For Robert Softley Gale – award-winning playwright, actor, and artistic director – theatre is about new ideas that challenge the audience.
And with Blanche and Butch, his latest work with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company that’s coming to Eden Court on Monday – he’s come up with a doozy.
“Garry Robson and I – we’re the two artistic directors of Birds of Paradise – we’re always looking for new ideas to put on that will not be what people expecting us to do,” he explained. “And I guess the idea of disabled drag queens is quite unexpected material – people aren’t expecting that in here on their average night out!”
Blanche and Butch will be the first event that Inverness hosts as part of this year’s Luminate – a country-wide festival that uses the creative arts to explore aging physically and culturally.
And the ideas of Blanche and Butch chimed with the festival. “We approached them because it was clear that that was a theme in the show, this idea of older disabled people, especially older disabled men, and sort of how they fit into the world – what they do, what we all do as we get older and how we work out what our role is in society.
“And that’s one of the themes of the play, you know, about what is our purpose as we get old? What will we become? And so we thought the way to say, you know, the whole thing about disability and getting older, AND the sort of LGBT angle on that – it’s quite an interesting question that the play has to deal with.”
The production is certainly a fascinating and curious beast on paper – set backstage at what will be a theatrical performance of cult classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (marketed in-production as the first with a it blends the high camp, bawdy comedy and political incorrectness of drag with original cabaret songs and a serious and dark look at examination of disability, LGBT issues and aging into one cohesive whole.
“You have to do it with a laugh, because if you take it too seriously then it’ll be very dull and dry. So the way that I approach writing work is that I want to entertain people, I want to make them laugh, and give them a good night out – but at the same time make them think.
“I think the whole power of theatre is that we can make people laugh but also make them see the world in a slightly different way – and that’s quite a powerful thing.”
Drag therefore, with its great tradition of lacerating and scathingly witty comedy without pity, is the perfect medium to tell that story, Robert argues. “It gives us kind of a licence to say things that you couldn’t otherwise say.
“I think if it was normal men and women on stage, we wouldn’t be allowed to say some of these things. But for some reason, whether right or wrong, drag queens can get away with things that other people couldn’t get away with. We state that in the piece, but we also question it a little bit.”
However, that licence to say what is necessary to be said is something that’s personally very important for Robert. “As a disabled queer man myself, I feel that I’ve got a licence to say things about myself that other people wouldn’t be allowed to say.
“There’s something about that that I think we need to listen to people’s views on. If I want to call myself a cripple or queer or whatever, then I’ve got the right to do that.”
The disabled LGBT community is one that is rarely highlighted in culture at the best of times. “It’s not a very big one. and also it’s not a very empowered community,” Robert said. “I think a lot of the LGBT community have become powerful by going out to pubs and clubs and having quite a big economic power. Quite a lot of disabled people haven’t got that, they may be stuck at home or they just can’t get into pubs and clubs.
“It’s that way that a lot of disabled people – not all but a lot – are quite cut off from mainstream society, and that, it makes it harder to move things forward in a way.”
But what matters for Robert is that Blanche and Butch – and all the works he’s done with Birds of Paradise – can explore the topics he wishes to explore in a way that remains funny, moving and entertaining.
“What we do is make work that isn’t ‘worthy’ or saying, ‘Aren’t we doing well for being disabled?’” he said. “It’s about making work that’s high quality, that’s entertaining, that makes people laugh, and then add in a little bit about what it is to be a disabled person in Scotland in 2017.
“So it’s always about getting that balance right, and about giving the audience enough of a challenge so that they’re not bored, but also giving them enough entertainment so that they’re having a good time.
“If you can get people to laugh, then they open up more, and they’re more receptive to other ideas and other ways of looking at the world.”
Blanche and Butch comes to Eden Court on Monday night as part of Luminate – Scotland’s creative aging festival. Tickets cost £13 (concessions are available) – go to www.eden-court.co.uk