DAO pays tribute to one of our most cherished writers: Sophie Partridge

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We are still reeling from the heartbreaking news that DAO journalist and blogger Sophie Partridge has gone from us. Our plan is to publish responses from the disability arts sector on this page to pay tribute to one of our key writers, artists and activists who sadly died unexpectedly on Monday 5 June.

Gini: A tribute to Sophie:

I have never forgotten the first time I met Sophie. She was the hub, bright shining pixie centre of an entourage of powerful, wheeled women. Fierce women who advanced intimidatingly upon me, purposeful and stern, only to pass me by without a second glance. I doubt the entourage remembers, but Sophie did.

We were never more than acquaintances who showed up at the same gigs, but Sophie’s work fascinated me. The moment I heard about Semmersuaq, I could hardly wait to quiz her about it. There was just something about her and her work that struck a chord. Fine notes that echoed through me and brought out good things in me; work I could feel delight in.

Needless to say, I admired her tremendously. Sophie was invited to lead the first LinkUpArts Travels workshop – The Art of Storytelling – and it was magical to spend the day with her. I was inspired to write a blog, not a review, not a fiction, but the legend of a day in Sophie’s company…

Tony Heaton remembering Sophie Partridge

Cartoon of Sophie Partridge with wings. She says: 'Now I can pick the Tories off from the high ground!' A comment from the cartoonist Dave Lupton says 'Who's going to keep me in line now Soph?! Love Crippen x

Sophie tribute © Crippen

Sophie always seemed to be around, I can’t remember the first time I met her, lost in the mists of time, certainly she was a regular at Shape private views and I can picture her now in my mind with a glass of bubbly and that pink pixie grin!

Sophie was also one of the disabled creatives who were a crucial cohort in the Shape project; Re-Framing Disability: portraits from the Royal College of Physicians, amidst the deep discussion we had a lot of fun and Sophie was always sharp with that wicked sense of humour.

The Shape Creatives programme, a series of seven films produced for Shape by David Hevey featured Sophie speaking candidly about her creative journey, made more poignant now.

The world of disability arts is diminished by her death but her work and her spirit will become part of the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.

Sophie was a vital force for good, I know that I, like many, feel privileged to have known her.

A tribute from Jamie Beddard

Sophie was integral and instrumental to our community and beyond; honesty, empathy and integrity; very funny; great and quirky writer; important warrior; brilliant detector of bullshit; unswervingly loyal; a friend; flying high. RIP.

Mik Scarlet says goodbye to a friend

Sophie on the mike

I first met Sophie on a shoot for the BBC’s Disability Programmes Unit way back in the early 1990’s. She was playing the role of a PA user, in a light hearted piece called “The Trouble With PA’s”. I was immediately struck by her talent as an actor.

She was word perfect every time and had the most amazing comedy timing. It wasn’t just me that was struck by her talent, the whole DPU was too and Sophie was soon as regular on the show. She was the go to actor whenever we wanted an every person type who could play straight in the silliest of situations.

Along with this, I also fondly remember reporting on the Graeae “Missing Piece” training scheme run with RADA, that Sophie took part in. We worked together on and off throughout the 90’s, right up until the DPU was closed up. Sadly the closure of the DPU coincided with me being very ill, and so I fell out of touch with many of my co-workers and industry friends, and this included Sophie.

After many years off work, one of my first jobs was with Sophie as part of the amazing Rhinestone Rollers show through Graeae. It was on this show that Sophie and I became close friends. I might not be called a natural dancer, but with Mark Smith’s choreography, the rest of the casts patience and Sophie’s sense of humour and support I was soon strutting my stuff with the rest of the them.

This show was amazing, and Sophie was a star. It is burned into my memory as a time of laughter and happiness. It was during this show that Sophie began advising me on my career. She became a confidant and she advised me on my career right up until her death. It was Sophie who wisely told me “Never injure yourself because of work. No one thanks you, and you’re the one who suffers in the end”. Words I live by, after many years previously of pushing myself far too far in the name of work.

The happiest memory I have of working with Sophie is as part of the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies. We were hired as dancers, and this led to many months together being put through rigorous dance training by Laura Jones. Sophie’s dry wit and ability to make everyone else laugh while appearing to not be joking meant the long days flew by.

It was Sophie that ensured our spirits were always high, and that we avoided the Harvest Bars after the first week. If you were part of the POC you’ll get that joke! Come the big day, it was Sophie who calmed our nerves and made every second the career high point it truly was. I am proud to say that I did Sophie, and James Rose’s make-up for our appearances, which was made all the tougher by Sophie making me laugh as the powder and paint was applied.

I worked with Sophie was on a Channel 5 News report when I presented on the Paralympic legacy. Sophie was an amazing contributor, who passionately described why so many felt so let down by the supposed legacy of 2012. The whole news team were thoroughly impressed at her, and she made the item. At the time of her death I was working on a script for a comedy that I was hoping Sophie would play a lead role in.

The last time I worked with Sophie was as part of the musical project Sonic Vistas. Along with several other disabled musicians, put together my Ivan Riches,we worked on a series of tracks to be performed at Liberty. This was a joyous time yet again. Sophie told us that she had always wanted to perform music, but was worried she would never be able to. To see her excitement and joy as the world of music was opened up to her through the assistive music technology of Drake Music was wonderful. We sang together on the track “Night Train Home”, and every time I hear it I can still see Sophie singing her heart out on the chorus. She went from this project to perform music regularly, including playing live with her good friend John Kelly.

All of this is rather work related, but to be honest this is because I am still processing Sophie’s death. I can’t believe that my wife and I will no longer make visits to her Islington flat for tea and cake, no longer take over coffee shops for yet more tea and cake, laugh and joke with the Pink Pixie or do crazy stuff like dye Sophie’s hair. The fact that we will no longer suddenly be shooed from her home as she had decided she couldn’t take any more of our constant talking (something I now discover was not done just to us two alone, although we really can talk the hind legs of a donkey) cuts like a knife.

Sophie Partridge was a close friend, one of the wisest people I have known, super talented, warm hearted and a massive loss to everyone who knew her. She fought for disabled people’s rights, shone on stage and screen, was an amazing friend and improved the lives of everyone she came in contact with. She may have been pixie sized, but the hole she has left in the universe is too big too measure. I will miss her more than I can say.

A personal appreciation from Ju Gosling aka ju90

I first encountered Sophie in Kaite O’Reilly’s Peeling and was blown away by her performance. Sophie had that elusive magnetic quality which meant that every second of her performances attracted 100% of her audience’s attention.

I was later privileged to perform with Sophie and some of the artists who were closest to her, including Katharine Araniello, Mandy Colleran and Penny Pepper, from 2008-10 in Graeae Theatre Company’s Rhinestone Rollers comedy wheelchair dance troupe. After the first year Sophie became my dance partner, and one abiding memory is of our characters flirting onstage during a costume change at Hackney. Due to our very different collagen disorders we were the shortest and tallest in the company, and due to our second names, both of us also shared a lifetime of being the butt of jokes about birds.

Sophie was subsequently one of the dancers who took part in my Folk in Motion development week in November 2011 at Cecil Sharp House, which gave rise to the company of the same name. Later she performed in our show Access All Areas to celebrate the extension of step-free access to the House, in February 2014. Each member of a ‘wolk’ team wears a different colour, and Sophie’s was of course her trademark pink. Sophie turned the challenge of finding clothes that fitted into an art form in itself, never appearing in public looking less than glamorous. It was always understood that the rule banning handbags from wheelchairs while dancing did not applied to Sophie!

Sophie was a talented writer as well as performer, and I was delighted to programme her show Song of Semmersuaq at the Together! 2013 Disability History Month Festival. The story was inspired by a school visit to Canada — Sophie’s mother was Canadian — where they stayed in a residential school. One of the students — himself absent for his own holidays — was the son of an Inuit chief who shared Sophie’s impairment. This memory continued to intrigue Sophie, and combined with traditional Inuit stories to inspire her show.

In Song of Semmersuaq, Sophie operated a series of puppets, the largest of which was physically attached to her wheelchair in a bespoke and time-consuming process. Her show for the Together! Festival took place at Richard House children’s hospice, for an audience of disabled children and their families. The children had their own puppeteering workshop while the show was being set up, and afterwards Sophie was joined by Nicola Miles Wildin and young actor Eve Smith for a Q&A about careers in the arts. Sophie’s work will continue to inspire generations of young actors, both disabled and non-disabled alike.

Sophie was a very versatile performer, and her collaborative work with Tina Carter with circus silks was documented in the film Hang Ups by Anton Carter, which I screened in the Artists Films & Videos programme at the Together! 2013 Disability Film Festival. Film helped to introduce Sophie’s work to new audiences, and I was also pleased to screen Penny Pepper’s Doing It in 2013’s Short Dramas programme, where Sophie starred as a woman seeking contraceptive advice from a hugely uncomfortable medical professional; and in 2014, David Hevey’s profile of Sophie’s work for Shape Creatives.

In 2015 Sophie collaborated with Mandy Collleran and filmmaker Simon Startin to create Cripplebox. This gentle parody of the popular Channel 4 programme took on the subject of ‘cripping up’, with Eddie Redmayne receiving his Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking. I was delighted to screen this film in 2015, as well as the follow-up by Penny Woolcock in 2016, which was created for the Jeremy Corbyn social media campaign. It’s a great sadness that Sophie missed seeing the results of that campaign by just a few days. Her last tweet, on 2 June, said simply: ‘How could anyone NOT vote for Jezza?! :-)’

Sophie was always active on social media, and as Ruby Pixie was my most constant retweeter. I was honoured that she took time out of her busy schedule to read my tweets, and it created an ongoing connection between us. She was particularly fond of tweets about my dogs Genie and then Jazz, being a great dog-lover herself. It was a source of ongoing sadness to Sophie that the rigid conditions set by the assistance dog organisations excluded her from dog ownership herself, when it had the potential to transform her life. One of the questions that I always ask myself when assessing the inclusivity of an activity is ‘could Sophie participate fully?’, and her passing won’t change this.

Sophie’s last action on Twitter, on the evening of the day before she died, was to ‘like’ a retweet that I’d originally posted from Regard on Saturday night: “#OneLoveManchester #OneLondon #LoveSpreads”. I will be wearing pink at the Liberty Festival in Sophie’s honour this year, always our very own Ruby Pixie as well as being an extraordinary British artist. Look out for her work in the Together! Film Festival highlights programme being played on the main stage at the Liberty Festival between live acts.

A tribute from DAO Editor Colin Hambrook

Sophie had been writing for DAO regularly since 2010. Her warmth and sparkly personality shone through the bright conversational tone that was a hallmark of her writing. She had a passion for theatre and dance, and was equally excited and supportive of newcomers as well as the ‘old guard’ of the disability arts scene.

Sophie Partridge pictured with her giant puppet

Sophie Partridge with her giant puppet ‘Semmersuaq’

Her review of Mat Fraser’s Richard III came in the Friday before her untimely death. Sophie always celebrated the achievements of other disabled artists and she was extra delighted at seeing Mat being given a much-deserved big role in a mainstream production commissioned as part of Hull City of Culture, no less.

Sophie always valued both the art and the disability perspective in all the disability arts practice she reviewed for DAO and wrote with a keen intelligence often pointing out aspects of the productions she saw that other mainstream journals missed. She was a one-off. Irreplaceable.

Her joy and passion for theatre was balanced with a powerful sense of justice as an activist and campaigner for disability rights. She stepped up to the mark for the 10,000 Cuts and Counting memorial in Parliament Square in September 2013. Organised by Occupy London, Sophie read the words of Karen Sherlock’s own account of a 3 year battle with ATOS after being declared fit to work, despite failing eyesight and being in need of a kidney transplant. Sophie recognised a kindred spirit in Karen’s testimony, warriors both.

Whether Sophie was playing the enigmatic Coral in Kaite O’Reilly’s peeling, swanning the stage at Liberty in the Rhinestone Rollers or rocking out with Drake Music’s Sonic Vistas she gave her roles her all and loved every bit of it. She had an arresting presence on stage made unique by her physicality and command of an audience. Her role as Queen Little Limbs in Graeae’s The Limbless Knight saw a daring and plucky side to her character, performing on a swing suspended from a frame, 20 feet from the ground. Sophie always lived life to the full, with a strong philosophical attitude towards the risks she took.

Her own writing for theatre – especially her Song of Semmersuaq – was her pride and joy, always pushing herself to new artistic heights.

We will miss the joy and humanity Sophie gave to everyone who came into contact with her. Pink Pixie was the signature she used to sign off her correspondence. I can see her up in the spirit world now, dancing with the Imps and the Pixies, the Fairies and Sprites.

God bless. It was a privilege to have known you. You’ll be sorely missed x