ROBERT SOFTLEY is used to the stares. So he laughs at the idea that the double-take count might have risen after his recent advert appearances.
“I’ve no idea if they know me from that or not, people always stare. It’s what you get used to when you’re in a wheelchair and have cerebral palsy and a speech impediment. People can’t help it. I suppose some might be looking and thinking ‘I know his face from somewhere...”
It’s a hard face to forget – usually because it’s plastered with an infectious grin. But if you’re struggling to place him, he and his partner Nathan Gale were part of the recent Equality Network’s It’s Time video campaign for same-sex marriage, filmed on Arthur’s Seat enjoying the views over Edinburgh.
“The really interesting thing about that was that it focused people on the message rather than disability,” says Robert. “I found that quite fascinating. They needed a gay couple so Nathan [who works with the Equality Network] and I volunteered, and my wheelchair wasn’t even mentioned which was brilliant. It wasn’t an issue.”
It is his disability, however, which has seen Robert’s acting career really take off. Last weekend, he finished his award-winning one-man play If These Spasms Could Speak at the Traverse Theatre – and this weekend he jets outs to Sao Paulo to perform it as part of a British Council cultural visit to Brazil in the run up to the next Olympic Games.
“The British Council were at the Fringe this year to look for work that could travel to other countries and they saw my show and booked me right away to go to Brazil which is pretty exciting,” he says.
“Apparently they’re doing a lot of cultural work over there as Brazil gets ready to host the Olympics in 2016. The arts and culture were such a big part of the London Olympics that it seems they want that to continue and develop over there.
“Work by disabled actors in Brazil isn’t particularly well developed, so they wanted to take people like me and other disabled artists to demonstrate the work that we do here and hopefully inspire Brazilian artists and actors to do the same.
“I believe that people over there do want to see work by disabled artists, to see how it works. In the UK, people are now used to seeing disabled people on stage, so audiences can be a little apathetic about it. In Brazil it’s still quite new, so there are exciting things happening.”
But is he concerned then that Brazil might not have the same regulations regarding the equality of disabled people and the access to buildings and public places that comes with being a little off-pace? “Well I’m pretty adaptable,” he laughs. “I’m quite happy just to deal with whatever happens.”
That seems to have been Robert’s motto since birth 33 years ago, when his mother died during labour, cutting off his oxygen supply. It left him with cerebral palsy and a dad who struggled to cope. Ultimately, he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who he now calls mum and dad, and his two older cousins.
He says that despite his disability he was never treated differently, and that while at nursery his inability to walk was not a problem, given that most were crawling, and even when walking were hardly any taller.
He attended special schools for primary and secondary before switching to mainstream for his final years. IT and business management seemed to be his career path when he started at Glasgow University, but everything was about to change.
“I started doing theatre studies in second year as an extra course because theatre was something I’d always loved, though I didn’t think about it in career terms. My family had been involved in amateur drama for years as my sister joined the local drama club and persuaded my mum to go too.”
Robert’s involvement with am-dram started off as an audience member, but by the time he was 11, he was backstage helping with painting sets before moving on to props and then, thanks to his IT skills, the technical aspects of staging plays.
Then in 2002, he was giving a talk about inclusion to an arts conference when he was spotted by the Theatre Workshop’s research officer. The Stockbridge-based theatre employs disabled actors and Robert was asked to audition for the company. He got the job and moved to Edinburgh.
“It’s just gone from there,” he says. “I remember thinking at uni there was no point in studying theatre full-time, I’d never get a job. It was just something I loved. But then there I was working as an actor. You never know what’s coming next. My career has come as quite a surprise to me, but I can’t imagine what else I would do.”
From his days with Theatre Workshop, Robert has gone on to study at Queen Margaret University and work with the BBC on radio as well as television – he made several appearances in drama River City – but says his passion is still for theatre. To that end he became involved with theatre group Birds of Paradise and is now its artistic director, has established Flip, a company which promotes disability equality in the arts, and at the same time keeps writing, directing and performing, most recently in the acclaimed Girl X for the National Theatre of Scotland and If These Spasms Could Speak, which was supported by Creative Scotland.
“I hope that when people come to see me they get more out of the whole process of watching theatre. I am not always easy to understand and I’m always open about that. But it means audiences have to work harder to listen. A lot of communication is non-verbal, but watching someone with a speech impediment does require more concentration. I think I make that work in my favour.
“I love theatre. You get that connection with the audience that TV and radio doesn’t give you. It makes people think about things in a different way.”
The play he’s taking to Brazil certainly does that. One review of the 60-minute solo performance said that “in celebrating his own life, he makes us see our own with completely fresh eyes”.
So does he feel his life has been hard? “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know any different. I look at other people who aren’t disabled and who haven’t got the focus I have, or the life choices, and their lives seem harder to me. What’s an easy life anyway? The fact that I can do a successful run on the Fringe then fly out to Brazil suggests my life isn’t that difficult.”
• For more information about Flip, visit www.flip.org.uk