Tinderbox Theatre Company: Patrick J. O’Reilly | Interview
By Conor O’Neill
I’d heard the name bandied about, but wasn’t until I watched Here We Lie last June in the Lyric that I realised what a talent Patrick J. O’Reilly is. Announced as artistic director of trail-blazing Tinderbox Theatre Company in May 2016 and along with another new recruit, producer Jen Shepherd, O’Reilly has his eye on the big prize. His energy, quirkiness and knowledge of theatre soon reveals itself in his first interview with the press since being appointed.
CultureHUB caught up with him and here’s what we got. We start with the usual. Name, rank and number? “I was born in Dublin in 1980, Tainted Love was a big hit at the time, and I was brought up in Cavan and County Louth.” O’Reilly’s talent for the written word soon became obvious: “I wrote a lot of stories when I was younger and won a few story writing and creative writing competitions. I then got involved with youth theatre when I was 11. Youth theatre is a brilliant opportunity for young people to engage with the arts.”
His education in theatre followed the usual routes with a little detour across the Irish Sea, then arguably and most importantly, the English Channel, to get him to the stage Irish and international audiences have become accustomed to: “I came to Belfast in 2000 and did my HND before finishing my degree in Brighton and returned to Belfast. Along with Rosie McClelland, we set up Red Lemon Theatre Company and we started making our own work. I was writing and directing our plays such as Tart, Kissing Marigolds and Flesh Dense which all sold out in venues such as the MAC and Crescent Arts Centre. We received Arts Council funding in 2009 and in 2010 I received the Stewart Parker Award for my play ‘The Weein’.”
Most 25-year-olds would be happy getting funding, making a name and picking up a prestigious award so early in their career. O’Reilly had bigger plans: “I was still in the discovery process of how I wanted to make theatre. I studied at the Jacques Lecoq Theatre School in Paris and the rigorous training, precision, and investigation really cemented what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.” In a previous online conversation, O’Reilly said, ‘Theatre is play’ I ask him to elaborate? “Tinderbox has been running for 30 years and has such a brilliant legacy of writing and creating new work in Northern Ireland; my training comes very much from the ability to be playful in the creative process whether that be the creation of a new play, a devising process or a physical theatre performance. The whole idea around playfulness is to let go of all the rules and just create a space for the imagination to play with what excites you as an artist. The entire process should be liberating for the performer, writer and director and audience. We live in a very stressed and highly pressured world at the moment and I think the creative process should be free from those constraints and rigid formats.”
As O’Reilly’s on a roll I ask him about his audition techniques? “The first thing is to be truthful. The second is to be playful. I don’t want to see the actor’s process in the rehearsal room. When auditioning you can spot an actor who is reflecting on what they are doing; How can you be playful whilst reflecting on what you are doing at the same time? The work loses spontaneity, instinct and playfulness.”
And do actors get to try out different characters? Do you have a physical type in your head or think ‘I would love her to be the female lead, or him to be male lead’? O’Reilly answers: “No. I have no idea. I take it from what an actor will do in the room, when it’s right I go ‘Aye!’” As for the writing characters, what comes first, their history, how they talk? “That’s a good question…” Hesitation, he continues: “The performer makes and shapes the characters for me. Of course, I have a certain idea and vision but it is the actor who creates the character in the rehearsal process through instruction. Actors are the heartbeat and pulse of the entire process. Tinderbox’s new strategy states that everyone has the potential to be creative and our various programmes such as Ignition, Take Away Theatre, Play Machine, IN8 and our touring productions aims to celebrate their imaginations.” O’Reilly, for all his obvious skills, is not one who carries himself about with chest puffed out. Collaboration is key. I ask him about set design, referring to Niall Rea’s un-nerving, claustrophobic yet perfectly-matched-to-the-script set of Here We Lie. Does he say, ‘this is the script, off you go?’ “No. There’s always collaboration. I don’t believe one person has all the answers. Everyone involved in the process has the right to express their opinion; I have no interest in hierarchical structures. Of course, there will be disagreements etc. but they are so important to the process.”
O’Reilly continues on collaboration and the evolution of a play: “I’m at a show on opening night and then I go back (during the run) there is a magical shift in the process; the actors completely own the parts and own the play and as an actor myself there’s nothing better than thinking ‘we’ve found our rhythm, we’ve found what it is that we’re doing’ and as a Director you have to facilitate that. The performers should strive to make each performance new and if that requires a shift in blocking etc. as long as its truthful to the piece, I am delighted.”
And what’s next on the horizon CultureHUB enquires? O’Reilly’s excitement is palpable: “The next show is The Man Who fell To Pieces, it’s going to be on in the MAC in February, then we’ll tour it around Northern Ireland. I’ve been writing it for a long time. The Man Who Fell To Pieces is so important. It’s about mental health. I’m not talking about the stigma of mental health, I’m talking about accepting who we are as people. I have had a personal issue with mental health and I have found the most difficult thing is when people say ‘Is that the depression talking?’ I found admitting it to people then being afraid of how people would perceive it. I didn’t care, I had accepted it. So the play is about how we should all accept who we are regardless of where you are, whether it’s mental health, physical health or whatever the fuck you call it in life? The idea of the play is he’s falling apart physically and he’s taping himself up with sellotape and glue and everything to try and hold himself together. Then he does fall apart and his girlfriend puts him in a shopping bag and takes him around Belfast. It’s just about everybody being a bit broken. If we could see that we wouldn’t be judgmental about how someone is.”
Sounds straightforward and at the same time something Irvine Welsh would write after standing on an upturned plug while reading a bailiff’s final reminder suffering the aftermath of a serious night on the sauce before unleashing the hounds of hell on paper. But after seeing Here We Lie getting tore into Trump, Brexit, an empty Stormont all tucked into a plot focused on a tiny provincial fictional coastal village, I’m sure he and his cohorts will manage to pull it off. And the long-term outlook with Tinderbox? “The sky is the limit. Taking it on was a massive responsibility because I’ve always worked freelance before and now I’m working for a company that’s been part of the fabric of Northern Irish theatre for 30 years. It’s important to hold on to the legacy and what I want to do is give as many opportunities to people to make work. I want to provide things like the Take-away Theatre Project and the Play Machine which is a training school which started in September. Productions will always be collaborative. I want to work with as many people as I can, to make sure that everyone has a chance to act, write, direct, make, create. It doesn’t matter, as long as it has an impact.”
Finally, we move on to Northern Ireland’s theatrical health? “I think we’re in an exciting place. I love Belfast, the people are passionate about what they do and that passion needs to be celebrated and we intend to do just that.” Without a doubt, O’Reilly is a whirlwind of enthusiasm and action: The South’s and our European cousins’ loss is Northern Ireland’s gain. Watch this space and roll on February.
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