When Robert Softley Gale was born – in Glasgow, just 40 years ago – things went tragically wrong; his mother died giving birth to him, and he suffered damage that left him with severe cerebral palsy. Yet as he grew up, with family in Kirkintilloch, it never occurred to him that he could not share their enthusiasm for the thriving local amateur dramatics scene – although he says it was always assumed, back in the1990s, that he would be playing backstage roles in lighting or stage management, rather than actually appearing on stage.
His fascination with theatre only grew, however. Even before he graduated from Glasgow University, in 2004, he had taken a year out to work with the Theatre Workshop company in Edinburgh, which was pioneering work featuring performers with disabilities; and within a few years, he had become one of the the leaders of a new generation of theatre-makers with disabilities working in Scotland. With Theatre Workshop, he appeared in shows including Nothing Burns Down by Itself at the Festival Theatre, and The Threepenny Opera at the Tramway; and by the end of the decade, he was working with the National Theatre of Scotland, and regularly with Birds of Paradise, the groundbreaking Glasgow company of which he is now artistic director. He was also emerging as a powerful activist and public speaker on the Scottish scene, campaigning for the rights of both gay and disabled people.
The show featured in this Scotsman Session, If These Spasms Could Speak, was first seen at the Arches in 2012, and – as a tremendously demanding solo monologue – marked a major milestone in Softley Gale’s career as a writer, performer and theatre-maker. In the course of the show, he plays several different characters, including a young female wheelchair-user, and a very small woman with limited growth syndrome. In this hard-hitting sequence, though, he adopts the character of a young man with muscular dystrophy, coping both with a condition that leads to a progressive loss of muscular power, and with his painful struggles to express his gay sexuality as a disabled man.
Today, Softley Gale is an internationally-recognised performer and theatre-maker, whose work has been seen across the UK and in the United States and Australia, over the past decade. In 2018, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of his hilarious musical My Left Right Foot, about the am-dram world trying to cope with disability politics, scored a huge success on the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond; in 2019, his exquisitely choreographed Birds of Paradise show Purposeless Movements featured in the Edinburgh International Festival.
And in the summer of 2019, after separating from his husband of many years, Softley Gale also became the father of twin baby boys. Their mother is Pauline Cafferkey, best known as the Scottish nurse who survived Ebola; and they are raising the boys in Glasgow, as two single people who both passionately wanted to be parents. The high drama of Robert Softley Gale’s remarkable creative life continues, in other words; and given his brilliance as a writer, performer, director, campaigner, and leader of Scotland’s theatre community, there is no limit at all to where his career may take him next.
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