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Making Work

Performer and writer Eva O’Connor shares her experience writing award-winning plays and developing one of her works into a BBC Three drama.

People often ask me whether I prefer acting or writing. They’re always dying to know when I’m going to choose between the two of them. Both questions are up there with the classic: “how on earth do you learn all those lines?”

I have always loved writing. My mother has black bags full of my old notebooks in the attic at home. Writing always felt like a way to make sense of the world. No matter how scrambled my brain or my circumstances, if I can get something down on paper, it seems a little more coherent.

My passion for performing started with ballet. I vividly remember attending my first class in a homemade skirt, which I hated. I was livid at my mother that I didn’t perfectly match the other girls (the wrath of a five-year-old is very real!) but looking back, I am so incredibly grateful for all the sacrifices my parents made so I could dance. It changed my life. My teachers taught me discipline, the importance of a strong work ethic and ultimately made me realise all I wanted to do was tell stories on stage.

In university it occurred to me I could both write and perform. I was studying English and German at Edinburgh and I was naive, ambitious and impatient. I formed my own theatre company and cast my friends in my plays. The phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ seems very apt when I think back on those years as I wrote furiously, hired lecture halls as rehearsal rooms, hustled for funding and made some fairly dodgy shows! I’m grateful to my younger self for refusing to give up – for having zero shame.

Throughout my time at university, we brought shows to the Edinburgh Fringe on a shoestring. I remember one year there was a massive gang of us, and at one point there were 12 bodies asleep in one huge bedroom. It was like a really nuts camping trip.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a terrifying beast, but a brilliant opportunity to showcase work. No matter how unknown you are, suddenly you’re sharing a platform with world-class theatre-makers. Industry people and critics who might never otherwise attend your play are all in the same city and on the lookout for bold new work.

Financially, and sometimes emotionally, the Fringe can be a hugely stressful month. I’ll never forget the time I had a single audience member attend my show My Name is Saoirse. My director Hildegard insisted the show must go on, so I reluctantly performed the most intimate show of my life. We got a glowing review the next day from the audience member who turned out to be a reviewer. She was raving about her authentic ‘Fringe experience’.

After university I went to drama school at Rose Bruford in London to do an MA. Since then I’ve written and produced plays that have toured around Ireland, the UK, New York, Australia and Europe. There’s nothing like performing your work abroad. I always have to pinch myself when I land somewhere and go on stage. I feel like a child at Christmas.

I was pretty unwell through my younger years. I had an eating disorder, which inspired my play Overshadowed. Prior to writing the play, I had never shared my personal story of having an eating disorder, so speaking openly was fairly daunting. I was acutely aware that theatre can be cathartic but shouldn’t serve as therapy. Audiences need to know they are in safe hands, not witnessing an open wound on stage.

Ultimately the experience of performing Overshadowed was really profound. I and my director Hildegard adapted the play as a series for BBC Three, which meant it reached a whole new audience. I still receive messages now about how both the play and the series has encouraged people on their journey to recovery. The idea that something positive would come out of my own illness would’ve been unimaginable to me a few years ago.

Theatre can’t fix all of society’s ills but I think its job is to pose questions, rather than answer them. I believe in its inherent power to change hearts and minds.

Most of my plays touch on social issues or deal with mental health in some way. My play Maz and Bricks toured Ireland in the run-up to the repeal referendum, during what felt like a really fraught time. It was directed by Jim Culleton, and produced by Fishamble, who have been brilliant champions of my work and so many other Irish theatre-makers.

After the 8th had been repealed, we went on to perform Maz and Bricks at the Edinburgh Fringe and off-Broadway in New York at E59E59. It felt like such a relief to be performing the play post-repeal, knowing that the battle had been won and history had been made. In the run-up to the referendum there was a lot of talk about art as activism. Theatre can’t fix all of society’s ills but I think its job is to pose questions, rather than answer them. I believe in its inherent power to change hearts and minds.

I live and work with Hildegard Ryan and together we run our own company called Sunday’s Child. We met in Berlin on an Erasmus exchange and our first creative project was a short film about a dead goldfish. She directs my work, and we write together on both theatre and TV projects. Having a work wife is a blessing. We bounce ideas off each other, edit each other’s work and when things don’t go our way, we can drink pints together and remind ourselves that “rejection is God’s protection”.

My most recent play MUSTARD is a one-woman show about madness, heartbreak, and one girl’s obsession with condiments. It started as a short piece I had performed at scratch nights and evolved almost by accident. I’ve always been obsessed with mustard. When I had an eating disorder I was obsessed with condiments because of the strong taste and low-calorie content. MUSTARD the play is a strange ode to recovery from self-harm and heartbreak. The moment where I slather it all over my body to shocked onlookers is a real thrill! When the play won a Fringe First at Edinburgh it was a complete surprise and a real career highlight.

For me, seeing other people’s work is a huge source of inspiration. Certain plays make your mind fizz with awe and possibility. I’ll never forget seeing ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

People often ask me whether I prefer acting or writing. They’re always dying to know when I’m going to choose between the two of them. Both questions are up there with the classic: “how on earth do you learn all those lines?” More and more people are writing and performing, flexing both muscles and making fresh exciting work. In the TV and film world Sharon Horgan, Aisling Bea, Desiree Akhavan and Clare Dunne are just some of the brilliant women creating and starring in their own work and paving the way for others.

I try and write every day. I am a big fan of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Cameron encourages people to write what she calls the “morning pages”. These are three pages of stream of consciousness writing that you commit to paper as soon as you wake up. No judgment allowed. I think it’s so important to learn not to censor yourself or to doubt yourself before you have created anything. You’ll always be your own worst critic, but you have to learn to nurture your ideas and trust the process.

For me, seeing other people’s work is a huge source of inspiration. Certain plays make your mind fizz with awe and possibility. I’ll never forget seeing A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (the adaptation of Eimear McBride’s book by Corn Exchange) where Aoife Duffin’s performance seemed to stop time. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis made me want to run home and write. Watching Pat Kinevane in Silent felt like a spiritual experience. When I saw Iphegenia in Splott by Gary Owen I booked my ticket to see it again the next night as soon as I left the auditorium. Those moments are food for the soul, and for the creative process. Greatness to aspire to. When you watch brilliant theatre, you know that the elusive magic can never be bottled or recreated. But in striving for it you might just accidentally make something a little bit special.

Eva O’Connor is a writer and performer from Ogonnelloe Co. Clare. She runs Sunday’s Child theatre company with Hildegard Ryan. Her plays include ‘My Name is Saoirse’, ‘Overshadowed’ (now a series on BBC Three), ‘Maz and Bricks’ (produced by Fishamble and directed by Jim Culleton) and most recently Scotsman Fringe First winning ‘MUSTARD’.

‘MUSTARD’ is produced by Fishamble and will be touring Ireland in the coming months.

Image by Christin Hume.