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Theatre

PIP assessments are no laughing matter. Or are they?

PIP assessments cause anxiety for disabled people. So how did Birds of Paradise Theatre Company find dark humour in the process?

Robert Softley Gale is the artistic director at Birds of Paradise Theatre Company [BOP], Scotland’s inclusive touring theatre company, working with disabled and non-disabled professional artists. He explains how their new production, Don’t. Make. Tea. finds the black humour in the PIP assessments by which people with disabilities have their benefits eligibility calculated. It’s a process that often leaves those on the receiving end, like Softley Gale, feel that they are “valued less”.

Robert Softley-Gale
Robert Softley Gale. Photo by Eoin Carey

I’m not the first to say that disability benefits assessments aren’t the obvious subject for a new comedy. Even the mention of a new PIP assessment raises the anxiety levels of many disabled people. But at Birds of Paradise we aren’t ones to shy away from doing the less-than-obvious, so when playwright Rob Drummond approached us with this idea for a dark comedy about the absurd nature of our benefits system, we said yes quickly.

There’s a fundamental question for me as a disabled theatre maker – what value do we, as a society, place on disabled people? Our gut response to this is usually to say that we protect disabled people and their rights, we support disabled people to live and so on. But maybe our benefits system and how it operates is one of the most tangible expressions of how we really see disabled people – in a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ way.

We had originally planned to stage Don’t. Make. Tea. in 2020 but, well, we all know why that couldn’t happen. We then worried that the themes would feel less relevant two years later – BOP have been putting the stories of disabled people onto the stage for over 29 years and now, more than ever, feels like the perfect time to ask these questions.

Covid-19 had a devastating impact on a global scale, but disabled people were disproportionately affected. Disabled men were 3.1 times more like to die than non-disabled men during the second wave of the pandemic according to government figures; disabled people were given ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notices on their medical files, sometimes without their knowledge or consent. So the message to disabled people in the UK over the past two years has been loud and clear – we are less important, we are valued less.

A key point for me around disability benefits is that there are no easy answers or fixes – the bar for who qualifies and who doesn’t will always exclude some people and an infinite source of money doesn’t solve the core issue. Theatre is good at tackling subjects that aren’t clear-cut – we can pose questions and encourage debate and conversations. We’ve got no way of knowing where these discussions will go but having them now, after everything we’ve experienced together and separately, feels crucial.

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It has been disappointing, to be honest, as we’ve come back to putting on theatre in venues to see that many of the ways in which we adapted to the pandemic have been forgotten completely. We’ve made the assumption that because most people have gone back to normal operations, additional measures such as face coverings or hand sanitisers are no longer needed. This is excluding an important minority from taking part in our cultural life.

For Don’t. Make. Tea. we’re taking steps to make this production as accessible as possible, recognising that many disabled people are still isolating from Covid and others are still anxious about indoor public spaces. Our Friday performance will have mask-wearing actively encouraged, distancing in place and other measures to make the event as Covid-safe as possible. After the live performances of Don’t. Make. Tea. we will broadcast a recording of the show, so those who are still unable to join us at the theatre can enjoy it remotely. We want this digital version to be as accessible as possible so we don’t have a precise broadcast date yet – watch this space.

As with all BOP productions we have embedded BSL interpretation, audio description for visually impaired audiences and captions for people who are hard of hearing. We can’t make the experience work for everybody but we’re doing what we can to bring many people together to enjoy this show.

Why a comedy, you might be wondering? I think now, more than ever, we need a great night out together – for those of us who are able to, we need to experience that feeling of laughing as a group again. Comedy is also a great way of dealing with difficult subjects – it allows us to see things from other perspectives.

So, ultimately, if we can laugh together, gather together to talk and debate and maybe move the discussion around how we value disabled people forward, then that’s a good reason to come along to Don’t. Make. Tea. I’ll see you there.

Don’t. Make. Tea. is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from October 5 – 8. More information here.

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