THEATRE: Fight against a tight space

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Nearly two hours into our conversation, and, like the best tub-thumping socialists, Robert Rae is still battering out his beliefs. "It’s a test of democratic society, how tolerant it is of voices from the margins," he says. "When you hear a voice from the margins, it’s calling because people at the centre don’t want to hear it."

Rae’s Theatre Workshop - which actively promotes the work of disabled actors - is, he believes, one of those distant voices. The company is core-funded to the tune of 124,000 by the Scottish Arts Council, but received only a 2.1 per cent rise this year, leaving it in a perilous financial condition. The other nine SAC core-funded companies received substantial increases, many in six figures.

So outraged were members of Rae’s company by the SAC’s decision that they broke up its meeting at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre last month, an act of defiance by a group for whom spikiness has become the chosen weapon of survival.

Five years ago Nabil Shaban - one of Britain’s best-known disabled actors - convinced Rae disabled people didn’t want separate provision but to be part of the mainstream. Rae draws parallels with the black civil rights movement. "Everyone had the old tick-the-box mentality, talking about ‘social inclusion’, but not doing it. And people do exclude - it’s not ‘baddies’, it’s attitudinal. People’s image of a disabled artist is a basket-weaver, weaving away because it’s good for them. Somehow the notion that a disabled artist could make a significant contribution is beyond them. The social model of disability talks about the barriers society creates for the individual; the medical model sees disability as impairment. Charity places the disabled person in a less powerful position; it’s what we give them, not what is there by rights."

It’s no surprise to find that Rae arrived at Theatre Workshop with ideological baggage. He was working at London’s Royal Court theatre when the death of anti-racist demonstrator Blair Peach in Southall spurred him into political activism. Then he worked as a drama therapist until John McGrath plucked him out for 7:84 at the height of the 1984 miners’ strike. He remembers the staging of 7:84’s play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, The Six Men of Dorset, at the Crucible Theatre. "At the end, the whole audience stood up and started shouting: ‘The workers united will never be defeated.’"

There’s a passion here that unnerves some, while others in the theatre world deride Rae. He is, they say, too abrasive - on the eve of his Portadown Blues production two of his cast walked out, for example . He scoffs at the suggestion: "That’s like my mum saying, ‘Why don’t you join the police and try to change them?’ I can’t pretend things don’t go on, because it might disturb, say, the sensibilities of the Arts Council."

There are other doubts, over quality, which are known to have influenced the SAC in their funding. Rae dismisses this too, arguing that many of his productions have had good reviews. He also stresses there must be allowances made for the inexperience of some disabled actors - simply because opportunities at drama schools and theatres are so limited.

Other critics, though, complain that the Stockbridge venue is too quiet these days, where once it had the feel of an arts centre. Rae counters by saying that the inclusive company is just that - its community play this summer will employ 130 people, through cast, technicians and front-of-house. As for the oft-heard criticism of the venue’s closure during the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe, given the theatre’s parlous financial state, it was just too risky, says Rae. It is not his intention to miss another festival. Having failed to double the company’s SAC grant for 2001/02, Theatre Workshop has already requested a further 56,000 in 2002/03 and 133,000 beyond August 2003.

With a leaky roof and dressing rooms in "an appalling condition", failure could be disastrous. But if Rae is cowed by the future, he still bangs the drum. "No-one’s saying we should only do plays about disability; we just happen to deliver our work through an inclusive company. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it that matters."