Robert Softley Gale

Robert Softley Gale is a Glasgow-based director, writer, performer, and artistic director of Birds of Paradise (BOP), a touring theatre company that promotes the work of disabled artists in partnership with non-disabled artists.

His previous shows include the critically acclaimed and award-winning My Left/Right Foot the Musical and his solo piece, If These Spasms Could Speak, which toured to Brazil, Estonia, Ireland, India and the USA. He is one of Scotland’s most prominent advocates for equality of access to the arts for disabled artists and audiences. 

We interviewed Robert in February 2024 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

In the past few years there’s been a significant increase in the number of creative projects that explicitly address mental health. What are your thoughts on that?

The societal move is towards recognising mental health as a feature in everyone’s life. We all have mental health, and that’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, and even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are quite subjective. When I was young there was this great Scottish thing of ‘you just get on with it, keep on pushing through, there’s nothing wrong with you, get over that.’ I think we’re now past that, and that’s good. We’re now allowed to be human beings who have good days and bad days and good years and bad years and all the rest of it. And because that’s in society, it obviously then gets reflected in the art that we make, and that’s a great thing.

I think for a while mental health was very explicit in artistic practice, and people were making work about MENTAL HEALTH in sort of big capital letters. In the past year or so, things are getting more integrated into the work, and I think that’s interesting and that’s good. And I think COVID had quite a big part to play in that because that was a difficult time for many, many people and that obviously creates something that people have to respond to and people have to acknowledge. All those things have led to where we are now and I think it’s an interesting place to be.

The definition of disability on Birds of Paradise’s website includes neurodivegence and also mental health. How much of your work would you say addresses mental health? 

I would say explicitly not a lot and I think there’s some complex reasons for that. I think historically, disability activism is very much rooted in the social model of disability, so that means that being disabled is about barriers in society and how we become more integrated in society is about dealing with those barriers. And that all makes great sense. The problem with the social model is that it doesn’t deal well with things like mental health or chronic pain or a whole host of impairments where it’s not just about social barriers. There are social barriers, but there’s a whole group of other things that are not about barriers, but are about an impairment. So because of that, the disability movement, if you like, has found it a little bit difficult to be inclusive of mental health, we see it as a very medicalised thing that has to be fixed and treated, and we want to pretend that disability isn’t like that. The truth is that it’s somewhere in between but that level of complexity is quite difficult to deal with. 

So for our work – and I can sit here and tell you that previously in my life I’ve had very severe poor mental health so it doesn’t come from my rejection of mental health, it comes from trying to build a company that appeals to a wide range of disabled people – mental health has been a difficult thing to build into that work. Our last piece for example, Don’t. Make. Tea, was about benefits assessments and we spoke a lot in that about mental health and the impact that applying for benefits can have on your mental health. So it’s not being ignored at all but it’s not been a feature of our work and certainly in our main stage work we’ve not been trying to work with people who identify as having poor mental health. In our young people’s work I think it’s more embedded there, and there’s something about young people having a better understanding of that complexity that I spoke about. So it’s easier to respond to in the more development, more strategic work than it has been in the productions.

Something that has come up a lot in conversations is access riders, which are increasingly used by disabled or neurodiverse artists. There’s a question over whether there is such a thing as a mental health access rider. I put this to Bryony Kimmings and she felt that if you were going to create such a thing it shouldn’t be called an access rider because access riders are about accessibility and mental health is perhaps a separate consideration. I also spoke to Ross Mackay (formerly of Tortoise in a Nutshell theatre company), who said you’d helped him make an access rider because of his neurological condition rather than his depression, but that in many ways his depression is a bigger shaping factor in his life and his needs than his neurological condition. To what extent do you see mental health as an accessibility issue, and what language should we use around it?

I guess my reaction to that is… So, part of my practice is that every time I start a rehearsal process, the first day, the first morning, everyone gets into the room, actors, production folk, everyone in the room, and we sit down and ask the question ‘what do you need to do your best work in this room?’ That’s the core question. So let’s focus on doing your work. That’s really important because we’re all getting paid, we’re all professionals, and we’ve all got a job to do to get something on stage very quickly, but to a very high standard hopefully. So that question, ‘what do you need to do your best work in this room?’, can be about disability and can be about access but it can be about childcare – I need to pick up my kids at 4 so that’s a requirement that I have, there’s no way round it. It can be about dietary requirements, it could be about religious observation or prayer time, for example. There’s no reason why the answer to that question has to be about disability. 

It’s a space where you accept that people want to be there and want to turn up and do the best job, not to question what they put down, and you’re not going to say that’s not really about your disability, that wouldn’t feel right in that circumstance. So to me mental health does fit into that framework of what you need to do your best work in the room. I feel like it is part of access in the widest sense of the word. I don’t know what we gain from making it about something else. And again accessibility is not about disability, so I’m not saying that mental health is necessarily about disability, although it can be, but it is about how you access a space, how you access a working environment. To me it fits in there well.

I know that some of your work is about neurodiversity- you did a piece of research recently about relaxed performances – so it’s worth pointing out the broad range of accessibility work that Birds of Paradise does.

And again that’s a cultural thing. The number of people who self-identify as being neurodivergent has increased massively in the last decade or more and that’s something we need to be cognisant of and we have to acknowledge and respond to. It’s almost like there’s disability, there’s neurodiversity and there’s mental health and these three things overlap in some ways and are separate in other ways. We need to be able to acknowledge that but also acknowledge that they’re not the same thing.

I like the idea of asking everybody what they need to do their best work because then everybody starts from the same place, right? It’s acknowledging that we all have different kinds of needs. 

I think that my previous comment about Scottish culture, or British culture, where we’re very bad for saying ‘just get on with it, buck up’…. I think what it (the question about everyone’s needs) does is acknowledge that we all have things that will help us achieve, and we’re all in charge of making that happen, we’re all responsible for making the environment what it can be to help us do our best work. So it’s not about ‘we’re going to treat you like children’ or ‘we’re going to make things easy for you’. That’s the other thing, it’s not about making things easy, it’s about taking away barriers and making things less difficult, and that’s quite an important difference. Quite often in the rehearsal room you will go to difficult places and we have to be able to do that to make the work and hopefully as a director I can do that sensitively but still go there. So I think it’s a way of, like you said, getting everybody to the same starting point so we all come to it with a sense of equality. That’s quite powerful.

What do you make of the rise in the use of wellbeing practitioners in rehearsal rooms?

I think it’s good. I worry that there’s a…. I compare it to intimacy co-ordinators and I know that’s a separate thing but there’s a similar thing where we are saying that the wellbeing practitioner’s job is somehow distinct from the director’s job, and that concerns me a little bit because I think it lets the directors off the hook. I think as a director it’s my job to make sure that my cast and my team’s wellbeing is looked after. I reject the idea that directors are just worried about the play and that if somehow you feel a bit undermined or whatever go to someone else and they’ll take care of that. Ok, a wellbeing practitioner has got expertise and they’ve got more experience of dealing with things but as a director it’s my job to be there to support my actors. If the actors are having problems with something that’s happening in the rehearsal room or on stage then that affects the play, you know, and I as a director need to hold that, and work with that, and somehow respond to that. So I think that trying to sort of section it off into different jobs, I worry about that.

That’s interesting. I’ve been hearing different perspectives on wellbeing practitioners, from somebody who has worked with one for years and has found it invaluable to someone who tried it and found that it got in the way of the creative process. The idea behind this project is to put together a set of good practice guidelines, but everybody has a different perspective. What are your thoughts on that, as somebody who works so much with accessibility?

All it really proves is that there’s no one answer, there’s no one way approach. Like I say, with things like wellbeing co-ordinators, I can absolutely see the benefit of it. I as a director would like to develop my practice to be more knowledgeable about that area, so maybe there’s a sense where you bring someone in to do that job then you get better at it yourself and then it’s no longer required. But I can also see why it would get in the way, like I said. If you take all your problems to this other person then the director is only getting one side of you maybe, and I don’t think that’s healthy, I think that’s not the job, I think the job is to take it all. So it’s complex and it’s difficult and we’re still navigating it all, and what works for one person won’t work for someone else. All of that feels right and proper. How you make guidelines I’ve got no idea! (Laughs). It all feels beautifully complex. 

For me there’s this image of a rehearsal room 50 years ago, you went in and you did what you were told and you had to make it work, and we’re now not doing that. We’re now responding to individuals, we’re being more respectful of human beings etc. But in the process of going from that to this it’s going to be difficult. We’re going to hit walls and hit problems and that’s all part of the process, you know.

From your own perspective as a director, what things would you put in place in a rehearsal room to create a safe environment?

Before rehearsals start we do a lot of work around access, questionnaires or riders or whatever they are. My producer Michelle (Rolfe) does a lot of work with the actors individually to find out what their access needs are and she’s got a lot of expertise in that. There’s also myself, Michelle the producer, and Mairi (Taylor) the executive director, so there’s three people in the company that people know they can come to, so if they don’t want to come to me for whatever reason they can go to someone else. And that’s important, for any number of reasons I might not be the right person at that point for them to go to but they’re still going to someone within the company who can know what to do about that. It’s often about who you are as a person and how you bring that into directing. I make a lot of inappropriate jokes in a rehearsal room, I can be very crude, and some people hate that and I totally get that. Hopefully I’m sensitive enough to know when to rein it back, but also I can’t get rid of that completely because it’s part of who I am and quite a big part of the work that I make. So you can’t eliminate that completely but you can be aware of the impact it has and often I hope that impact is about bringing teams together. 

Every rehearsal process I’ve ever been in starts with some of the non-disabled people in the room feeling a little bit nervous, a little bit like ‘oh my god, what if I say the wrong thing, what if I do this or that?’ For me using humour in the way that I do can put people at ease and hopefully help them to move past that. But as I say I also can go too far! But that awareness of what you bring to a room and how that impacts on the other people in that room, I think that’s key. I think it’s very important to be aware of that but not to let that stop you being who you are.

What’s your approach to check ins at the start of a rehearsal day? This is another thing I’ve heard different opinions about.

I think they can be great. They can be a very useful way of getting a sense of where people are at. You have to be aware of what’s happening in that room at that time for those people so sometimes check ins are completely the right thing to do. Other times they get in the way because you’ve got a room full of actors who want to get on with the rehearsing the show and they don’t want to talk about how they feel. And if you’re in the middle of tech, then arguably I don’t really care how you feel, I just want to get to the next bit of the tech. Obviously I do care, but it’s about knowing when to use them, when it feels right for the room and when it doesn’t help people. They’re not the solution to everything, they’re just a tool that can be useful at times.

This is more of an audience-facing question but what are your thoughts on trigger warnings?

How long do we have? (laughs). I’ve come to a place where I think the best way to offer a trigger warning is somewhere that people have to look for it. So you advertise ‘if you want a trigger warning go to this web page and you can get it.’ That’s important for people for whom the trigger warning is useful, (for whom) it’s essential to have it, because we want them to be able to come to the work and access it, but if you give everyone a trigger warning then a lot of people who want to be surprised by the work, or want to be shocked, or whatever else, are forced to know what’s coming and that doesn’t feel right either. So I think it needs to be available but not in your face. 

Someone told me about a year ago that they hadn’t been to the theatre for years because they were so scared of what they were going to be shown and how that might impact on them and that trigger warnings were their way of giving themselves confidence to go back to the theatre, and I absolutely get that, but also as a theatre-maker I want to be able to shock and offend and provoke and all these other things, and trigger warnings can make that very difficult to do. So to me that’s where the balance is; you tell people it’s available, you tell people how to access it, but they have to actively go and get that and can do that if they want to. Some people will not read a review of a piece before they go and see it because they don’t want to know what a reviewer thinks or what it’s about, they want to experience it themselves. And we wouldn’t force people to read reviews.

Just couple more general questions. I’m not sure if this is something that has ever come up but what advice would you give to an artist who wanted to make a piece of work about mental health?

My gut reaction is to tell the story that you know. And that’s not saying you can only write about yourself, I’m not saying that at all, I’m saying tell a story that you’ve got knowledge of and that you’ve got the power to tell, that’s what’s important to me. For some other reason I was looking at a review of my work last night from about ten or 12 years ago, and it’s quite weird to look back at old reviews, you know. And what the review was talking about was that I make a lot of work about disability but hopefully it spoke to people in a wider sense, about humanity, about what it means to be alive and all those different things. So by speaking about what I know and making it accessible and relatable you can reach a much wider number of people. But that only comes if you’re confident about what you know. So that would be my advice about mental health. Because you’re writing about what you know you can say whatever you feel you want to say. You’ve got that authority, and that’s important.

One last question. What barriers would you say exist in the arts world to people living with mental health issues?

Many. I think stigma. We’re very bad in the performing arts for saying the show must go on and you must be ok. The structure of rehearsing 10 until 6, six days a week, all of that structure can be quite a big barrier as well. I think those are the main ones. There’s a real pressure in the industry to be on top of your game. I always listen to the song There’s No Business Like Showbusiness. I remember as a four year old going to see my mum in pantomime and they’d do that big number at the end and it’s all very happy and it’s the finale and everything’s great. And ‘there’s no business like showbusiness, people smile when they are low.’ And that says a lot. Why do we smile when we are low? And we know why we do it, because we’re actors and that’s the job, but I would argue that there’s not many other jobs where you have to pretend to be ok. I feel like in theatre performance there’s a fairly unique sense of pretending to be ok. And that concerns me. We’re not ok.

And yet the other side of that is that a lot of people are now making shows about not being ok.

Yes, but even when we do that we do it in a way where… the very nature of theatre as we do it in the UK is that every night you have to go out and do your best, you have to entertain the audience. So even as you’re talking about not being ok, you have to be ok. What you’re not allowed to do, with some exceptions, is walk out at half past seven and say ‘I don’t feel like doing this tonight so I’m away, I know you’ve all paid for your ticket, you’ve all come from 50 miles away, but I’m sorry I’m not ok so all of you go back home and come back tomorrow.’ We don’t cancel a show, we don’t get someone else to do it in our place. All of these things we’re not allowed to do because the show must go on. So yes we can make work about mental health but we’re still doing it in a framework that isn’t very flexible. And I don’t know the answer to that, I really don’t, but we need to acknowledge that being the case.

I suppose less intense runs, or performances that are more spread out? I don’t know how practical that is for most people though.

I mean, that can work well for a solo show for example but if you’ve got a big cast… So there are ways to make things better but it’s complex. The structures that we’ve got are not there by accident, they’re there because certain things are required, there’s a whole crew setting up a set, they’ve already done their work. All of these things are all there in place and they all work for a reason but they don’t always work in the best interests of someone’s mental health.