BWW Interview: Robert Softley Gale Talks BLANCHE AND BUTCH
BWW speaks to Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of Birds of Paradise, about their new production Blanche and Butch.
A production about drag queens by Birds of Paradise theatre company? I'm sold! Tell us a little bit more about it for anyone who still needs convincing.
Well, like you say, it almost sells itself! Garry and I are always thinking about the expectations that audiences have for our work and specifically about how we can play with these expectations - disabled drag queens feels like a pretty good way to do that!
Blanche & Butch is set backstage at a production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is an iconic 1960s film starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It's about how these three queens get on working together - what keeps them together and what pulls them apart.
So there's a lot of bitchy camp comedy, some sentimentality and fabulous lipsyncing!
And there's original music too?
Yeah - in typical Birds Of Paradise style, why just write a play when you could also write a musical! For me the songs allow us to have 'other' moments in the show - when we can step back a bit and consider other things.
I've always been a massive musicals fan so my instinct is to write songs for everything I do - whether on stage or not!
What inspired you to write the show?
For me there's something about gay culture - and about wider society - that I've never felt part of. The impression that we get is that everyone's happy - once you come out then everything's easy after that, right? And it extends to mainstream culture - everyone is online posting about how great everything is, but where's the shade as well as the light? Where's the texture?
So I wanted to write a show that asked those questions - how do we stop reducing other people (and ourselves) to soundbites and headlines and embrace each other's complexities?
You've been working on Blanche and Butch for over a decade - is there any particular reason to bring it to the stage now?
Well, that makes it sounds like I'm an incredibly slow writer! Garry and I were in a show in 2005 called Heelz n Wheelz - again about disabled drag queens. It started off as our idea but the writer - the wonderful, late Noel Greig - took it in another direction. It was a great production but I want to use the same base idea to tell a different story.
Now, some of your productions are...how do I put this politely...a wee bit filthy. Can we expect the same from Blanche and Butch?
Haha, you definitely won't be disappointed! Drag queens are infamous for their no-holds-barred crudeness and we've plenty of that in this show. It's not just there for entertainment or shock value - again the 'filth' of the work I make is there to question expectations and to make us look at things from another angle.
For anyone who hasn't attended a Bird of Paradise performance before, how has the production/theatre been made accessible?
As always, captioning, audio description and sign language have been woven in to the show. We're using the feel of a venue backstage dressing room to make the captions look appropriate and the audio describer is on stage as our stage manager. I don't want to give too much away but our interpreter will be very much in keeping with the show!
Do you think other theatres and productions are doing enough with regards to accessibility?
No, definitely not - and I think a lot of companies would say that themselves. Many directors still see access as something that gets in the way of them creating their vision whereas for us it's very much part of it. Which isn't to say it's easy - like any element of a show the access stuff can cause headaches and complications - but we know it makes the finished product better and it lets us reach more people.
I first saw you in If These Spasms Could Speak at The Arches - do you think there is still an Arches-shaped hole in the Glasgow theatre scene? The likes of yourself, Gary McNair, Rob Drummond and Kieran Hurley are all linked to The Arches, but do you feel like there are still spaces like this to develop new playwright/performers?
No - we badly need these spaces back. There aren't the same kinds of opportunities to try things out now - places like Buzzcut and Take Me Somewhere are great, but The Arches was a year-round venue that put this work on a pivotal platform and, as you say, launched a number of careers. I think with Jackie [Wylie] now at NTS we'll see more work by...how do you describe us lot? The radicals??
Tour dates for Blanche and Butch are available on the Birds Of Paradise website.