Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Aisling Byrne of of Run of the Mill Is…

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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Aisling Byrne of of Run of the Mill Is Helping To Change Our World

Treat everyone with respect and kindness. The arts industry is very small and you walk into new rooms, sets, and rehearsals several times a year. You never know who you might meet again on the way up or down! My father always instilled this in me and it has proven to be true.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aisling Byrne.

Aisling Byrne is a freelance theatre artist and filmmaker based in North Kildare, and has worked extensively in the field of inclusive arts, contemporary theatre & socially engaged theatre practice.

As the founder and Artistic Director of Run of the Mill she has co-created , facilitated and directed all of the company’s projects to date.

Aisling is also the Co-Artistic director of award-winning Dublin based theatre collective Talking Shop Ensemble alongside writer and filmmaker Shaun Dunne. Talking Shop Ensemble make form-flipping documentary theatre and autobiographical performance.

TSE’s work includes the award winning co-production Making a Mark (Dublin Fringe Festival, 2019, National Tour, 2022, Winner of the Judges Choice Award, nominated for Best Production, featured recently on The Tommy Tiernan Show)Rapids by Shaun Dunne (National Tour 2019 & Dublin Theatre Festival 2017).

Headspace (Short Film, 2022, shortlisted for Virgin Media Discovers 2021) Vulnerable for Dear Ireland 3 (Abbey Theatre , 2020, Seoda Festival 2021, + Official Selection KIFF, 2021), Quarantine (Culture Night commission, 2020) Singing for Survival (Run of the Mill Theatre, Draiocht 2019) and Split Ends (Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble Show in a Bag 2018).

In 2019 Aisling was the recipient of the Artist in the Community Bursary award from CREATE, the national agency for collaborative arts & in 2020 received a Arts Participation Bursary award from the Arts Council of Ireland to develop her work in film. She is currently a resident artist with Arcade Film.

As a freelance director Aisling collaborates regularly with companies making work for young audiences; most recently directing Ceol Connected’s Wunderground (2022) and Treehouse for National Tour and MORA (2021/2022) for Cliodhna Noonan/ Acting Up Arts. In 2022 she will direct Ceol Connected new production based on the Patrick Kavangh poem A Christmas Childhood.

As a facilitator, Aisling collaborates regularly with Dublin Theatre Festival, PlayActing Youth Theatre, Helium Arts, and Dublin City Council Culture Company. In 2022 she will facilitate The Next Stage, on behalf of Dublin Theatre Festival + Theatre Forum.

Aisling holds a B.A. in Drama and Theatre Studies, a Postgraduate Diploma in Drama-in-Education and a Master’s in Education Studies, all from Trinity College Dublin. She has a particular interest in socially engaged theatre, arts in community contexts, and the use of drama for teaching and learning across educational settings. Aisling is Vice Chair of the Association for Drama in Education in Ireland (ADEI) and guest lectures at Trinity College Dublin and UCD and has worked as a part-time lecturer at Marino Institute of Education on drama as a methodology in the primary school curriculum. She is currently working on behalf of the Arts Council’s Creative Schools initiative as a Creative Associate.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Thanks for having me! I came to filmmaking from the theatre world really- I have always been interested in storytelling in its various forms! I studied drama at university in Dublin and ended up becoming really interested in community work — and socially engaged arts in particular. In fact I did my first placement teaching drama in a prison in Dublin and then spent quite a bit of time working through drama in disability services in Ireland. This led me to founding Run of the Mill Arts- a company to platform learning disabled talent. We focussed largely on theatre productions, and alongside this, I was making a lot of documentary theatre about contemporary social issues in Ireland with a company called Talking Shop. More and more we began to work with film in our productions and I became really drawn to the medium and how powerful it can be in terms of subtly shining a light on the stories that really warrant telling. I am very drawn in my work to platforming narratives that we don’t often get to see and I became really inspired by the work of some of the great European filmmakers making socially realist cinema. This motivated me to learn everything I could about filmmaking and start thinking about the films I wanted to make. I began collaborating with Dublin-based Arcade Film and the rest was history!

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There are almost too many to choose from! I think it’s really important to have a sense of humour in this industry, hold your hands up when you have made a mistake and feel that you (and your team!) have permission to laugh about it. Arcade Film (Kilian Waters and Daniel Keane- Dublin-based cinematographers, editors and creative producers) have been my mentors for a number of years and taught me a lot of what I now know about filmmaking — so they probably could fill 10 pages worth of funny early mistakes, but one that stands out was when we were shooting a scene that required darkness and I was so adamant that it needed to be ‘dark enough’ that I didn’t want there to be any light source at all. It took a few minutes for me to realise what I was asking for… to shoot the scene in complete and total darkness- as you can imagine, nothing would be visible. We had to pause the take for at least five minutes for laughter. After which I conceded to a small night lamp!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I work a lot with talented learning-disabled creatives and performers and an ensemble of actors at my company Run of the Mill and you would be hard-pressed to find a more interesting group of people to work with. Mark Smith, the lead actor in ‘Headspace’ is a close collaborator of mine and I wrote the film for him to perform in and with his consultancy across the script. He is a man with Down Syndrome and a really unique worldview, a unique talent, a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humour. He keeps me on my toes. Working with him in film for the first time (as opposed to theatre) was a great experience- there was never a dull moment. He arrived on set one day with a fresh haircut- short back and sides to our collective dismay. Our talented MUA Bairbre was on hand to patch up the evidence, but he was quick to remind me that I had never explained to him about continuity! He was right! Being a good Director is all about having a vision and communicating it. He consistently challenges me to think about the things that I haven’t thought about, or communicated, and that is a really wonderful thing to have.

I also had the chance to work with inspirational Irish female director Aisling Walsh across a filmmaker residency this year and that was magic. She has had such an inspiring career and has so much wit and wisdom to share- and is so generous with it too.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I am always inspired by people in history who are not afraid to raise their heads above the din to question and disrupt in order to champion the rights of others and create a fairer, more just and equitable world. These are often not the household names you would think of but ordinary people who feel compelled to act. I am working on an artistic project at the moment about the social history of intellectual disability service provision in Ireland called ‘The Place I’m From’ and have come across a woman called Annie Ryan. She was so infuriated by the policy towards disabled people in Ireland that she wrote an incredible social testament ‘Walls of Silence’. She was just a parent with her head in her hands at the unfortunate state of the services that her child could access but instead of folding she channelled this into an incredibly impactful and meaningful action. She created what is now really the only comprehensive testament to this history in Ireland. She created something that others (like me) can pick up 30 years later and it will testify to the way things were. That’s hugely inspiring to me.

Generally, any artists who try to make an impact through their work- I would count the incredible musician Sinead O Connor — who sadly passed away this year amongst them.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I am passionate about the power of the arts to bring about social change. Culture is how we come to understand the world we live in and make sense of it, and culture is one of the most impactful things that we consume (TV, film, art, literature, digital content) in terms of shifting perspectives, making change, and making an actual impact on hearts and minds. So much conflict, bias and prejudice in the world often occur because of a failure to understand a different perspective or lived experience. If certain voices are de-centred, not given a platform, underrepresented, misrepresented, or excluded — it matters. With my company Run of the Mill, we are trying to redress a historic underrepresentation of learning-disabled people on our stages and screens and create a platform for cultural expression. We are working across a lot of exciting projects right now with our artists- from large-scale theatre productions to film productions and of course following our short film Headspace on its Oscars journey. You can’t be what you can’t see so we hope our work will encourage other young learning-disabled artists and creatives to pursue their passions.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

The thing about a-ha moments and epiphanies is you sometimes don’t realise you are having them until long afterwards! For me, I think it came about through the people I work with. I was facilitating drama workshops in a local disability service in my community as a college student who was on the cusp of graduation. The people that I met during that placement really laid the foundations for what would become our organisation. I met the men and women who I would later go on to make film and theatre with. The richness of lived experience I encountered in those early drama workshops, the talent, and the personality, coupled with the realisation that these people had nowhere to go with that talent (at the time)– no platform– was, without doubt, the catalyst for starting our organisation. I felt that I couldn’t walk away and leave that to still be the case. As a theatre maker and a filmmaker, I am drawn to people and their stories. I met Mark Smith (now an award-winning actor) in those early days and he was planting flowers. He was so talented, and he wasn’t using his talents at the time. It was like bumping into Daniel Day-Lewis working in a supermarket! So, I felt compelled to get something started.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I have spoken about Mark already and how his work with Run of the Mill has been quite life-changing. He has gone from working in a supermarket and a garden centre to having a film on the Academy longlist, National TV appearances and being recognised with multiple awards for his hit autobiographical theatre show Making a Mark. But there are many examples of our artists being impacted by the opportunity to practice their craft. Jackie O’ Hagan who plays the female lead in Headspace is an actor with Down Syndrome who has made her film debut in her 50s. She would say it has changed her life and she now sees herself as a film star first and foremost! She has great ambitions to do more work and continue her career.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

I think society at large could do with really considering accessibility and inclusion across every aspect of day-to-day life. We live in a fundamentally ableist society and I do think that oftentimes equity for disabled people seems like the last bastion of meaningful inclusion. I say this as a non-disabled ally, I am frequently stunned by the ableism that permeates society and lies at the heart of government policy. The fight shouldn’t always be left to disabled people- allyship and support matters. I think non-disabled people need to educate ourselves and ask how we can meaningfully support inclusion and be noisy about it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

  1. Make sure you remember to be kind to yourself- not everything is life and death. In the arts, we can tend to push ourselves very, very hard in a freelance landscape and I often look back at how much pressure I would put myself under because I believed every opportunity was the biggest I would ever have. My sister and Mother are both medical professionals and they would always remind me ‘You are not saving lives; you are making plays!’. I now grudgingly concede they were right. It’s not to say we should diminish or undervalue the worth of our work but there’s a high rate of burnout in our industry and you want to operate at a pace that is sustainable so you will still be doing the work in years to come.
  2. Treat everyone with respect and kindness. The arts industry is very small and you walk into new rooms, sets, and rehearsals several times a year. You never know who you might meet again on the way up or down! My father always instilled this in me and it has proven to be true.
  3. The Road is Long! (And you’re definitely Not as Old as you think you are!) I wish I knew how young I actually was in my 20s. I actually became a Mother at 18 and had to grow up very fast, but I remember thinking and feeling that my 20s had to be the pinnacle of my career. It’s only as you get a little older you realise that the work you are doing is all building slowly, it’s ‘miles in the tank’ to use a runner’s idiom and it will all come together for you if you persevere. Just because it’s not all happening ‘right now’ doesn’t mean that it won’t.
  4. Never be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. It will come back to bite you, trust me. Better to say ‘No I haven’t seen that **insert arthouse movie here** than find yourself two hours later nodding in confusion and trying to offer an opinion on what metaphor the director was making with that shocking ending ☺
  5. Keep up the good work. Enough said!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s cheesy but we only get one world, you might as well make it look like the type of world, you’d like to live in. I think all anybody really wants to do is make their mark- however big or small. If you choose to make your impact or your mark in a way that supports others and makes a small bit of positive change, you will get back a lot more than you could ever hope to give.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Augusto Boal the Brazilian theatre practitioner was a great hero of mine when I was a student, and I was very inspired by his socially engaged practice and how he combined art and activism through his work within communities. He passed away a number of years ago, but his work lives on through the legacy of many and I would like to think through our work too. In a filmmaking context, I would love to collaborate with filmmakers like Ken Loach or Shane Meadows- both of whom in my opinion have made an extraordinary social impact through their art, by platforming communities and voices in a beautiful, authentic, and artful way. Their work holds a ‘mirror up to nation’ as Yeats put it and for me reinforces the power of what cinema can do.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Samuel Beckett’s great quote on failure is one I use a lot! “Ever try, ever fail. No Matter. Fail again. Fail better”. It’s a cliché but failure really is the greatest teacher. In art making particularly, you learn from your mistakes, and you channel it into the next project. We are always learning and always growing. I hope that I will always still have something to learn- otherwise, life would be very mundane indeed.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Aisling Byrne of of Run of the Mill Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.