THE BIG INTERVIEW: Garry Robson during rehearsals for Our Country’s Good  

Proving disability and deafness can be incorporated into mainstream theatre, Susan Elkin met up with Garry Robson during rehearsals for Our Country’s Good

Garry Robson, 65, always wanted to be an actor. “But I was told that for a boy like me it was impossible” he says. As a young child in the mid nineteen fifties he contracted polio before mass vaccination was introduced. The resultant paralysis left him permanently dependent on sticks.

“I use a manual wheelchair now and have done for the last ten years or so since I had an accident which temporarily affected my arms” he says. “It’s an easier option as you get older. I’m quite happy with it.”

In the event, none of this has stopped him having a flourishing career in performing arts – initially as a professional musician and later as performer and director. When I caught up with him Garry was in rehearsals for the Ramps on the Moon production of Our Country’s Good, directed by Fiona Buffini, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse on 9 March and then tours nationally until 2 June. Garry plays Harry Brewer.

“I grew up in Corby where I went to grammar school and then to the University of Bradford for a degree in sociology, philosophy and a few other things” he recalls. “That was where I got into performing with Irish/Scots bands. I’m a singer and guitarist and I learned to play the bodhran, which is an Irish drum. Then during my MA at Nottingham I picked it up professionally.”

Tours with Kelly’s Heroes and Patti O’Doors and the Sunloungers kept him busy for several years. “And sometimes we did bits of music for the theatre, which of course I loved” he recalls with a grin.

“Then I was offered an assistant director position for a production in Scotland called Grimm which was quite avant garde. They had a Barclays New Futures Award to help fund it and I performed in the show as well as assisting with the directing.”

That was Garry’s career turning point and since then he’s been busy confounding the nay-sayers by demonstrating that a boy or man with a disability jolly well can work in the theatre industry very successfully.

“I’ve done a lot of acting work especially in shows for young audiences” he says adding that he set up a company called Sittings in Manchester. “I’ve directed many shows too” he says, fondly mentioning, in passing working as an Assistant Director with Birds of Paradise Theatre.

And often those shows have helped to break down the barriers between mainstream theatre and work by deaf and disabled actors.

“I directed a puppet show in Siberia” he chuckles when I ask him about communication between actors with different impairments. “I had the Russian in-house actors – that’s how theatres are organised in Russia – and deaf dancers from Tomsk who used Siberian sign language. And of course I don’t speak Russian so we had to find ways of working together very quickly. Because the puppets were large scale, each needing three or four people to operate them, I put the performers in mixed teams so that they had to find ways of communicating with each other because otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to animate the puppets.”

So it’s all about collaboration? “Exactly! As all theatre is but when you have a company including deaf and disabled people you have to collaborate even more proactively” declares Garry cheerfully.

“And Ramps on the Moon, the producer of Our Country’s Good, which was founded in 2014 has done a great deal to promote this. Their aim is to confront the under representation of deaf and disabled actors especially in mainstream theatre and they have Arts Council funding. The company started with The Government Inspector, which was a critical success. Then came a version of The Threepenny Opera in a partnership with Graeae, Wolsey Theatre Ipswich and Stratford East” explains Garry.

“They knew they had to go for well known, established plays which would draw a mainstream audience. You need brand recognition. And in fact, when they did Tommy (my first appearance with the company) in 2016, lots of The Who fans came without realising that the cast was predominantly deaf and disabled actors. Some of that audience said it was the best production of Tommy they’d ever seen! So that really did break through a few barriers,”

He adds “It was a brilliant idea to cast a deaf actor as Tommy and I think the production showed the wider theatre industry that, actually, working with deaf and disabled actors is not really such a big deal.”

So how is Our Country’s Good going? They were in the third week of rehearsals when I caught up with Garry. “Well Timberlake Wertenbaker’s fine play about a group of convicts in Australia mounting a production of George Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer is a highly relevant piece for 2018” he says. “It’s about the power of art to change lives as well as forcing the audience to think about the plight of displaced people” he says, observing that this is the first “straight” play Ramps on the Moon has done. All the others have been musicals or had a musical element. “It feels strong so far.”

What creates that strength? “It’s all in the casting and it always is” says Garry, temporarily popping on his director’s hat and speaking from long experience. “If you don’t get the right people you really are in difficulties, but this production has a terrific cast”.

One of the trademarks of Ramps on the Moon, which captions every performance, is embedded sign language. That means that rather than having a professional signer awkwardly bolted on to the production at the last minute, the signing is integrated into the action. Every word spoken is signed somewhere on stage so that the whole show becomes very visual. Of course, some cast members are BSL users and others are fluent users of it, but some are not. How does that work?

“We’re working with Paula Garfield who’s a deaf director” explains Garry who is not a BSL user. “I have learned a bit of BSL but mostly I use a sort of sign/gesture which incorporates a bit of BSL within it” he says, adding when I ask him if it’s difficult to focus on signing along with everything else that “It’s just another form of choreography. Its main function is to communicate.”

He says: “Sign language is a beautiful thing to watch. It adds colour to the action as well as making the show more accessible.” At the same time, of course, less obviously to most of the audience for Our Country’s Good, audio-description allows audience members with visual impairments to “see” the action too.

Garry is a married man and father of six children. Have they followed him into the profession? “No” he says, “although they all love to watch.” Two of his children are primary school teachers. “So they both perform in a different way as well as providing lots of arts activities for their classes” he says.

Our Country’s Good completes its tour in June. What has Garry got lined up to do next? “There is talk of the Ramps on the Moon production of Tommy being revived for a transfer into the West End. There are possible venues lined up and plans are afoot. So I’m very much hoping that that might be what I’ll be doing later this year but, as always, there are ifs, buts and maybes to get through first.”

Our Country’s Good – Mar 2018 P © Nottingham Playhouse