When Sounds Of Progress were recently named as one of the losers of the Scottish Arts Council’s recent round of Flexible Funding decisions, the company’s artistic director Gordon Dougall received a stream of sympathy calls from colleagues. These presumed that would be the end of the music theatre company who focus on integrating disabled artists as fully fledged professionals into their work. Speak to Dougall on a rehearsal break from SOP’s latest show, however, and nothing could be further from the truth.
After almost twenty years, Liar is SOP’s biggest show to date. A co-production with TAG Theatre Company written by rising star Davey Anderson, Liar is a play for 8-10 year olds about truth, friendship and the dangerous powers of the imagination. With Anderson having previously worked with SOP on the musical side of things, Liar also marks the latest in a long line of collaborations that has seen the company work with major talents of the Scottish stage including Forbes Masson, Gerry Mulgrew and Gerda Stevenson.
As Liar prepares to open, SOP will be branching out even further as they move into offices adjacent to The Tron Theatre. This will be the first visible sign of ambitious plans for the future well on the road to being realised. As well as suggesting a symbolic affinity with their neighbour (where Dougall already scores the music for the theatre’s Christmas shows), the new premises will also house recording facilities that will allow the four bands working under the SOP umbrella to put down tracks in a mutually supportive environment.
The fact is, while SOP haven’t gained anything from the SAC’s decisions, they haven’t lost out either. Like many companies who missed out, SOP was never on Flexible Funding. So, while Dougall obviously feels that SOP’s application should have been successful, the company haven’t actually lost a penny, and are in exactly the same place financially as they were before.
“There are some confusing messages coming out about strategies for the disabled sector,” according to Dougall. “On the one hand we’re recognised as a flagship company, both by Arts and Business and the Scottish Government, but according to the Scottish Arts Council’s report, we’re a low to medium priority. One of the things we’ve achieved is the full delivery of our aims and objectives over the last three years, so we’re a bit confused as to what message is being sent out. It’s not,” Dougall stresses, “about money. It’s about how information has been distributed.”
As Dougall is all too acutely aware, the disabled arts scene is a minefield. Its networks are understandably small, and awareness beyond them only now beginning to trickle down into something resembling the mainstream. SOP, however, has long forged partnerships with the broader theatre sector.
Without mentioning any names, Dougall is critical of other companies working in disabled arts who trade on their apparent professionalism, but are actually more about social work than producing anything of any real artistic merit.
“One of the big problems at the moment,” admits Dougall, “is that a lot of things seem like community drama pieces that happen to have disabled people in it. If the standard of performance isn’t particularly good, then that could easily change people’s perceptions of disabled people. What we have to do is make sure that we don’t in any way create a help us to help them mentality. A lot of time you see disabled people put onstage that’s a fun activity, but there’s no real musicality. From early on we kept trying to raise the bar, and now everyone in the company knows what’s expected of them. We will not put anyone onto a stage unless they are of a professional standard. If you charge tickets for people to see something that includes disabled people, you have to be very careful how you brand it.”
Sounds Of Progress was born in 1989 out of a desire by Dougall to respect the creative needs of disabled people. With an autistic daughter himself, Dougall recognised as a working musician and composer how community arts would often pay lip service to notions of inclusion while using disabled participants as little more than an added-on chorus.
In 1991, SOP were the first company in Scotland to produce work with a fully integrated cast with their first show, Johnny B Happy. Then known as the similarly acronymed Strathclyde Orchestral Productions, SOP’s growth has opened doors, both for disabled performers and for other companies. How successful this has been, however, is open to question.
“There’s been a channel of public money,” Dougall observes, “that’s been put into supporting training and mentorship for disabled people to achieve a professional standard by a certain time. That was started a few years ago with other companies, but Sounds of Progress were already quite far down that road before that. I don’t see any evidence of any long term results outside of what we were already doing.”
One of SOP’s success stories has been Sally Clay, whose band, Blind Gurl and the Crips, won a Herald Angel award during the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Clay was recently Musical Director of the Citizens Theatre’s Community Company show, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and is co-MD with Dougall on Liar. This continues a working partnership begun on The Tron’s Christmas plays.
Such high profile successes would be impressive for anyone involved with a company for less than two years. For someone born blind, as Clay was, is even more remarkable.
“I’d been working as a singer on my own in Hertfordshire,” Clay remembers, “and wasn’t involved in disability arts at all. Then I got involved with a show by another theatre company, but as soon as I came into contact with Sounds Of Progress, that was it. My life completely changed. I’d never considered being a musical director, but so many doors have been opened for me.”
Clay’s life has changed to the extent that she is now a full time staff member of SOP, enabling other disabled artists in the same way she was enabled. On Liar, Clay will be working with singers Karina Jones and Elena Piras on songs derived from the Travelling community and sung a cappela.
“SOP wasn’t the only option for me”, Clay admits, “but I genuinely believe it was the best option. It’s about trust. It’s very easy, especially as a performer, to be judged differently to everyone else. But with SOP I feel confident that I’m being judged on my skill and not on my disability. That’s not always the case. I don’t want to pretend there isn’t a divide between the mainstream and the disabled sector, because there is, but that’s changing now.”
Beyond Liar, SOP will be collaborating with a New York based company as well as a co-production with Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint ongoing seasons of lunchtime theatre. Spasticus is written by actor Garry Robson, and promises to be as provocative as its title suggests.
“The organisation’s going through a lot of changes,” says Dougall, “which is very exciting, and we have a very clear strategy about where we want to be. We’re not about giving people false hope or having people being patronised by the public. Sounds Of Progress are first and foremost about making great work by disabled artists, and bridging the gap between disabled arts and the rest of the world.”
Liar, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until June 7th, weekdays10.30am, Fridays 10.30am and 7.30pm, Saturdays at 2.30pm and 7.30pm
The Herald, May 27th 2008