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An Actor? In A Wheelchair?

April 12, 2011

It’s early 2008, and the National Theatre of Scotland has asked Belgian theatre director Pol Heyvaert to work with Scottish actor and playwright Robert Softley. Heyvaert likes the ideas for a new play that Softley has sent him, and is looking forward to exploring them in the rehearsal room.

But when they come face to face, Heyvaert realises he’s been making a big assumption about the kind of actor Softley is. The 30-year-old graduate of the University of Glasgow is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. “When Robert introduced himself as an actor,” he says, “I thought, ‘No, how can a wheelchair user be an actor?'” For Softley, this surprise was familiar. “People’s expectations are that you’re a bit slow,” he grins. “My whole life is about smashing apart those expectations.”

Three years later, the pair are taking time out of rehearsals to talk about Girl X, their first NTS production together. It is inspired by the case of Ashley X, a girl from Seattle who has a brain disorder known as static encephalopathy. In 2004, when Ashley was six, her parents initiated a three-year medical course to halt her growth, including a hyster- ectomy and the surgical removal of her breast buds. From their point of view, it was an act of compassion; they were sparing their daughter the discomfort of puberty. But when the story broke in October 2006, critics talked of Franken-stein, eugenics and human engineering.

To get to a point where they felt comfortable tackling such a fraught debate, Heyvaert and Softley had to go through a rite of passage of their own. In their first workshop, with students from Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Heyvaert made the controversial decision to focus on the actor’s disability. He asked the students to use Softley as a case study: to imitate every involuntary movement, every tilt of his head, every facial contortion. Heyvaert wanted to question the very idea of what an actor is. “Rather than him being the one wheelchair user, I thought, ‘Why not make all the actors wheelchair users and then see what is different between Robert and the other actors?'” The student actors reacted with embarrassment; some burst into tears.

It was a high-risk strategy, and one not untypical for a director whose work includes Aalst, the true-life story of two child killers, and Fuck My Life, about teenage suicide. But despite the initial trauma, it was exactly the approach Softley was looking for. As a disability-rights activist, whose mother died giving birth to him, he knew he would need an unsentimental collaborator. “That’s why it worked so well,” he says. “When I first came to the NTS with the idea, I had no real sense of how to put it on stage. My biggest worry was that it would make it very sentimental, very emotional. The fact that Pol didn’t care was perfect.”

When he began working with Softley, Heyvaert had little sympathy with the disability agenda; making the show has, he says, not so much radicalised him as softened his once-strident opinions. “For me, it was shocking to say there is somebody better placed than parents to decide about their children,” he says. “The issue has become much more complex to me. I still have the same value for the parents’ opinion, but now there is the other, disability-rights opinion next to it as well.”

Girl X is not a polemic in favour of the right of disabled people to choose their own lives, although that is where Softley’s sympathies lie. Neither is it a tirade in support of parental choice. Rather, it is an attempt by the two men to capture a prism of opinions. The Ashley X story and similar cases have generated considerable debate (a blog set up by Ashley’s parents, now taken down, claims to have received 2.75m hits since 2007), and it was this material Heyvaert drew on to construct the script. “I started editing the arguments into a kind of map of all the ideas I’d found on the internet,” he says. On stage, he surrounds Softley with a Greek-style chorus, who voice the many points of view generated by such an emotive issue. “For me,” says Softley, “it’s about engaging people in the issue. It’d be very tempting to go, ‘Look, you should all believe what I believe,’ but the world doesn’t work like that.”

Despite saying he is no social activist in his private life, Heyvaert considers it his duty to put such a sensitive, real-life subject on the stage. “I think we have not only the right to have an opinion on this subject, I think it is obligatory,” he says. “We are the people who decide on subjects like euthanasia and birth control. People must understand that they’re part of those choices.”

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