Arts Review: Purposeless Movements + Interview with Robert Softley Gale

Dir. Robert Softley Gale, Tramway, 25 – 27 February  

‘Purposeless movements’ is the controversial term of diagnosis given to people with Cerebral Palsy. It is also the name of Birds of Paradise Theatre’s latest production. Each of the four performers on stage has a gradation of the condition and in this work, written and directed by Robert Softley Gale, they tell us their personal experiences through stories and physicality. From the condescending attitude of health care workers and politicians to anecdotes about love, the stories are engaging, touching but most of all very funny. As one of the actors says, ‘If you’re laughing at us, you might stop worrying about mishearing us. If you’re laughing with us, you might be less freaked out by our jerky movements.’

The innovative, robust choreography by Rachel Drazek was very much created in cooperation with the four performers. When I asked Robert Softley Gale about the rehearsal process he said, ‘We worked a lot with the guys, asking them what they do and how they move, then working from that. Where walking a tightrope 20ft in the air would be the ultimate goal for a non-disabled physical artist, we have different aims.’

The presence, movements, energy and willpower of the actors fills the huge Tramway stage without any difficulties, accomplishing the goal of conveying stories through physicality and sharing the joy of intention. While watching, I started to realize how derogatory the term ‘purposeless movements’ is. Every movement on stage seems to be an expression of something, even if it’s just an attempt to express a body that struggles against itself. When I asked Softley Gale about this, he said that even after creating this show, he still wasn’t sure whether he thought it to be a damaging label. ‘When I first heard that I had ‘Purposeless movement’, I didn’t think it sounded that bad. But as I got older and started unpacking the term, I discovered the more reprehensible parts about it as well. I think that’s what this production is trying to figure out: what is purposeful, when does a movement not have a purpose?’ In the end, the actors don’t ask you to try and look past their disability to see a ‘real me.’ Everything, the jerky movements, the speech impairments, the twitches are as much a part of them as the words they say.

‘Stories of disabled people have been missing from our culture for a long time’ said Softly Gale. ‘And when they are there, they are written by non-disabled people, who just don’t have a true concept of what this is. As a minority group, like women or gay people, your stories get excluded because you’re not in power. That’s why it’s so important that the guys on stage literally tell their own story, even if they need projected subtitles to make themselves fully understood.”

Birds of Paradise theatre company presents work which challenges taboos and preconceptions around disability. Their most recent production was a sex comedy, a pretty big step from this show. But, as Softley Gale explains, ‘I get bored pretty quickly! Plus, there’s no one type of work that disabled artists do. We can do bits of everything; a one-man show, a sex comedy about a woman with no legs and a physical theatre piece. As a company, we have to present as wide a range as possible, to speak to as many people as possible.’

In addition to that, their shows move firmly away from the idea that disabled performers are somehow always “inspirational” or “brave.” Instead, they show us that they’re just doing their job, no different from every other professional performer. Their next production will be one aimed at young people, playing in December. Softly Gale emphasises the importance for young people to see disabled people on stage, to have a disabled role model. Another reviewer said ‘What starts as the story of four men with cerebral palsy ends as a show about four human beings.’ While it might be stupid that we need a theatre show to remind us of that obvious fact, theatre is also the perfect place to educate people and change preconceptions about disability.

The diversity of absolutely wonderful live music by Scott Twynhol and Kim Moore, lighting, videography and movement all work together to create an honest, unflinchingly emotional and witty piece of theatre about what it is to move and be moved in the world, with each other.

[Aike Jansen]

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