How disability-led Birds of Paradise Theatre Company adapted to a post-Covid world

According to Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, although lockdown created plenty of challenges, it also offered opportunities

Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 7:13 pm
Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company PIC: Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Covid-19 has created opportunities for greater accessibility, at least online. “We’re able to reach people in ways that wouldn’t have happened in the ‘real world’,” says the actor, writer and director Robert Softley Gale, of his own experiences during the Covid-19 lockdown.

As the artistic director of disability-led Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, Softley Gale promptly switched the company to working online. “We still had to engage with disabled people, disabled artists and audiences,” he says, “so we’ve done a lot of things online. We’ve got a weekly ‘virtual cuppa’ every Tuesday at 11am; any disabled person, audience, artist, anyone can ‘drop by’ and share how they’re getting on, and what they’re interested in. That’s proved a good way for us to meet people that we’ve never met before.

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“We’ve also been doing the ‘Making Theatre Accessible’ events with theatre makers in Scotland who want to make their work more accessible to disabled audiences. We’ve been planning to do that for years, but it was never quite the right time or the right funding to make it happen. Because we’re all on Zoom now, we were able to organise a big meeting quite quickly, and the first one had about 40 people turn up, to talk about making accessible work.

“The second one happened about a month later, and around 80 people came to that. So we’re really using our time at the moment to reach people we wouldn’t have reached before. It’s been a great opportunity for us.”

Arguably, remote meeting services like Zoom have been the biggest positive of lockdown for Softley Gale. “For me, as a disabled artist and leader of a company, there’s a whole number of meetings that I would never have been able to go to previously. What we’ve discovered is that we can make things much more accessible than they ever were previously, and that’s great.

“It’s ironic; disabled people have been arguing for remote working and remote meetings for years and years, and we’d made a little progress, but a lot of people said: ‘Oh no, that would never work, we could never do it that way.’ Turns out, we can. Where before I could possibly do one or two meetings a day, I can now do five or six back-to-back. And that’s a great opportunity to be more engaged in things that I, as a disabled person, wasn’t able to be before.

“My fear is, as things go back to ‘normal’ – whatever that is, it won’t be what we had before – is that we forget some of this. Zoom, or any meeting platform, works well if we’re all using it; it doesn’t work well if it’s only me, Robert, who’s at home and dialling in. The fear is that we go back to a system when remote working or remote access becomes the exception rather than the norm, and once it’s the exception, it’s no longer as convenient and it won’t happen.”

Having worked with the National Theatre of Scotland on numerous occasions – he’s also on the company’s board – it’s not a total surprise that he and BOP are involved in its Scenes for Survival, a season of more than 50 digital artworks created in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. What may surprise some, though, is that this will likely be the only online example of the company’s work anyone will find.

“We didn’t want to put our existing work online because it was never made to go online,” Softley Gale says. “It was made to be seen in a theatre. For NTS, it was about making something short, that was made to be seen online. We’ve been working on that for the last couple of months; it features some characters from our musical My Left / Right Foot – The Musical coming back to let us know how they’re getting on during lockdown. So yeah, when opportunities like that occur, we grab ways of getting work out there, but it is made for online.

“I keep saying: I’m a crap filmmaker, I make theatre. It was never my intention to be a filmmaker. We have to respect that different art forms require radically different skills, and it’s not as simple as taking everything and putting it online. We’d really do ourselves a big injustice doing that, so we resolved not to: instead, to make work for the format as it is.”

As a relatively small producing company, in receipt of public funds through Creative Scotland, BOP has weathered the Covid-19 storm well so far. Softley Gale accepts that’s not the case for everyone. “Venues are in a really difficult position and that’s an unfortunate thing. Without companies like BOP, theatres haven’t got anything to put on, but without venues we haven’t anywhere to work. We rely on each other to make this work.”

What is BOP’s ideal scenario” coming out of lockdown? “We want to make theatre, we want to be out there, in amongst people making theatre, and whatever we can do between then and now is fine and well, but our goal is always to get people back into a room,” Softley Gale says.

“There’s nothing quite like being in the same space as the rest of the audience, all watching the same show from different perspectives in the room, and all laughing and crying together.

“There’s nothing else like that experience, and there’s no way to replicate that experience. So, six months, 12 months, however long it takes, we need to get people back into theatres, back into that space, all enjoying theatre together.

“And that theatre has to be as diverse and as interesting, and as entertaining, as it can be. We were just starting to get there, before the pandemic – when people were getting the idea that inclusion and diversity is not about ticking boxes, it’s about seeing this great work, this interesting work that tells stories you haven’t heard before. That’s only going to come by including artists who haven’t been part of that conversation before now. Disabled artists. Black artists. The whole range.”

For more on Birds of Paradise, visit www.boptheatre.co.uk

This interview is part of a series commissioned by the Federation of Scottish Theatre to highlight the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on theatre and dance in Scotland and the connections performance makers are continuing to make with audiences. The views expressed in them are those of the interviewees. To find out more about what is happening in the sector and to lend support please follow #Love TheatreScotland and #LoveDance Scotland

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