The information below about our productions from 1991 to 2008 has been collated and written by Judith Drake, who is working on Bird of Paradise’s archive as part of her PhD in Scottish Disability Theatre at the University of Edinburgh. Thanks goes to Michael Duke, Liz Gardiner and Rita Winters for reminding us of the beginnings of Birds of Paradise.
Offshore featured as one of Birds of Paradise’s 15th anniversary productions. Featuring Karina Jones, Nick Field, Linda McLaughlin, Billy Mack and Danielle Stewart, Offshore focuses on West Coast Scottish island life where employment is precarious due to the change in the environment and the end of traditional industries. People are struggling to make ends meet, the fishing industry is dying and young people are trying to decide whether they should move to mainland Scotland to have any kind of future.
The play, set in a small failing chandlery that runs local sea life boat tours, takes an interesting turn when two strangers seek to buy the business in cash from its owners, Kath and her daughter Kerry. While the money is very tempting, Kerry is especially suspicious of the prospective owners, Jock and Frida. She is proven right when it turns out that they want the business to launder money and Kerry’s boyfriend Sid informs her that they were asking him to pick up packages from the sea without asking questions. Sid fails to complete a trial run when his conscience gets the better of him. Kerry finds out and tells Jock and Frida she is willing to pick up the item. Sid tries to talk her out of it but accompanies her anyway. They pick up the package and return. In the final twist it turns out that Kath had a previous life in the drugs trade and makes a deal with Jock and Frida to get them off the island. Kath, Kerry and Sid then plan to disappear and start again.
The play asks more questions than it answers. Is there a positive future for the Islands that is not reliant on the tourist trade? Will young people want and find a reason to stay? The critical response was that while the play was enjoyable it included too many plots and scene changes. The production featured captioning and audio programmes in keeping with Birds of Paradise’s commitment to creative access.
Based on the real-life story of the Spider Girls gang in Chile, who were a teenage group of girls looking for money to buy nice clothes. They burgled luxury flats in Santiago by climbing up the outside of the buildings. They were caught and prosecuted which led to a national discussion about the severity of punishment for juveniles.
Beneath You Spider Girls are Everywhere, featuring Itxaso Moreno, Claire Cunningham, Julie Heatherill, Jill Riddiford and John Hollywood, relocates the action to Scotland. Where three teenagers are caught stealing from a block of flats to fund their luxury clothes obsession. Rebecca takes the blame and ends up in prison. As the play progresses we find out about Rebecca’s past. Her story provides, perhaps not the excuse for her current life, but an understanding of how it has shaped her. The action is split between the court room, meetings with her lawyer and flashbacks of what happened at the block of flats.
Matt Foster’s choreography ingeniously represents the scaling of the buildings, and relationships between the characters. The play integrates Claire Cunningham’s unique dance performance as part of her role. Claire, an internationally renowned Scottish disabled performer, featured as Tiffany. Her use of crutches as integral to her dance work provides a disability aesthetic to the performance. This is described as ‘beauty in disability’, the idea that difference is part of the aesthetic appeal. Avoiding a non-disabled dancing technique, Claire’s work is to create movement with the disabled body, stemming from its lived experience instead of an idealised form. A recipient of a Creative Scotland award, she was able to study with Bill Shannon, The Crutchmaster in the USA. Prior to dance performance Claire worked with Sounds of Progress (now known as Limelight) touring musical theatre. Since Beneath You, Claire has worked globally and is currently a Factory Artist with Tanzhaus Düsseldorf, Germany.
This production was part of The Trasna International Festival of Inclusive Theatre hosted by KCAT Art and Study, which saw numerous disability theatre companies come together to provide a host of different performances. Beneath You featured creative access with captioning for all performances for people with hearing impairments and an audio programme for people with visual impairments.
Mouth of Silence featured Rachel Amey, Stephen Clyde, Itxaso Moreno, EJ Raymond, and Kenneth Harvey. It was presented as an outdoor promenade performance, with the audience following the action and the actors, until they eventually end up inside the theatre.
The play tells the story of the death and ‘disappearance’ of thousands of Mayan Indians during the Guatemalan 35-year civil war. Since the 1996 peace agreement, Guatemalans, had been trying to rebuild their lives, seek justice, compensation and prevent such atrocities happening again. Masks and Central American fiesta style carnival sequences begin the play and humorous mime depicts the serious incidents. The play goes on to artfully demonstrate the reality and horrors of the time and how people can return from exile.
Mouth of Silence was the second production after The Irish Giant that featured creative access that integrated British Sign Language (BSL) as part of the play. Given the subject matter of the production integrating BSL adds another layer to the meaning of the play about the complexities of communication. The characters struggle to tell the story of their country’s past, partially due to the 22 indigenous languages of Guatemala and their confrontation with the official language of Spanish, but also because no one will listen to them. BSL gives a visual and visceral understanding to the horrors committed against the indigenous people of Guatemala. The language becomes embodied.
Actor/screenwriter, EJ Raymond, plays the part of Maria, who signs, as she has had her tongue cut out as a child. She provides moving accounts of what was done to her and her family. EJ, who is deaf, had been part of three previous productions for Birds of Paradise, along with numerous productions on her performing arts course at Ayr College, and I Confess (When I Was Small) with Arches Theatre Company. She was also successful in winning a place on Bird of Paradise’s Talent Funding for Disabled Actors.
On the surface Brazil 12 Scotland 0 is about football but it also tells the story of controversies that surround land ownership. It was a political commentary on the distribution of land at the time. In Scotland new legislation was being used by communities, such as that on the Isles of Lewis, to try and buy their land. While, in Brazil, the MST i.e. the Landless Workers’ Movement helped poor communities access land.
Featuring Rachel Amey, John Hollywood, Gael Le Comec, Alyth McCormack, and Robert Softley, the play travels across time and borders, fliting between the Scottish crofts of the Highlands and Islands and farmlands in Brazil. It compares the similarities between the two communities, who are both fighting for ownership of the land that their ancestors have always lived and worked on but never legally owned. In Brazil, the farmers take back and work on land that they see as unused. In Scotland, the communities put together bids to buy back the land from aristocratic families and corporations. In a funny and highly informative way, the play focuses on feelings of community, belonging and what it means to call somewhere home. It toured Scotland including the communities that are part of the play.
Brazil 12 Scotland 0 was part of the Ya Basta! (which is Spanish for enough already) Festival of 2005. The festival was created to give an artistic response to the issues that were to be discussed at the G8 summit at Gleneagles. It was part of the Make Poverty History Campaign created by Richard Curtis and Sir Bob Geldof. Ya Basta! also featured Scottish theatre company 7:84, comedian Mark Thomas, Artists in Exile, writer/director Davey Anderson and filmmakers the Camcorder Guerrillas.
This was the current artist director Robert Softley Gale’s second production with Birds of Paradise playing the part of Ewan.
The Irish Giant Written and Directed by Garry Robson (2003)
This play was originally written and produced for New Breed Theatre Company in 2002. The production for Birds of Paradise was the first involving Garry Robson, who later became the company’s artistic director. It was also the first performance that featured creative access. British Sign Language was incorporated into the production with either actors signing their spoken dialogue or the interpreter/actor, Natalie Garrity, taking part in the action instead of signing from the side of the stage. The play featured new music by disabled rock/folk musician Leigh Stirling.
Garry’s play focuses on the life and death of Charles Byrne better known as The Irish Giant a popular 18th century freak (freak was the term used at this time), who exhibited in the UK. Having researched the freak shows of the 18th and 19th century Robson was keen to bring this story to the stage. He said, ‘It could be argued that Freaks and Freak shows are the direct antecedents of today’s modern day disabled performers and I think it’s important to understand about them what made them tick and what appeal they had to audiences throughout the ages.’
Byrne was an immensely popular freak in London. His life savings were stolen from him while in a pub in the city, their loss led to his poverty, illness and death. He became fearful that, on his death, his body would be stolen and anatomised. He made plans to be buried at sea. Unfortunately, for Byrne, the infamous ‘freak collector’ and Scottish anatomist-surgeon, John Hunter, bought his body before burial and his skeleton is still on display at Hunterian Museum in London. Robson’s play is a dark, funny and fast paced production that explores the lives of people like Byrne and seeks to understand how they were valued in society. It also questions the medical ethics and discrimination that disabled people face.
The play follows the cast as they try to free Byrne from his display in the Hunterian Museum and find themselves on a journey of discovery about his life and death.
Rescuers Speaking by Wilfred Harrison, Directed by Mark Westbrook (2002)
The story of ordinary people who risked everything to save some of Hitler’s victims. The Polish woman; the Italian priest; the German man; all told their amazing stories of bravery with a modest frankness – disturbing, beautiful and haunting.
Birds of Paradise has always been at the forefront of training and opportunities for disabled people in the theatre and entertainment industry. At the time of Rescuers Speaking, Birds of Paradise had multiple training programmes for disabled people, these included: performance and technical skills for theatre and radio, and creative writing and feature making for the radio. This was at a time when disabled people were not yet able to access established training in the arts. Birds of Paradise was instrumental in being able to offer work placed training starting from beginners through to professional theatre culminating in a community tour like Rescuers Speaking. This vital training provided the necessary opportunity to perform in mainstream theatre venues across Scotland. Having had this performance experience and training meant the members could go on to be part of other Birds of Paradise productions and gave them the skills to work with other established theatre companies.
Rescuers Speaking featured Michael Hughes, Paul Williams, EJ Raymond, Forrest Alexander, Ann Marie Robertson and Jeff Gillespie. It followed the stories of everyday people in Hitler’s Germany trying to save those at risk from his government’s extermination policies. Before the 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust other groups of people were killed by the Nazi regime. These groups included: disabled people, people with mental health conditions, people of different ethnic background (like Romani Gypsies or Travellers), those of a LGBT sexual orientation, and members of religious denomination (like Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses.) They were all consider to be deviant and their murders brought the death count in Nazi Germany to 11 million.
Written for the company by Scotland’s two leading writers of children’s fantasy, Merman was a tale within a tale…
Merman writers Susan McClymont and David Gray-Buchanan also wrote the play Phoenix in 1998. David Gray-Buchanan features as the Dad in the play and was responsible for the sound effects. David Scott, of the Scottish pop group the Pearlfishers, created original music for the production. Designed specifically for children, but just as enthralling for adults, Merman explores ideas around difference and isolation through fantasy. The play features animation alongside live action and is set in an imaginary small Scottish costal village called Skarra.
Merman is played by Kevin Howell, who the island children; Rhona (Lynne McKelvey) Ewan (David Jekins) and Eileen (Louise Irwin), mistakenly believe to be a merman as they witness him walking out of the sea on his hands with what they think is a tail. They incorporate him into their supernatural adventure as they wait for the return of Rhona and Ewan’s Dad, who is lost at sea and as Eileen tries to come to terms with her Dad having left the family. Georgette Ratcliffe features as Magda a supernatural being who lives in an underwater cave and uses a storm to attack the children after they upset her. Later in the play it is revealed that Magda, in another reality, is an old lady who has rented the lighthouse and that the Merman, who has befriended the bored children, is a wheelchair user who was swimming using a monofin. Once the children realise this they treat him differently, which annoys him. After he rescues Ewan and Rhona’s Dad from a storm the children start to see him in a different light. The play uses negative words that children and adults use about disabled people and shows how negative perceptions are not a reality.
The production toured Scotland and did outreach work in schools. Tina McGeever believed part of Birds of Paradise’s remit was to promote the message of inclusivity and equality to the next generation of theatre goers.
Award winning writer, Alasdair Gray, created this tragic-comedy especially for the company. Working Legs – a play for people without them.
Working Legs was commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council for Birds of Paradise. It is perhaps the most famous Birds of Paradise’s play of the 1990s and the only one to have be published. It was written by influential Scottish writer, playwright and artist, Alasdair Gray, best known for his novel, Lanark. It was company member, Forrest Alexander, who asked Gray to write a play for them. Gray illustrated the programme and donated the performing rights to Birds of Paradise. He also upheld his commitment to waive the performance fee of any amateur theatre company in which fifty percent of the cast were disabled.
Gray wanted to create strong disabled characters and a world in which non-disabled actors were in the minority. He drew on the experiences of cast members as well as getting some ideas from the prominent Disability Studies academic, Vic Finkelstein and his story about a disabled village. Working Legs reverses the situation of disabled and non-disabled people in society, humorously ridiculing power structures. It shows how certain groups of people are treated as inferior due to their differences.
The play tells the story of Able McCann (John Hollywood), who is trying to keep his job but his hypermania (his ability to walk) means he is excluded from a society that is designed for wheelchair users. Able loses his job while his ‘normal’ (wheelchair using) girlfriend, Betty McCrae (Ayse Bak) is pregnant. She lives with her parents, who hate hypermanics and want the relationship to end. Able is no longer entitled to state benefits as he has been taken of the hypermanic register. After becoming homeless he has a hypermanic attack and wrecks a pub. He is injured while being taken into police custody and demands his hypermanic civil rights. A newspaper editor prints a scandalous version of his story which brings back into the spotlight the way society treats hypermanics. Able eventually comes out of his coma and finds that he is paralysed from his injuries. He also finds due to the interest in his life he now has money and his job back.
One of the criticism of the play was that scenes showing how the media and politicians fostered inequality for their own political and financial gain were not used to their full advantage because of the comedic nature of the play. Gray did say that Working Legs should not be played for laughs… ‘The more grimly humourless the production the funnier will the audience find it. The society portrayed is – but for a small reversal of physical advantage – ours.’
Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s dramatic collage of voices, Tongues also included new writing by members of the company.
The production Tongues was a collaboration between Birds of Paradise and 7:84 theatre company. This was the first time Birds of Paradise worked with an established theatre company. 7:84 (Scotland) was a world-renowned touring company that focused on the political, social and cultural issues that faced society. It was started in 1971 by John McGrath, Elizabeth MacLennan and David MacLennan. The name 7:84 was based on a statistic that 7% of the population of the UK owned 84% of the country’s wealth. The company continued with its outreach, touring and excellent playwriting, including working in collaboration with other companies like Birds of Paradise, until it closed in 2008, due to a change in funding for the arts.
Tongues was a collaboration between Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin, who were from the 1960s’ American Avant-garde theatre scene. They were both interested in experimental theatre that explored how society conditions people’s identities. Tongues was their first collaboration written in the late 1970s. It followed their preferred fragmentary collage style of theatre; using multiple disconnected voices and stories which created the impression of ‘speaking in tongues’.
Tongues was selected to challenge the Birds of Paradise actors as it would involve training in a different style of theatre. Rehearsal took place over five months of weekly workshops. There were also outreach workshops run by the two companies in the west of Scotland. These resulted in a piece of new writing based on responses to the original script and the lived experience of disabled people. This was in keeping with Shepard and Chaikin’s views around identity and knowledge of self.
The production was a cacophony of language, which had a musical quality that gave a rhythm to the dialogue. The set was minimal and the actors did not represent specific characters, instead they gave a voice to a story, which was not necessarily their own story. The production explored the universal themes of loneliness, suffering, and isolation both from self and the wider society. The critical reception was mostly positive with the cast (Forrest Alexander, Ayse Bak, Michael Cannon and Kevin Howell) receiving praise for their performances.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, Directed by Andrew Dawson (1996)
Written by Brecht in exile during the rise to power of the Nazis, Arturo Ui parodies the rise to power of Hitler and his inner circle.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was the first Bertolt Brecht play that Birds of Paradise produced. It was directed by Andrew Dawson, who was one of the first qualified drama therapists in Scotland. The programme describes the production as ‘a savage and witty parable of the rise of Hitler… Brecht had a series of historic events in mind when he wrote the play, and each scene represents an event which contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.’ The play, which is set in Chicago, features gangsters running a protection racket in the greengrocery trade. Arturo Ui is trying to muscle in and take over the cauliflower trade.
Theatre critics thought that having the statistics projected on stage of how many people with physical and mental disabilities were legally killed under the Nazi Heredity Health Law, was a chilling reminder of those eradicated for their presumed difference. They were particularly moved by Kevin Howell, who played Arturo Ui, as well as the other disabled actors who portrayed Brecht’s characters.
The cast included John Campbell, Ernie Kyle and Mary Hamilton, who were all part of Birds of Paradise’s training courses for disabled actors. They were appearing in this production as part of their training to provide experience of professional performances. Mary Hamilton also worked as assistant stage manager on the production as Birds of Paradise were committed to provide experience of all theatre roles.
The Farce of Circumstance by Tom Lannon, Directed by Andrew Dawson (1994)
Tom Lannon’s darkly humorous and honest play looked at two people locked in their own personal prisons.
The Farce of Circumstance was one of the first Birds of Paradise plays to be commissioned and funded by the Scottish Arts Council. Tom Lannon was one of the first disabled playwrights in Scotland, having worked for Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh before writing for Birds of Paradise. He was on the board that inaugurated the fifty/fifty disabled non-disabled quota for the company.
Tom Lannon used the local history of Govan as the basis of the ghost tour in the play. This play, featuring Kevin Howell as Peter and Julie Campbell as Winnie, is described as a black comedy about normality. Winnie, whose hidden disability is discussed throughout the play but never named, has recently moved to Glasgow and is doing an internship at GAP (Govan Arts Project). She comes up with the idea of a Ghost Tour around the area and is seeking council funding. She meets local historian Peter, who is a wheelchair user and he provides the background information on historical figures of interest. Through their work together they embark on a riotous and farcical affair. They poke fun at the political correctness of the council and the issues of disabled stereotypes. It is apparent that Winne’s marriage is in difficulty, they are unable to have children and have been turned down by the council adoption agency. Winnie’s husband Andy is aware of his wife’s adultery, she has had many affairs. He is more concerned with his career and that she should come to his work functions and look like the perfect wife. Peter begs Winnie to leave Andy and marry him but she refuses. Winnie leaves Govan to follow her husband to a new job in Bristol. Peter ends up doing more work with GAP.
Tom Lannon’s draft script was changed into a two person play, which only featured the characters of Winnie and Peter.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë adpated by Liz Gardiner, Directed by Anna Newell and Liz Gardiner (1992)
Wuthering Heights by Emma Brontë was adapted for the stage by Liz Gardiner. It featured scenes and original dialogue from the book. This was the first scripted play produced by Birds of Paradise. It was told through the eyes of the nurse who was played by Yvonne Allen. Kevin Howell played Heathcliff to much critical acclaim. Anna Newell as well as co-directing the play played the part of Cathy.
The set was designed by Rita Winters and featured large windows that faced out onto the moors. The production concentrated the action on interior scenes but also used sound and light effects to simulate the moors outside. The set was described as giving a claustrophobic quality to the play and added to the audience’s sense of the characters being trapped.
This production marked an important moment for Birds of Paradise as the actors were paid for their work. As a professional actor it entitled Kevin Howell membership to the Equity Actor’s Union which expanded the roles available to him.
In 1990, Fablevision, which was still the parent company to Birds of Paradise, unexpected lost their funding when Renfrew District Council did not provide a grant. By 1992 it looked very likely that they would go into receivership. When Equity found out about the situation they offered £5,000, from their emergency fund, to continue as they believed in the importance of Birds of Paradise. At this time there was no other theatre company in Scotland providing access for disabled people to get into the industry. This funding allowed Fablevision and Birds of Paradise to continue and secure other funding.
Borderland devised by the company – a co-production with Fablevision. Directed by Michael Duke (1991)
Borderland featured five cast members from Dougal Graham: Yvonne Allen, Morag Stark, Jeg Convey, Paul Toy, Kevin Howell along with Neil Jack. It is believed to be the first truly Birds of Paradise production before it became independent.
Borderland was devised by Michael Duke and the cast. The cast were keen to do something new and creatively ambitious. They definitely didn’t want to do a show about disability or have characters defined by their disability. They realised they wanted to create a show that looked at difference and hierarchical power structures.
Discussions about unrest in Eastern Europe, the easing of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the execution of the Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife during 1989, gave the company the context for Borderland. It was set in the disputed territory of Transylvania which was ruled by Romania but had a large population of Hungarians who were being cleared off the land. Borderland was about who has the right to impose rule on others.
The characters included: a corrupt Mayor who was in a relationship with a Hungarian singer, her mother, who was opposed to the Romanians as her son had been killed by the secret police, the mother’s daughter, who had taken in her brother’s friend, who had unrequited love for her while carrying the guilty secret of being the informer who had turned her brother into the secret police. There was also a trade unionist, who had fought the same corrupt bosses all his life and a wide-boy free marketer who profited from the availability of Western goods.
The scenes used the physicality of the actors to discuss difference rather than disability. The singer’s only lines is ‘Mother this is my new dress’ as she tries to get her mother to look at her wedding dress. Her mother demonstrates her disapproval by slowly turning away from her using her crutches to move her wheelchair. No words were need from the mother as the choreography made clear she would die before looking at the dress or accepting her daughter’s marriage.
A comic tragedy, riotous, irreverent and bawdy, Dougal Graham looked at the vast tapestry of Scottish history.
Fablevision featured Birds of Paradise in a production of Dougal Graham written by disabled playwright Tom Lannon. He went onto write several plays for the company. The show was staged at the Chandler studio within the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in March 1991. Several of the cast members of Dougal Graham went on to become principal members of Birds of Paradise after it became independent from Fablevision. The play was based on a historical character, Dougal Graham (1725-1799), who was known to be disabled. He was part of the Jacobite rising in 1745 and went with Charles Stuart’s army on the March to Derby. The production featured an original score and traditional music arrangements.
Here are a few memories from co-directors, Michael Duke and Liz Gardiner and designer Rita Winters.
Michael remembers the opening scene as a huge spectacle that surprised the audience, both the Scottish and English armies descended towards them through special smoke and lighting effects. The seating was organised so that the audience could take part. They could choose sides and hold weapons, while actors on trucks flew past them. The audience were in the midst of the battle with no idea of what would happen next.
Rita designed small trucks on wheels for performers who were wheelchair users. Some of the actors in trucks were pushed, others used poles to move themselves around the stage. Clan leaders were carried at a high level, these layers gave the impression of a huge army.
Liz remembers the difference between the poor house scenes and the epic battle scenes. The audience were amazed and loved the impressive scale of the show. Theatre critics were impressed with the scale and the actor’s portrayal of the characters.