Run of the Mill sets the stage for actors with disabilities


While many filmmakers and actors long for recognition from the Academy of Motion Pictures, Aisling Byrne already has ticked that box. 

Headspace, a short film written and directed by Aisling and co-produced by Run of the Mill, an organisation committed to making the arts accessible to people with intellectual disabilities, won the Grand Prix Best Irish Short Award at the Cork International Festival in 2022, earning the film a spot on the long list of nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards.  

Set in a residential house for people with intellectual disabilities, the film featured an acclaimed lead performance by Mark Smith, an intellectually disabled actor who had previously starred in Making a Mark, a stage show based on Mark’s life which was also produced by Run of the Mill.  

“I studied Drama and Theatre Studies in Trinity College Dublin and majored in socially engaged theatre. I’m from Celbridge, Co. Kildare, where the St John of God’s Community Services support around 400 men and women with learning disabilities. My mother was a nurse there and I could see that there were not enough amenities or activities in the community that were socially inclusive and available to the people she supported. That’s why I started providing the workshops in 2009 and that’s where I met Mark,” says Aisling. 

 When the popularity of the workshops grew to the point where she was hosting eight sessions a week, Aisling took inspiration from the Blue Teapot Company in Galway, an organisation that runs creative workshops with intellectually disabled talent, and later moved to consolidate the practice under a company name in 2020. The success of Run of the Mill would culminate with both Making a Mark, which was toured nationwide, and Headspace in 2022.  

“Headspace went to multiple international film festivals and is still going now. We had high hopes for the film, but it’s exceeded our expectations,” says Aisling, who stresses that advocacy and grassroots engagement remains the company’s primary role, despite its successes on stage and screen. 

She continues: “We’re most active in providing workshops and advocating for greater access to the arts for people with intellectual disabilities. That’s important because in terms of social change, you can only shift perspectives by having those voices included in the mainstream. Cultural representation is how we understand ourselves. There’s been a huge absence of people like Mark in the arts for decades and we’re trying to redress that.”  

Photo caption: Daniel Ryan, celebrates his birthday in style.

Aisling hails the support of the National Lottery after the funding received by Run of the Mill following its shortlisting for a Good Causes Award in 2022 helped to underwrite the expense of their attendance at film festivals and other advocacy projects.  

“The funding from the National Lottery Good Causes Award helped us to bring Mark to the Cork International Film Festival to support his own work. That was so important in terms of boosting his visibility as a disabled performer and increasing representation for disabled performers more generally.”

While Aisling is now looking ahead to new projects this year, she admits that the struggle for funding makes it difficult to plan too far ahead. 

She continues: “We have a small team of five and none of us are full-time. We are funded by the Arts Council, so we pitch a slate of projects every year and they decide how much funding we receive. Still, we manage to engage around 40 adults with intellectual disabilities a week in workshops and engage a large cohort of guest artists. We’re bringing in the best of Irish theatre and film to work with our guys and collaborate with them. That creates mutually enriching opportunities.”  

Nearly 30 cent in every €1 spent on all National Lottery games goes back to Good Causes in the areas of sport, youth, health, welfare, education, arts, heritage, and the Irish Language. In total more than €6 Billion has been raised for Good Causes since the National Lottery was established 36 years ago. In 2022 alone, €259.5 Million was raised for local Good Causes in communities across Ireland.       

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