that we can have a bit more reliability about what they can offer. But in terms of the challenge, it's a real feat to get them to really engage with us as a company because access is not some added extra, it's core to what we do, and that's what we tell them.
Kristyn Coutts: So what are the sort of the main issues you're seeing when it comes to sort of inclusivity of artists, disabled artists?
Robert Softley Gale: I think a lot of theatres now have pretty good access to the auditorium, but backstage it's still pretty inaccessible. It's not always, but quite a lot of it will be quite inaccessible backstage. So that's the obvious one.
And then, beyond that, I do think it's a big audience development question because the way that we do captions and BSL and audio description isn't complex, but if people don't know about it, then they're not going to come. And even if they do know about it, they maybe aren't going to believe it. So it's about building up relationships, building up trust, all of that sort of stuff to give people the reassurance that what they will receive will be as accessibles as we can make it, within what we can control.
Kristyn Coutts: How do you balance the promotion of it as a show, and then balance it with this is accessible for all of these people? How do you get that level, or does it just come part and parcel?
Robert Softley Gale: I think it's sort of part of the same, I mean, if you like, all marketing is saying, "Come to the show. It will work for you." And all we're having to do is add more information to that, to say, "It'll work for you even if you are blind or visually impaired, even if you are deaf and hard of hearing, it'll still work for you." And quite often that's things like doing a BSL trailer so that deaf people on social media can get information about the show and that gives them reassurance. It's about engaging with local organisations to get the message out there. It's a lot. It's a lot of work, but there's no point in putting something on if people don't come, so you just have to get on with it.
Kristyn Coutts: We, well, not myself, but a colleague spoke to you a few years ago at the [Edinburgh] Fringe. I believe that it was a video. So we were talking a little on similar subjects then. Have you noticed anything, any nice, big changes, any positive changes, that's happened when it comes to representation and inclusion? I think maybe we spoke to you four years ago?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah.
Kristyn Coutts: Maybe five?
Robert Softley Gale: I mean, there've definitely been changes. If you look now at the National Theatre in London, for example, there's The Normal Heart last year that they got Liz Carr in the cast, who's a great disabled actor. She then got an Olivier Award for that role, so that's huge. That's massive. I mean, the National Theatre right now, today, are doing another show called All of Us, again about disability, so that show they did last year wasn't a one-off, It was an ongoing commitment to equality of access and that gives you a lot of reassurance as well.
If you look at TV and film, disabled actors are now there. They're not there enough, they're not there all the time, but they're there in a way that they weren't five years ago, so that's definitely progress.
People are coming to us and talking to us a lot now, where five years ago we were going to them, having to get them to speak to us, so that power balance has definitely changed.
Have we still got a long way to go? Yes, of course, we have, but it's definitely there. The value of role models like Liz Carr, Francesca Martinez who wrote All of Us, cannot be underestimated, because by them being at the vanguard we then get a lot more people thinking, "oh, great, I could go and work in the Arts", "I could become an actor." And it all rolls on from there.
Kristyn Coutts: And what leads me nicely on to my next question is, what's your vision for the future of the Arts and disabled artists? I'm putting my arms up in big movements here!
Robert Softley Gale: What's the grand vision?
Kristyn Coutts: Yes.
Robert Softley Gale: I think it is doing what we're doing, but just doing more of it, getting it bigger, taking it to more places, getting it seen by more people. I think that's all we can do. We can't do anything other than what we know, and that is again going back to what I said about telling our stories, about getting our place in culture carved out, so I think it is just about seeing... Now, especially in London now, seeing a Black actor on stage is completely unremarkable. It's just par for the course. So when we get to the same place with disabled actors, that'll be another great milestone of progress.
But in the same way that there are still Black theatre-makers and directors and writers making work about their experience, there will always need to be disabled theatre-makers and writers and directors making work about our experience. That will never go away, we'll never become assimilated and I don't think we want to be either. But we will become part of the fabric of culture in the UK and the world. Ha ha!
Kristyn Coutts: You're doing a really big, evil cackle there.
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Quite.
Kristyn Coutts: Wonderful. So you're working out of Glasgow and you're also on the board of the National Theatre of Scotland, I understand.
Robert Softley Gale: I am, yes.
Kristyn Coutts: So can you talk a bit about what the Arts scene is like in Scotland?
Robert Softley Gale: Obviously, I'm biased, because I think we're great! But I think there's something really special about Scotland because we're quite small. And we all know each other and when you've been in the industry for 20 years, like I have, you've met most people and you know most people, so we all get on pretty well with the job. We work together a lot, there's a lot of cooperation, a lot of co-production work, and that feels really positive.
I also think, because we've got the Edinburgh Fringe, there's such a focus in Scotland of innovative work, or new work, of just giving things a go. That makes you very proud to be working in Scotland. I think, for me, it's like a part of my identity, being Scottish, and as I said before, I use humour a lot in my work, and a lot of the humour that I use is quite West Coast Scottish, downward humour. So it's actually very much a part of what I do is put the Scottish disabled experience on stage, and that's a lot of fun for me.
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. Have you noticed that there are more opportunities for actors and theatre-makers in Scotland now than perhaps ever there were before?
Robert Softley Gale: I think there are. I think there's always the temptation for actors to go to London because they've got to work there, there are a lot of opportunities there. But the community that we've got in Scotland of companies, makers and artists is really exciting. I think a lot of people either get drawn back to Scotland or just stay here because they like it. They like that way of working.
Kristyn Coutts: I think it's quite interesting because I was out at the Fringe, I was seeing my family because they live in Edinburgh, but also interviewing Spotlight members, seeing how their shows were going, how the experience has been for them, and it was quite interesting that quite a few of them who were Scottish and continue to be based in Scotland are now making conscious decisions to stay there, whereas they freely admitted that in the past they probably would have gone to London. But I think there's, well, from what I was being told, there seems like there are more productions are coming Up North, not just for theatre but also for film and TV, and also it's probably cheaper to live there.
Robert Softley Gale: Much! Much, much!
Kristyn Coutts: Yeah. With self-taping coming to full fruition now, that maybe opens up some opportunities for auditions that maybe weren't there before, so it's quite an interesting time, I think.
Robert Softley Gale: Completely. And I also think theatre, it's so local. We make work in Glasgow and it's not that the work's about Glasgow, of course, it's not, but it's informed by that experience that makes it work in Glasgow. And what I love is we then take that work around Scotland and around the UK and around the world. We made a show in 2018 called My Left/Right Foot and that was a big musical, a big comedy, and that then went to Japan. And to sit in an audience in Japan and watch people laugh at the same jokes that people were laughing at in Glasgow is a very humbling experience because you realise that we're all pretty similar. We all laugh at the same sort of stuff. We all enjoy the same sort of stories. And I think that can be really positive universal truth that we can hold onto.
Kristyn Coutts: I have two more questions for you. So the first one is, what's your ambition as an actor?
Robert Softley Gale: Wow.
Kristyn Coutts: I know. It's like a job interview, isn't it?
Robert Softley Gale: Yeah. Yeah. Do I get the job at the end?
Kristyn Coutts: Yes, 100%.
Robert Softley Gale: My ambition as an actor. I tell you, I've done a lot of theatre, and a lot of great theatre, and for a long time I said that I didn't like doing TV or film. And then, just at the start of the pandemic, I did a BBC film, a monologue called CripTales, and there were six monologues. It went out on the BBC and they did pretty well, we got two BAFTA nominations and one other award, and I quite enjoyed that, so maybe it's a little bit more TV and film.
Kristyn Coutts: So you'd be looking for the screen.
Robert Softley Gale: It's a different skill that I didn't have before, that I still haven't got, but that I want to develop, or want to work on. So there's definitely that.
What other ambitions do I have as an actor? Just to do more, because it's a massive privilege to walk out on stage and have 200, 2000, or whatever number of people pay their hard-earned money to listen to you waffle on for a couple of hours. It's a massive privilege, so if I can keep doing that, if I can keep being asked to do that, then great! I'm very humbled by it.
Kristyn Coutts: Okay. And finally, what are you currently watching, reading or listening to that you'd recommend to other people? I always like to finish with this one, because I always enjoy a recommendation.
Robert Softley Gale: Because I'm driving quite a lot to get to rehearsals, I'm back into listening to a lot of podcasts. I listen to the ones that are quite, well known like This American Life or 99% Invisible, all those. But there's another one called Criminal that I love because it's just people committing very strange crimes and I think there's something about me that I love strange stories about people being weird, being odd, and this does that so well. So a podcast called Criminal, I recommend.
I also just think podcasts in general. I know this makes me sound really old because most young people are going, "Well, yeah. Podcasts are part of what we do", but I came to podcasts quite late and I just think they are the best thing ever. You can pick and choose and get can get really niche subjects, really interesting stories, that you would never have got by listening to the radio or whatever, and so, more podcasts.
Kristyn Coutts: There's a lot more creative freedom with a podcast, I feel, than the radio.
Robert Softley Gale: And also you can get podcasts from anywhere in the world and find out about any sort of person and all of that I love.
Kristyn Coutts: Perfect. And on that note, thank you so much for your time, Robert. I really appreciate it.
Robert Softley Gale: Thank you, Kristyn.
Kristyn Coutts: Lovely to talk to you.
Robert Softley Gale: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Photo credit: Soundtrap / Unsplash
Headshot credit: Eoin Carey