Birds of Paradise co-Artistic Director Robert Softley Gale talks with Paul F Cockburn about the company's new physical theatre work, Purposeless Movements.
In 2012, the actor Robert Softley Gale first performed If These Spasms Could Speak, an acclaimed one-man show in which he performed a collection of amusing, sad, touching and surprising stories about disabled people and their bodies.
It’s a show he has continued to perform since becoming co-Artistic Director (along with Garry Robson) of Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, but that role has now enabled him to take things to the next level: Purposeless Movements.
“I think a lot of my work is looking at how disabled people move and how we’re perceived by how we move, so having done Spasms, this is a multi-person piece. It’s also about looking at things like gender and disability; what is it to be a disabled man? What does that bring to it?”
Another starting point for Softley Gale was the quite deliberate “reclaiming” of some medical terminology – the idea that cerebral palsy gives someone “purposeless movements”.
“I sat and thought about that for a while: what does that mean? What movements have purpose, and what movements don’t – and how do you know which is which?”
While Softley Gale had a number of ideas already in place, the new show initially started coming together during a fortnight’s development work with the cast, towards the end of 2015. The process has since speeded up.
“In the last few weeks, the movement director has worked a lot with the movement that comes from the guys. We’re not teaching choreography; we’re asking them what they do and how they move, then working from that. That’s really highlighted a lot of interesting things.”
Spasms was very speech-based when it came to the stories it told; Purposeless Movements, however, is much more physical theatre, focused on movement and the interaction between the five performers. This is deliberate, not least because Softley Gale believes that there’s a genuine appetite for the “different” choreography which disabled performers can offer.
“I think disability arts has gone much further in dance than it has in any other art form – with people like Claire Cunningham, Caroline Bowditch and Marc Brew. I think it’s because we can bring our own body to the party, if you like; it’s about being real. It’s not about doing a classical text or any of that sort of thing. I hope that this can take it a little further again.”
Given that Birds of Paradise’s most recent production was the acclaimed sex comedy Wendy Hoose, some people might be surprised by this new production. Softley Gale accepts it’s a “big leap”, and one that’s taking the company to some of Scotland’s largest stages.
“We’re doing Tramway [in Glasgow, home to Scottish Ballet], Traverse Theatre [in Edinburgh] and Eden Court [Inverness]. We normally tour to smaller venues, but this show is a big show, so we can only take it to certain places. But I like that as well; going from a one man show that fits on an eight feet-by-eight feet stage to a show that fills 12 metres by 12 metres.
“We don’t want to be pigeon-holed as one particular type of theatre; it’s also that I get bored pretty quickly! Plus, there’s no one type of work that disabled artists do. We can do bits of everything; so, as a company, we have to present as wide a range as possible. I think people get what we’re doing.
“Part of our Creative Scotland funding is to make one mainstream show per year, so this will be our show for 2015/16 – we’re just getting it in at the end! We’ve already started on the next one; it’ll probably be a Christmas/Winter show for young people. That’s a competitive market, but one of the things that we really value is young people being able to see disabled people on stage, to have disabled role models, and Panto-time is when they’re all coming to the theatre. It is quite a competitive market, but we’re up for that.”
While Softley Gale is very much still “in the zone” when it comes to creating the show, there are suggestions that it could eventually tour beyond its initial three-venue run in Scotland.
“We’ve already had requests for it to go internationally. I’m like: ‘Come on, let me make it first!’ It’s great that people trust me, but that can be a bit scary as well, though. I don’t think I trust me! But I think Purposeless Movements could go international; there are already people who are really interested in making it, so we’ll see how it goes. Luckily there’s not a lot of set: it needs a big stage, but not a lot of… ‘stuff’. So yeah, I think it would be great if it did tour; again, dance is the sort of thing we can tour more easily.”