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Robert and Nathan, both in wheelchairs, roll in to their wedding ceremony

Robert Softley Gale

If you work in the arts sector in Scotland you will know Robert Softley Gale already. If you live in England you’ll probably know him too. And you probably knew him before he took up his post as Equalities Officer for Disability for Scottish Arts Council, perhaps when he was Agent for Change for Birds of Paradise, or performing in one of the many shows he has been in.

If you know him, you probably know his performance work, all about his recent wedding and pretty much everything about his homelife as he is a man who chooses very much to live life in the public eye. (Not many people have both their own website – http://www.softley.co.uk - and a website to enable them to share their wedding with the world).

Go see their wedding site - complete with YouTube footage of their wedding dance).
Robert in performance, with his shadow showing behind him

To tell or not to tell...

Robert’s own CV describes him as a wheelchair user with slightly slurred speech and shaky movements. I asked Robert how he thought other people might describe him. Due to a malfunctioning sound system, he did once get the chance to find out. He was performing in Theatre Workshop’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and the audio description, usually fed only to those visually impaired audience members with headphones, was being broadcast to the whole auditorium. Robert, waiting in the wings, heard his character described, and then was surprised to hear himself named as the actor portraying the part: ‘And Robert Softley, who moves with very spasticated movements, appears on the stage…’ Distracting as this was, it was nothing compared to the next uttering: ‘Robert, whose mother died in childbirth…’

And its typical Robert. What could be a tragic tale becomes a hysterical anecdote with a serious message (quite why any audio describer thought the audience needed to know about Robert’s personal circumstances, we’ll never know, but we all get the point about inappropriate description and a hint of the importance of issues of power and control in relation to disability).

Robert, in drag in a blond wig sitting on a chair

I asked if he tell people his access requirements in advance? Sometimes, but not always, liking the element of surprise and the mild discomfort watching people deal with their own prejudices and the barriers they are responsible for. Equally, he hates to be told what he can and can’t do.

I was working for The Scottish Arts Council providing some training to the Scottish Book Trust who currently work from an inaccessible building. Or so they thought. Robert was supervising the work and still managed to arrive in the middle of the session to the attendees (and my) great surprise, even though they were down flights of stairs with no lift.

He wanted to show that things aren’t always black and white – access has shades of grey.

How does Robert view Robert?

Interestingly, Robert prefers working in theatre to working on film, finding himself distracted by his own movements and the impression he creates. He says: “I want people to see what I want them to see about me. I want to be able to control the image and in live theatre I feel I have more of a chance to do this”.

A close up on Robert's face - he is laughing

This is not about being unaware of his own impact; Robert is very aware of how he moves and the impressions this can create. Only Robert would have taken part in a training project for final year RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) students under the creative eye of international theatre director Pol Heyvaert. And the project? For the students to ‘be’ Robert. To copy his movements, his vocal delivery – to ‘act’ cerebral palsy.

Again, its typical Robert. Why engage with such a project, one that many people might find extremely un-PC? Robert’s reply? “Why not?”

Actually, he arrived at the ‘why not’ after working through his initial ego-led responses - who wouldn’t want to see how others saw them? Who wouldn’t want to work alongside an international director and get into bed with the National Theatre of Scotland? He also worked through the ‘offensive’ response – just how offensive was it? How offensive would it be without his involvement as opposed to if he himself had some artistic control of the project?

And another Robert anecdote emerges. When NTS suggested they work together, they arranged to meet up for tea in a Glasgow hotel. Pol Heyvaerthad been sent some of Robert’s writing about Ashley X and Robert had seen an intriguing previous production directed by Pol (‘Allst’ – an edgy piece about a couple who murder their children in a hotel room in Belgium). It’s not until half way through the conversation that Pol leans in and mentions that he hadn’t actually been expecting Robert to be a disabled person himself…

At which retelling Robert throws his head back and laughs his trademark laugh. Robert laughs a lot. He’s almost always to be found smiling, even when delivering his strong opinions. He is witty, charming and creative. And fears most of all not being taken seriously.

a head shot of Robert looking thoughtful

Taking things seriously

In Robert’s current position, he should be taken seriously. He has tensions with his role at Scottish Arts Council – finding it hard to live within the rules and remain within the confines of the hierarchy. He has a desire for openness and transparency that are at odds with the more political aspects of his position and can become frustrated at the slowness of the wheels of burocracy.

On taking up the role of Equalities Officer for Disability for Scottish Arts Council, he expected a degree of covert opposition internally from other staff and to be widely welcomed and accepted by his ‘constituency’ of disabled peers in the field. In reality, it has been the reverse. Staff have be supportive, helpful and accepting. And there have been some run-ins with those in the disability arts field in Scotland who haven’t liked his sweeping approach to changing things and getting things moving.

Change things he has. In less than a year he has overseen the creation of a new Disability Arts fund solely to promote the development of new work. It’s the aspect of his work with Scottish Arts Council that he is most proud of to date, enabling the funding of projects such as Private Dancer, Fittings 'Sputnik' featuring Claire Cunningham and Model Me Real project - designing paper-based cut out models that reflect views on disability.

One wonders if Robert’s desire to live life so publically means that he is open to misinterpretation – does living life on social networking sites make you appear ‘fun’ rather than ‘serious’? If it does, should it?

To find out more about the Private Dancer project
A photo of a young Robert in his chair with bleached blond hair

In the spotlight

I asked Robert what happened when he ‘switched off’ the Robert persona, when he just was at home, relaxing and out of the spotlight. “Nothing”, he replied, “it doesn’t get switched off, it really is how I am, all of the time.” Exhausting as it appears, Robert is genuinely that upbeat all of the time. Even when he is angry or frustrated, he experiences these with an energy that looks for solutions, for options, for the way through rather than one that gives in to the lethargy that most of us would succumb to.

So what has made Robert what he is? He feels its very much something he was born with – alongside his impairment. As someone who is disabled, gay and a show-off (his words, not mine), he always felt that he was destined to be ‘out there’. He hasn’t always wanted to work in the disability field however. There is footage out there that shows a young Robert speaking very passionately about not wanting to work in the disability sector. So why is that now where he is? “It’s about creating change. At the moment this is where I can make change happen”. And no one could argue with that.

To view 'young Robert' speaking passionately

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