When Birds of Paradise announced their new artistic team in October of this year, it came after a heady year for disability and mixed ability initiatives. The London Paralympics had caught the nation's imagination over the summer more than ever before, while Birds of Paradise's appointment of a three-way team of two joint artistic directors and a creative producer suggested that team-work was even more important in what looks like a major leap forward for the company. The fact that Shona Rattray, Robert Softley Gale and Garry Robson already had a significant track record on projects with Bird of Paradise, as well as the disability arts sector, also meant that they'd effectively come through the company boot room, and were already au fait with what it's about.
“One of the nice things is that we already do know each other,” say Rattray, “so we can talk about ideas we've got straight away.”
“We worked out last night that it was ten years ago this week that the three of us first worked together,” Softley Gale points out on the triumvirate's second official day in post. “So now we don't have to dance round each other and found out what one another are about. It's more of a continuum.”
Lest anyone think the trio's appointment was a calculated coup d'etat, each new member of staff actually applied for the artistic director's job separately, and it was the company's board who proposed that they work together. While such a move is in keeping with previous successful partnerships at Dundee Rep and other places, for a relatively small-scale operation like Birds of Paradise, it is a singularly radical move.
“It was pitched to us as a new beginning, and we were very much given a clean slate,” says Robson. “We met a few times before we started, just to see if it could work, but it was too good an opportunity to miss, so it was a really a no-brainer.”
Softley Gale concurs.
“We've all got strengths that are quite different,” he says, “so rather than having to pick oner of us, why not try to bring all those together. I think we've all got different ideas, but we all share the same vision.”
“That made it an exciting prospect for moving the company forward,” Rattray agrees.
“It became quite a buzz,” says Robson. “I think the prospect of collaborations like this are definitely the way forward.”
Robson and Gale are both high-profile figures as performers, directors and writers, both in the disabled theatre scene and with mainstream companies. For Birds of Paradise, Robson wrote and directed The Irish Giant in 2003, and penned the most recent BoP show, The Man Who Lived Twice. He appeared in Theatre Workshop's production of Endgame, and up until recently ran Fittings Multi-Media company in Liverpool. At Oran Mor, Robson wrote Raspberry, a musical play inspired by singer and fellow polio sufferer, Ian Dury, and appeared in another, Reasons To Be Cheerful, with the Graeae company.
Softley Gale's first appearance with Birds of Paradise was acting in The Irish Giant. This came after a period when he too appeared in several Theatre Workshop productions, while Softley Gale has also appeared with Fittings. In 2005, Softley Gale became Birds of Paradise's Agent For Change, a project designed to investigate the under-representation of disabled performers in Scottish theatre. Softley Gale later became Equalities Officer for Arts and Disabilities with the old Scottish Arts Council, and more recently performed in his own show, Girl X, for the National Theatre of Scotland. Robson was a panel member for Unlimited, the disability arts commission fund set up by London 2012 and each of the four nations funding agencies for the Cultural Olympiad. These included works enabled by Softley Gale's assorted roles.
Rattray has worked with a stream of Scottish theatre companies including 7:84 Scotland and Suspect Culture, and has been BoP company manager since 2005. The upgrading of her role to Creative Producer is a logical progression following her work in contracting mainstream artists to work for the company as well as ensuring a two-way traffic by taking disability arts into the mainstream.
Birds of Paradise were formed by a group of disabled and non-disabled activists who worked on a community theatre project run by cultural social enterprise body, Fablevision, in 1990. BoP's first production came a year later, and, by 1993, had become Scotland's first inclusive touring theatre company. Since then, there have been numerous productions, including a collaboration with 7:84 Scotland on a production of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's dramatic tone poem, Tongues, while Alasdair Gray wrote a new piece, Working Legs, for the company, and Robson directed his own play, The Irish Giant.
More recently, BoP produced Davey Anderson's play, Clutter Keeps Company, and toured Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children, featuring Alison Peebles in the title role. Peebles went on to direct The Man Who Lived Twice.
The first fruits from the revitalised Birds of Paradise will be In An Alien Landscape, a new play by Danny Start, who began as writer in residence with BoP in 2010. Start's play is based on a true story about a man who emerged from a coma who was possessed with an urge to paint non-stop. Beyond this, BoP have plans for everything from a politically incorrect comedy to a country and western musical. There are also ambitions not just to be on equal footing with other Scottish companies, but to work internationally.
“Things have changed so much in the last few years in disability arts,” Softley Gale points out, “but II think the litmus for us will be when people start talking about us in the same way as other touring theatre companies. If they still see us as being ghettoised then we won't have been doing our jobs properly.”
In An Alien Landscape opens at The Beacon, Greenock on February 1st, and tours Scotland until February 26th.
Birds of Paradise – Three of the Best
1997 – Tongues – Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin's dramatic poem was written when Chaikin suffered a stroke which left him with aphasia. This set new challenges for Birds of Paradise's collaboration with 7:84 Scotland.
1998 – Working Legs – An all too rare foray into drama from Alasdair Gray, a tragi-comedy designed to be performed by people without the limbs of the title.
2003 – The Irish Giant _ Garry Robson wrote and directed this play about Charles Byrne, the 7 foot 7 inch eighteenth century sideshow attraction, who died aged just twenty-two.
The Herald, December 11th 2012