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Dublin: 5 °C Tuesday 17 September, 2019
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'People with intellectual disabilities were made feel their stories weren’t as valuable as the next person's'

Mark Smith, who has Down Syndrome is performing in a new show about his life, written by Shaun Dunne.

Aisling Byrne and Mark Smith.
Aisling Byrne and Mark Smith.
Image: Luca Trufarelli

“MAKING A MARK is my story. It’s based on my real story of my life and my struggles.”

Mark Smith, from Celbridge in Co Kildare, is an actor who has Down Syndrome. Now he has co-created a theatre show based on his life, called Making a Mark. It opens at the Dublin Fringe Festival this week, and Smith and his collaborators spoke to us about why they believe it’s such an important show.

Making a Mark will showcase both Smith’s struggles and successes, and was created with artistic director of Run of the Mill Theatre Aisling Byrne and writer Shaun Dunne. 

Smith tells TheJournal.ie that he is greatly looking forward to people hearing about his struggles so he can “put his story out there”. 

It might be emotional, but it’s actually quite good and I’m very excited about it.  

Aisling Byrne said that the show is about Mark’s achievements, adding that he has had an “extremely interesting life”. 

Interesting is certainly the correct word. Smith won a Special Olympics silver medal in 1999, battled cancer, lost his father at 18 and shared a hug with Justin Bieber in Maynooth two years ago. 

His main goal at the moment is to show people that he should be taken more seriously through this new show.  

“There can be this lack of understanding in the wider community of the multi-dimensionality of a person with a disability and especially someone with Down syndrome,” said Byrne. 

“Mark can’t walk down through the town without getting high-fived and fist-bumped – and while he loves that, he’s also kind of standing here with his show and saying ‘I’m a multi-faceted person, there’s more to me than a person standing smiling at the bus stop’.”

The pair said they want to see the arts become more accessible to people with intellectual disabilities – whether as creators, participants or audience members. 

“I truly believe we have an accessibility issue in Ireland in terms of theatre and getting people into shows,” said Byrne.

Thinking of access as not just putting a ramp in, but also how do we reach out to audiences and let them know that this is on and engage them in work?

Smith and Byrne hope the show will be good for people with disabilities to see Smith’s story take centre-stage, rather than have him as a side character.  

“He [Smith] didn’t just aspire to engage in the arts and theatre as a cultural right or as enjoyment, he wanted to make a career of this and I thought he had the talent to do it,” said Byrne. 

“For me, theatre is about telling stories and platforming stories we haven’t heard before. For many years, people with intellectual disabilities were made to feel that they weren’t included in the community or in our society, and that their stories and experiences weren’t as valuable as the next persons’,” she added. 

MAKING A MARK 030_Mark Smith_Talking Shop Ensemble_Pics Luca Trufarelli Mark Smith. Source: Luca Trufarelli

La-di-da 

Smith and Byrne have known each other for around a decade, since they first worked together at St John of God community service in Celbridge. 

“The first time I met Aisling, I thought she was la-di-da, but actually she’s very nice,” laughed Smith when asked about their first meeting. 

“I met Mark on my first day on the job and I knew straight away that he had that ‘star quality’, to quote Louis Walsh,” added Byrne. 

“Our friendship evolved as our work together started to flow, and we became more ambitious.”

Smith has acted in several plays directed by Byrne and played the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Draíocht Arts Centre in Blanchardstown three years ago. 

20 years in Tesco

When he’s not acting, Smith works in Tesco in Maynooth, where he recently won an award for 20 years of service. He has also worked part-time in Maynooth University for the past eight years, working with the Students’ Union and guest lecturing.  

Making a Mark came about after a discussion between Smith and Byrne. 

“Shaun [writer of the show] and I were in the process of presenting our latest work, and I was telling Mark over coffee about what we were working on and explaining how we do our documentaries, and he was like ‘why don’t you make a show about my life?’” she explained. 

“I was always keeping my ear to the ground for Mark as to opportunities that might be out there for him to be artistically fulfilled.”

Byrne, Smith and writer Dunne received a residency supporting artists with disabilities from the Axis Centre in Ballymun. However, the role had never been filled by an artist with an intellectual disability. 

“It gave us money, time, resources and a six-month residency in the Axis,” said Byrne. “We buried ourselves away in the Axis for six months and asked Mark what he wanted to share of himself.”

MAKING A MARK 46_L-R_ Aisling Byrne_Mark Smith_Talking Shop Ensemble_Pics Luca Trufarelli (1) Aisling Byrne and Mark Smith. Source: Luca Trufarelli

The show features Smith and Byrne performing as themselves in a mix of an interview and a self-led confessional. The pair are prioritising touring the show at the moment. 

“We want to maximise the visibility of this piece because we feel like we’re breaking ground with this in terms of placing the voice of an artist with a disability front and centre in a sophisticated piece of contemporary theatre,” said Byrne.  

Smith said he “really hopes” the show gets the opportunity to tour between Ireland, the UK and the US.  

“We really feel it’s quite brave – brave of Mark and a very brave piece of work,” said Byrne.  

The Dublin Fringe Festival is taking place from 7-22 September. Making a Mark will preview on 11 September and performances will take place from 12-14 September in the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar. It will also be at the Axis Theatre, Ballymun on 17 September at 1.30pm and 7.30pm.

Other shows at the festival include:

  • Afloat - Two women survive the climate apocalypse which has left Dublin underwater. Taking refuge on the top floor of the SIPTU building, they reminisce over the last days of Dublin and whether they could have prevented the wreckage from happening.  
  • CuckooSeveral chatty rice cookers will take you on a historical tour through 20 years of Korean history. This show combines personal experience from the artist with political events and reflections on happiness, death and economic crises. 
  • Irish Food: A PlayComing fresh from the Wild Atlantic Way, this show evokes a multitude of senses and explores the origins of food culture from around Ireland. Prepared by chef Jp McMahon and served alongside brown soda bread, boiled potatoes and religious tension. 
  • Are You Well?A show that will try to teach you Irish and help you understand your feelings in Irish culture, where expression is often suppressed. Described as an ‘ill-prepared Irish lesson’, expect to learn little Irish but have a lot of fun.

See the full lineup on the Dublin Fringe Festival website

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