Just prior to the opening of his one man show If These Spasms Could Speak at Edinburgh Fringe, I’m delighted to have Robert Softley answering my 20 Questions…
Robert Softley is an established figure in the Scottish arts scene – including disability rights activist, actor and performer, writer, artistic director and supporter and advocate of equality of access to the arts for disabled people whether as artists or audiences. Robert’s professional acting debut was with Theatre Workshop (Edinburgh) in‘Nothing Ever Burns Down By Itself’ in 2002 and since then has appeared in many productions and has developed his own artistic practice – most recently instigating, co-writing and performing in ‘Girl X’ for the National Theatre of Scotland, directed by Pol Heyvaert of Belgium’s Campo. In 2011 he was awarded and undertook a Creative Scotland residency which allowed him to develop ‘If These Spasms Could Speak. A graduate of Glasgow University with an MSc (Hons) in Business & Management, Robert’s other role is as a director of flip – disability equality in the arts(http://www.flip.org.uk/) which works across Scotland to support individuals and organisations in the arts sector. Robert is also an Artistic Director of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, Scotland’s touring company that promotes the work of disabled artists in partnership with non-disabled artists and mainstream theatre venues and companies. Other acting credits include: ‘The Hogmanay Boys’, ‘Asylum’, ‘I Have Before Me…’,‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘The Last Little Fish in the Net’ and ‘Hans Christian Andersen: A Christmas Tale’ (Theatre Workshop); ‘The Irish Giant’ and ‘Brazil 12 – Scotland 0’ (Birds of Paradise), ‘Heelz n Wheelz’ (Fittings Multimedia); ‘A (Gay Disabled Transsexual) Love Story…’ (Boygirlfruitflower) and ‘Private Dancer’ (Janice Parker). Film and television credits include ‘Out of Order’ (MacInnes Films), ‘Trouble Sleeping’ (Makar Productions) and ‘River City’ (BBC Scotland). He has recorded a number of dramas for BBC Radio 4.
What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?
My family have always been involved in amatuer theatre, but as a young disabled person I was never involved in the performing aspect. I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work: painting scenery, lights and sounds. It wasn’t until I went to university that I first studied theatre. I did that for about a year and a half and then I had the option of doing theatre or business as my degree. I thought I’d never get a job in theatre – who would employ a disabled person to work in this sector? So I picked business. About a week after I had made that choice, I got offered a one year contract as an actor. Just goes to show that you never know what’s coming next! What drew me to performance was this idea that you could change how people see you through what you do on stage. I guess that has always been my way of working – onstage and off – to give people a slightly different perspective of the world and of things around them.
What was your big breakthrough?
I don’t think I really believe in breakthroughs – everything you do leads to something else. You just keep pursuing things. You never know if the next thing you’re going to do will lead to something great or lead to something crap. You just have to keep going. But I guess my very first job was my first breakthrough because it all started from there.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
It’s all pretty challenging. The biggest issue is always going to be trying to realise what you’ve got in your head and make it actually happen that way on stage. I think all artists have great ideas but when it actually comes to fruition they don’t always come out the way you want them to. That’s just part of the process. There is also that balance of saying what you want to say and saying what people to hear and finding some way to bring the two together without compromising what you’re doing.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
I think big productions like the National Theatre of Scotland’s ‘Black Watch’ reminded me that theatre can have quite a profound effect and can be very popular if it really touches people. It’s rewarding every so often to be reminded that theatre can do that.
What’s more important: form or content?
I don’t think you can really separate the two. They are one and the same. Form is just as important as content. I think if you see them in a separate way then you’re not quite doing your job properly.
How do you know when a project is finished?
I don’t think projects ever are finished. I think they get to a point where you’ve taken them as far as you want to take them but you can always take them further. You can always change them. You can always make it better but eventually all artists get bored and we move on. But projects are never quite finished. I don’t think they ever have a definite starting point or end point. You just do it for as long as you feel you should and then move on when the time is right.
Do you read your reviews?
I would love to say that I don’t. I would love to be the higher person for not reading them, but I do. It’s important to me what people think of my work. I hope that I don’t give more weight to a critic than to a member of public. I want to hear all reactions but yeah, my ego means that I have to read what people think about me.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
Find things that are interesting to you, that aren’t boring, and make you think about things and then they’ll make others think about things. Whatever you do, don’t bore people.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Because of my interest in the performance area, I don’t really think about owning art. I would just like to create art and have people see it. I’d rather see art with other people so I don’t get the whole owning art thing.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
A director once told me that there’s no such thing as writer’s block but there absolutely is. It’s just a point where the words don’t come. So if the words aren’t coming, don’t force them to come. Do something else and come back and at some point it will work. Don’t force it, it’ll come.
What are you working on now?
I’m just about to open my show at the Edinburgh Fringe: If These Spasms Could Speak. This show is about disabled people and their bodies. It’s a collection of monologues about how disabled people see their bodies and what they think of them. Here’s the blurb:
I am about to start an Edinburgh Fringe 26 show run of my solo show “If These Spasms Could Speak”
“We know you want to look, to stare even. It’s OK. You’re allowed.“
A solo performance based on a collection of funny, sad, touching and surprising stories about disabled people and their bodies. Created and performed by actor Robert Softley (co-creator of National Theatre of Scotland’s Girl X) this show was a sell out hit at the Arches’ BEHAVIOUR festival in 2012. An engaging, highly humorous and interactive live art performance about disabled people that exposes a truth behind bodies that differ from the norm. As disabled people, our bodies are central to how we exist in the world. They’re the way others first judge us, the subject of medical diagnosis, and usually seen as the reason that we can’t take part in society. And yet, they also carry with them volumes of stories about incidents, scrapes and calamities. Let us tell you how we perceive ourselves. http://www.ifthesespasmscouldspeak.com/
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
I don’t know yet. I’d rather think about whether there’s something I can still create. The idea that I can create someone else’s art is a bit of a fallacy so, I create the work I can create.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
That you can’t really plan for anything. You can roughly know where you’re going but actually you never know what’s coming next. So, plans can only go so far. You just have to see what comes and what that brings. Don’t hold on to your plans too much.
What’s your greatest ambition?
I was asked the other day and I answered: I am doing what I always wanted to do. I’m creating work that people like, I’m getting gigs, performing to a wide variety of people. I can’t imagine what else I would be wanting to do. Sure, I would like to work in big theatres and do the ‘big stuff’, but actually then I wouldn’t be able to do what I want to do.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
You have to recognize that that’s what makes you better. If you think that everything that you create is great then you’re wrong and quite arrogant. The doubt is really important. You have to embrace it and use it, and listen to what other’s tell you. Don’t always go with what they think but use their questions to make you more secure of what you think.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
It was a Christmas show years ago and someone said that I was “a very unconvincing romantic lead”. It wasn’t hurtful but it said a lot about that critic’s perspective on disability; if they think that a disabled person cannot make a romantic lead.
And the best thing?
Actually it’s not something that someone said but I was once doing a promenade performance. I was delivering a monologue at the end of it and I was staring someone straight in the face as I did it and they started to cry. That’s pretty powerful – to watch someone cry because of what you’re saying.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
I think being Scottish we don’t really do metaphors or conceits we tend to call a spade a spade. However, there’s something about perspective and the fact that you can only ever see something from your point of view. Whatever you create, you can’t really worry about what other people will make of it. You can just create what you create.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
We also don’t really do mottos in Scotland – we’re such a cantankerous race! It’s about getting on with it and making it the best you can. In fact, scrap that! There is a motto – it’s got to be: what’s the worst that can happen!? That’s always gotten me into so many interesting situations!
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
I guess that it’s not that different to the non-creative life. There’s no distinction. Everything’s got that bit of creativity in it so you can’t see it as something different. The same rules apply: work hard and do the best you can!
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
If These Spasms Could Speak’
by Robert Softley in association with The Arches
Pleasance Below at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
Book tickets at www.edfringe.com or call 0131 556 6550.FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/robertsoftleygale