Mark Smith is about to take his first steps on to the stage at Draíocht, Blanchardstown, where he is rehearsing Reason in Madness, a new adaptation of King Lear by Run of the Mill Theatre Company. Smith is playing the title role, "a classic", he says with the confidence of a star; a role that great actors dream of. His last starring role was in Mamma Mia, "but this is different. It's a lot bigger and real serious stuff."
It is also the first time Smith will be working with a professional theatre company, and he has "all the VIPs coming" to the first night at the end of the month: actor friends, his cousin who works in the West End, and Dr Eva Orsmond. He hopes the production will open up more opportunities for professional acting work: "That's the goal. I'd love it." Director Aisling Byrne says: "I think Mark has had stars in his eyes for a long time. It would be great if he had a chance to fulfill his dream."
Smith, who is 36, has Down syndrome, and the 17 members of his supporting ensemble have a varying range of intellectual disabilities. The cast have been involved with Run of the Mill Theatre for the last 18 months, working on an educational project called No Fear of Shakespeare, which was structured around what O'Brien calls "story mornings" based on the plays. Byrne, who is also a drama facilitator with the St John of Gods service in north Kildare, has known many of the actors for years. "We have had a lot of fun doing musicals in community halls, but this group in particular seemed ready for, and wanted, a bigger challenge. When we did the Shakespeare workshops, they really seemed to connect with King Lear. It has a lot of themes that resonated with their lives: aging, family relationships, power struggles."
Byrne proposed that they devise a new version of the play based on their own interpretations, and, with the support of Draíocht and an Arts Council’s Arts Participation award, “perform it in a professional, rather a community, context. A lot of the group have Down syndrome, and most of them are in their 30s. They really connected with the idea of aging in the play, particularly the way in which Lear begins to lose his mind.
“When you have Down syndrome the chance of developing early onset dementia, even in your 30s, is much higher. Many of them have had to go to what’s called the memory clinic, to be assessed. The first dramaturgical exercise we did around the play, that was what they talked about: dementia. They are also a really theatrical bunch so they loved the high drama.”
When workshops for the production began, neither Byrne nor her collaborators knew what form the performance might take. "We didn't know if it would be in modern language or a foray into Shakespeare or mix of both, but as the workshops developed, the cast were devising more and more, and creating their own world based on the play. It's a sort of Shakespeare meets George Orwell meets the Kardashians: a sort of cultural pastiche. They were being influenced by everything they were watching and reading at the time – the Disney film The Descendants, Harry Potter – and they really wanted to have their mobile phones."
As a result, mobile phones have become a crucial part in the structure of the play. “It actually really works with Shakespearean exposition,” Byrne says. “The way the characters all, improbably, hear the news, has parallels with social media and the constant sharing we do online and on our phones. It also lent itself to being more in the tongue of performers, and this is their piece, their interpretation of tragedy, so it was just as important to respond to their contribution as it was to stay true to the dramatic pretext.”
The balance between professional collaboration and non-professional participation is key to the artistic process for Run of the Mill. Following the lead of other Irish theatre companies such as Blue Teapot or international models offered by the UK’s Mind the Gap or Australia’s No Strings Attached, Byrne says that the crux of the project “is to give the cast members the opportunity to collaborate with professional artists at all stages of the production process. We see this sort of collaboration as a semi-professional pathway for future professional practice for some of the group, so it is paramount that they are learning as much as they can, acquiring skills, learning.”
With that in mind, Byrne says, “the remit of the sound designer, director, set designer, production, stage managers, is not just to do their job, but to imbue the participants with a real sense of what their job is. It has also given the cast a chance to contribute to the aesthetic of the production in a way they might not otherwise. I think they have more of a stake than anyone from the professional team.”
The fact that the production will be performed in a professional context is also key to realising the artistic vision. Byrne, who also works as a professional theatre-maker with Talking Shop Ensemble, says she has always had to look at her work “as very separate things, even though my work in drama facilitation was influenced very much by my professional practice, and vice versa”.
Previously, Byrne’s productions with Run of the Mill have involved “ringing up GAA clubs, community centres, church halls, and you are performing mostly for friends and family. That can limit your confidence, limit your ambition. But to have a professional theatre space, with all their technical resources, to be featured as part of their season, gives you that push and it also creates a visibility for the work in the wider community and in the arts community itself.
“You often hear people talk about how the arts are for everyone,” she adds, “and that should means as makers as well as audiences. Inclusivity is all well and good, but it is important that people see that makers like Mark and the rest of the cast have something quite unique to offer, a voice and perspective to lend to the cultural life, the spirit, the soul of a country. And the performers should be allowed to know that an achievement in the arts at a high ambitious level is possible should they want it.”
Smith would love to be a professional actor, like his cousin, who recently starred in The Commitments at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, or his childhood friends George McMahon and Devon Murray. He is particularly inspired by Liam Bairstow, who has a leading role in Coronation Street after years working with Mind the Gap Theatre. But for now Smith has Lear and his demons to focus on. If his nerves threaten to get the better of him on opening night, he knows what to do: "Press ups, some voice training – mwah, mwah, mwah, mwahhhh – and if it's really bad I imagine everyone in their knickers." With that, he dissolves into giggles, and leads the cast into the theatre.
Reason in Madness runs at Draoicht Theatre, Blanchardstown on 29th and 30th November.
“There seems to be an attitude within the arts community of not wanting to engage with disabled practitioners”
Rosaleen McDonagh's new play Mainstream, which opens at the Project Arts Centre, this month, also addresses issues of social inclusion through a theatrical frame. Exploring two diverse, intergenerational perspectives on disability, it opens up a frame for representing various strands of social inclusion.
McDonagh, a Traveller with a disability, believes that “access issues at all levels within the arts is a huge difficulty. There seems to be a systemic block.” From the erasure of “the value of the Traveller aesthetic” to “‘cripping up’, where actors with no impairments play characters that have impairments, there is a glaring deficit. The biggest challenge is disablism. There seems to be an attitude within the arts community of not wanting to engage with disabled practitioners as equals and in a professional context.”
McDonagh's play is being produced by Fishamble: The New Play Company, and she has worked with director Jim Culleton for several years across a range of projects that explored many themes. However, that McDonagh "was never asked for a Traveller play, or for a play about disabled people or about women", has been the most heartening aspect of her professional interaction with the company. "[They] just approached me as a writer and encouraged me to write about what I know", something as valid as any other artist's unique perspective in the world.
Mainstream runs at Project Arts Centre from 16th-26th November.