Birds of Paradise on My Left / Right Foot – The Musical
Just before they celebrated their 25th anniversary, Birds of Paradise lost their Creative Scotland funding. Then they got it back. The Skinny talks to Robert Softley Gale and Mairi Taylor about their rollercoaster year, and their latest work
As we sit down to chat with Robert Softley Gale and Birds of Paradise’s Executive Producer Mairi Taylor, the company are in the first few weeks of rehearsals at Rockvilla, the National Theatre of Scotland’s HQ. Despite being their 25th anniversary year, 2018 was meant to be a quiet one for BoP, Scotland’s only disability-led arts organisation.
With just one production scheduled – their musical comedy My Left / Right Foot – The Musical, co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland – the company were looking to the future, until their regular Creative Scotland funding was pulled and then reinstated following a public outcry.
With their future once more looking bright, they continued working on My Left / Right Foot, which follows a local amateur dramatics group as they attempt to stage a musical based on Jim Sheridan's 1989 film My Left Foot featuring “the disabled”, even though none of the group are. “Am dram folk would probably stage it,” explains Softley Gale, who grew up taking part in local amateur dramatic group shows, “because they’re the only people with enough gall to do that.”
The source film told the story of Christy Brown, an artist and writer with cerebral palsy who could only use his left foot. It's famous not just for its story, but also for Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy Award-winning performance as Brown, which had quite an impact on a young Softley Gale, who like Brown has cerebral palsy.
He explains: “I was nine when it came out. As a nine-year-old with cerebral palsy, a story coming out about a guy with cerebral palsy became quite a big thing in my life. My mum was always going, ‘Oh, he’s so like you’, it was Daniel Day-Lewis pretending to be like me, and that was always a big influence on my life.”
Now a successful actor and director, Softley Gale wanted to explore the idea of a non-disabled actor having to act disabled – or as Mairi Taylor calls it, “crip up” – for a role. And it’s this process that forms a lot of the thinking behind My Left / Right Foot.
“It’s always about telling stories and putting the stories of the disabled on the stage, and if we can keep doing this we can have conversations about it” - Robert Softley Gale
“It’s amazing,” begins Taylor. “Daniel Day-Lewis, and other actors who play disabled people, must go through the process. How do they get there? How do they develop it? There’s something that’s explosively ridiculous in that. And we’re showing that, we’re not presenting the finished product, we’re showing the process, which is so terrible in itself.”
This process still happens today, as Softley Gale points out. Non-disabled actors are still being cast as disabled characters, and for him it’s about letting disabled people get into the theatre and tell their own stories in their own words.
“It’s always about telling stories and putting the stories of the disabled on the stage, and if we can keep doing this we can have conversations about it,” he explains. “If it’s not there, it’s not part of our culture, then there’s nothing to talk about.”
Popular discussions surrounding disability are often in a strict binary; that of the lazy, unemployed scrounger or the inspirational one-in-a-million talent; someone who succeeded despite their disability. For BoP, this is not how disabled people should be portrayed, and Christy Brown is the perfect example.
“He acknowledged that he became a writer, not despite his disability, but because of it,” Taylor explains. “His experience of the world, and how he lived in the world, looking at the world, built the artist. This is that idea of looking at the disabled person, ‘How did they get here, how did they manage?’ Actually, it’s all part of their creative process.”