Aisling Byrne: Collaborative Arts and Theatre
In late 2019 I applied for the Arts Council’s AIC Scheme Bursary managed by Create at what was a crucial juncture of my practice in theatre. I had recently concluded work on our production ‘Making a Mark’, an autobiographical piece of contemporary theatre exploring the lived experience and testimonies of lead performer and longtime collaborator Mark Smith. It was the culmination of ten years of grassroots practice as the Artistic Director of Run of the Mill Theatre, a collective I had established in my community to create a platform for people with intellectual disabilities to make ambitious art. The culmination of ten years as a non-disabled artist, facilitating the work of my disabled collaborators.
My proposal sought to buy myself the time and space I needed to reflect on this body of work; and most importantly, sit with the poetics of problematics and privilege that skirted the margins of my own practice, and indeed the wider practice of inclusive theatre making facilitated by non-disabled artists. I hoped the bursary could afford me the time to develop blueprint methodologies and ethical frameworks that would support me to move forward with greater confidence in the work.
For the bursary period I set out to ask crucial questions about my role as a non-disabled collaborating artist in this field, with particular consideration given to work that explores lived experience, autobiography and personal testimony. I wanted to deeply explore for the first time the intersection of my work as a contemporary documentary theatre maker and an artist in the field of inclusive theatre. I wanted to consider the absence of a body of work culturally to speak to the lived experiences of people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland- and the avenues via which I could support the people I collaborate with to become the gatekeepers of their own histories through art- with full consideration given to the ethical frameworks that govern this. Further, as an artist I wished to consider how my own artistic voice lives in our work, alongside the attempt to elevate and amplify the voice of my disabled collaborators. I sought to carry this out via a combination of research, reflection, mentorship and input from my collaborators and Run of the Mill Theatre.
As I embarked on the bursary at the start of 2020, many of my planned methodologies for carrying out the above work had to shift and adapt in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the period allowed ample time for introspective reflection, reading and research, the aspect of my plans most affected were those that involved travel, mentorship and time spent with other artists and inclusive theatre companies. I had intended to spend time with Equinox Theatre Company at the KCAT Centre in Kilkenny, Access all Areas in London and to attend the Crossing the Line festival of inclusive work planned by Blue Teapot and their European partners in Galway. The aim of this travel was to get a deeper sense of the practice methodologies and frameworks of other companies in the field and consider how my work and that of Run of the Mill’s sat within that context. I had intended also to engage in workshops with my collaborators at Run of the Mill, exploring some of the questions of my bursary proposal. However, I adapted my plans to enable me to connect with these collaborators, companies and artists online, and whilst it made for a different process, it also afforded me in some ways greater access to a range of companies and facilitating artists working in this field, and crucially, it further exposed some of the entrenched systemic barriers that marginalize the people I work with Run of the Mill, a consideration that would further impact my thinking across the bursary period.
The first part of my bursary was introspective and involved reflection on past practice and deep consideration of my projects to date. I engaged in a period of academic reading and research of the literature on this field of practice, alongside reflective writing with a focus on the genesis and methodologies of previous projects and an assessment of what I felt were the successes and failures contained within. I then began reaching out to artists and companies for conversation and dialogue around the key questions of my bursary. A rich dialogue followed revealing that the same ethical considerations and questioning of practice frames the work of almost every inclusive theatre company. I benefitted from the time of other non-disabled facilitating artists, sharing examples of their methodologies and approaches and exploring the steps taken in their work to mitigate problematic practice and avoid the privileging of the non-disabled artist’s voice in the work.
The bursary afforded me the time to reconnect with the ‘Constellation of Practice’ network – a network of facilitating artists who collaborate with people with an intellectual disability, and to engage in deep explorations of our practice across a number of online meet ups. This network was first established by Sarah Fitzgibbon and Tallaght Community Arts to facilitate her research into the role of the non-disabled facilitating artist in the context of inclusive theatre. Sarah’s academic research thesis would provide a constant touchstone across my bursary period. Finally, following this period of reflection and conversation, I connected with members of the Run of the Mill ensemble who had expressed a desire to create a piece of work that would explore their lived experienced of growing up in an institution. Over a series of online sessions, we explored the questions of how we would go about stepping into this work, informed by the reflection and research the bursary period had afforded me by that point.
The bursary period allowed me to arrive at some key understandings about my area of practice that would ultimately shape and impact every aspect of my future practice as a collaborating non-disabled artist making work with people with an intellectual disability. These key learnings and understandings would also support me to move forward with confidence towards developing a number of projects that I otherwise would not have had the robust ethical frameworks in place to explore. The understandings that emerged from the bursary period were in some cases ‘new discoveries’ but more often, a galvanized, greater and deeper understanding of things I already knew, but may have struggled to apply in practice. I emerged with a real clarity on how to move forward with the work in a way that wouldn’t compromise on what I understood as best practice in my practice.
By the end of the bursary period, I had developed and written an ethical framework for my practice relating specifically to the making of work in a documentary context. I had developed also a much greater sense of what I would need to put in place in the context of my Artistic Directorship of Run of the Mill, to seek to redress the systemic barriers facing the people I collaborate with, towards addressing the problematics of privilege that can exist in this practice. A key outcome of the bursary was the development of an Artist Development Model for my collaborators which fed directly into the strategic planning of our work across a two-year period. As a direct result of my bursary learning, in 2022, Run of the Mill will embark on a 6 month artist development pilot for 8 artists with an intellectual disability entitled The Engine Room in collaboration with Riverbank Arts Centre and Bursary partners Dublin Fringe Festival.