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Herald reporter Fiona McLelland talks to young disabled actor Robert Softley

THE Threepenny Opera was originally written as a satire of society in the 1920s in which rigid social barriers "kept poor people in their place".

Eighty years later, Bertolt Brecht's play is being used by the Theatre Workshop to show how barriers exist for disabled people today, just as they had done in the post-World War One class society.

And Kirkintilloch actor, Robert Softley, will be taking a leading role in the groundbreaking show which marks the European Year of the Disabled.

Robert (23) is busy rehearsing for the Scottish premiere later this month of the show which is set to shake up theatre.

"To have 15 disabled actors on the stage at one time is unusual," said Robert. "It's also quite groundbreaking because of the subject matter. Just look at how it is advertised '…passionate, sexy, provocative.' There are four half-naked women on stage, so it's very in your face. Some people will find that uncomfortable.

"The audience may not know how to deal with it at first. The usual experience of a disabled person is someone they give help to or pay money to. The idea of a disabled person being an actor, paying taxes and working hard at their job flies in the face of that and takes a bit to get used to."

Although Robert is one of only a handful of professional actors in the UK with Cerebral Palsy, he sees the positive side to his disability.

"In the two years I've been acting I have never been out of work, which is good going for any actor. I've got the market pretty well covered, as there are only four or five other actors in the UK with Cerebral Palsy.

"You either look at the hard side of things or at the benefits. If people cannot understand me on stage then that's a problem, but all actors have to work on their voices and clarity. I turn the difficulty around and say that I have an advantage because people coming to a play have to make more of an effort to listen and will be that bit more engaged."

Robert was left with brain damage during birth, when his mum - a 22-year-old vet student - died in labour.

"Cerebral Palsy almost always happens at birth with some sort of complication," explained Robert. "It affects co-ordination, balance and muscle control - everything can move, but not always in the way I want it to. I can't walk properly or speak properly, so I decide I want to be an actor."

Robert was brought up by his Aunt Bette, who he calls mum, and it was through her interest in the Kirkintilloch Players that he got his first taste of the thespian life. But while his mum and sister acted on-stage, Robert remained behind the scenes.

It was while he was doing a lot of public speaking about disability - sometimes to audiences of around 700 people - that he was invited to audition with the Theatre Workshop.

And he believes that it's an exciting time for disabled actors, as the tide is turning against using able-bodied actors to play disabled roles.

He said: "It's comparable to taking white actors and putting them in make-up to take a black actor's role - that is totally unacceptable now, so why is it ok for Daniel Day Lewis to do My Left Foot? It always seems to be a great way to get an Oscar, but does that make it right?"

Robert is used to fighting for disabled rights. At the age of 16, with the support of his family, he managed to persuade Lenzie Academy to accept him as the first physically disabled student in the school and went onto achieve three As and 2 Bs in his Highers.

"The special school I attended was a very protected environment with 160 pupils and Lenzie Academy had 1600. It was big step up and took me a bit of time to adjust, but it prepared me for going on to Glasgow University

"In my first year there were no adaptations; stairs everywhere and no lifts. But it got better and by the time I left school there were already two other disabled people going.

"People have said why should you adapt a school for just one person, but once you break down the barriers, the field gets open for everyone else. Education is moving towards inclusion - parents worry that their child will get bullied at a mainstream school.

"Every parent has a choice but a some point that kid has to go out into the big, bad world and if it doesn't happen at school it could make it more difficult in the future."

Robert graduates from Glasgow University with a degree in management this summer and is keen to build on his acting career. He loves the theatre but would like to move into television and film.

The Threepenny Opera is on at the Glasgow Tramway Theatre from June 17-19 before going on tour.

 
 
 

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