Glasgow-based, disability-led Birds of Paradise Theatre Company is celebrating its 25th birthday during 2018 but, as artistic director Robert Softley-Gale tells Paul F Cockburn, they are far from complacent about the future.
It’s a notable achievement for any arts organisation – let alone a disability-led one – to celebrate its 25th anniversary, but in January 2018 Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise (BoP) Theatre Company hit the headlines for quite the wrong reasons, after arts-funding body Creative Scotland announced it would no longer include the company within its portfolio of Regular Funding Organisations (RFO).
At the time, current artistic director Robert Softley Gale suggested the cut separated disability productions from the rest of Scotland’s theatre sector:
“By Creative Scotland cutting us in this way, it feels that these disabled stories aren’t meant to be part of the arts ecology in Scotland and that it is no longer a strategic priority to have an exemplar of a disabled-led company that guarantees disabled people and their stories are present in our theatre culture.”
The decision was subsequently reversed, after hugely damaging public and professional outrage. Several months on, Robert can now look back at the events with some black humour.
“You don’t want to get complacent or cocky, but in the 25 years up until now, our work had never been stronger. We were reaching more people; there was no question about the quality of the work. Even in the assessment stage they recommended we get funded. Obviously, we’re very happy to be back in RFO; but there are a lot of questions about next time round: if it’s not about the quality of the work, then what’s it about?”
Although 2018 marks BoP’s silver anniversary, its origins actually go back as far as 1989; 2018 is the 25th anniversary of BoP becoming both a limited company and registered charity under the ‘Birds of Paradise’ name. Nevertheless, there is a continuity of purpose: the company’s original goal was to provide training for disabled performers and theatre makers, a function BoP continues to undertake today by supporting the next generation of disabled artists.
Back in early 2003, one of those young disabled artists was Robert himself. In fact, BoP provided Robert with his first professional acting gig. After returning to university for a couple of years, Robert was back with BoP in 2005, joining a somewhat drunken touring production of the country called Brazil 12 Scotland 0.
“There was one night on that tour, on the Island of Jura; we played in the main hall and 55 people showed up. We said: ‘We’re not doing badly here!’ The place then had a population of about 58!”
Of course, BoP didn’t always have such a wide reach. The financial uncertainty arising from Creative Scotland’s decision in January 2018 couldn’t be said to be unprecedented. Indeed, according to former board member Andy Arnold (current artistic director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre), BoP had been beset by financial challenges throughout its existence. Although, Morven Gregor (its artistic director between 2004 and 2011) managed to put the company on somewhat more solid financial foundations, while pioneering new approaches to the company’s outreach work.
Her departure led to Robert – by this time armed with both experience as an industry-recognised theatre performer, as well as founder of his own disability-focused arts company Flip – back to BoP, albeit alongside fellow disabled actor, writer and director Garry Robson.
“Me and Garry applied at the same time, and the BoP Board couldn’t make up their mind, so they gave it to us both! I knew Garry well; a big part of the thinking was that we’d still be able to do our own things. Also, Garry and I are very different directors and do very different work, so it makes for a variety of voices – we wouldn’t be making just one kind of work.”
“We didn’t have any idea of what we would do together; just that desire to reach a bigger audience and to make the best theatre we could make. That was our starting point. From that I went off and did ‘Wendy Hoose’ and ‘Purposeless Movements’; Garry made ‘Crazy Jane’, ‘Role Shift’ and children’s show ‘The Tin Soldier’. We both respected the other; we were making the best quality work that we could.”
BoP has, from its earliest days, worked with other theatre companies, and not simply out of financial necessity.
“A big part of it is how do we make the rest of Scotland’s theatre more accessible, more diverse? How do we have that impact on the sector? I think the best way to do that is to do co-productions, and campaign that way. With ‘Wendy Hoose’, I knew I wanted to do a comedy and I wanted it to be high quality. Theatre company Random Accomplice were the ideal people to work with on that.”
“They had never done anything on disability before, so we brought that expertise, and they brought their comedic expertise, and we ‘made wonderful music together’. And if you look at Random Accomplice’s productions after Wendy Hoose, including their contribution to the  Commonwealth Games, they used a disabled actor in that. We pass on that skill, and then other companies can feel they can do that themselves.”
In addition, BoP itself benefits from such collaborations: the company’s main production this year – the celebratory musical drama ‘My Left Right Foot’ – is being put on during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland. Robert has worked with the national company before – indeed, he’s a board member. He’s well aware that having its name attached to a BoP show can change people’s perceptions, of both disabled performers and the company itself.
As theatre slowly becomes more accessible, though, does BoP still have a role to play?
“Absolutely, even if every theatre company in Scotland made access part of what they do, what our remit is still about is putting the stories of disabled people on stage. In the same way that Stellar Quines still plays a pivotal role in talking about gender, making gender part of our culture, BoP has a pivotal role in making disability part of our cultural conversation.”