Solid base >>Watch Video>>
My mother and father were strong and they encouraged independence. My dad traveled a lot through his work. There was football and there was music and there were concerts and there was theatre. It was all a part of our lives.
I’m really lucky in that I’ve a really solid base. I’m married to Gary, we’re together 30 years this year. We met in Kehoes on South Anne’s Street, Dublin in 1992. He’s my best friend and my partner and my soul mate. I’m really lucky that I have that core relationship and we’ve two daughters and they’re fabulous. Aged 21 and 19, one is finishing her Leaving and the other is finishing her degree out in Maynooth. I have great, great friends – a group that I’ve been pals with since we were in school. They’re kinda my core, my family so I’ve a really, really strong, solid base.
I love life – I live it to the full, I always have. I travel, I love my work, I love my kids, I love my husband, I love knocking round the place, I love music, I go to the theatre all the time, I float around Ireland, spend weekends with my mates. I love every aspect of every day, I just do, but I have been there when it’s ripped out from under you. Those moments when it just spins away. The humility of that. The realisation that we have no control over any of this. Not in a miserable way – I know we all grew up with, “Well you never know the day nor the hour”, but that is just a truth. You can’t think about that or you can’t let that become the parameter by which you live. You need to put fear in your back pocket.
Traumatic >>Watch Video>>
My mother died in 2004. I adored her. We were really close, she’s the reason I work in theatre. She loved it. She brought me to plays all the time when I was a kid. That’s an edifice falling for every human being. I got hit again in 2009. I was pregnant with my third child and I found out she had a fatal fetal abnormality. That was absolutely traumatic – having a child that’s both living and dying inside you at the same time. Then I had cancer in 2018/19 – breast cancer.
Nature >>Watch Video>>
The number one thing that got me through those events was, and this surprises me too, nature. Absolutely 100%.
I remember my mother died in January and I remember February and March – wild honeysuckle for some reason. It just became what grounded me. In all those three traumatic moments hitting a beach was always a great one. Clogherhead saved me through cancer. I just went there, walked the beach, looked at the sea, screamed into the sky if I needed to, looked at the shells, sand under my feet – earthed.
I go out for walks in rain hail or snow through a couple of parks, I walk down a couple of beautiful rivers. I’ve a couple of dogs. That kind of exercise and outdoor activity it’s an absolute must. If I don’t go walking, I’m out in the garden.
Back fields – I tend to walk out into them and do a lot of screaming, holding onto trees. Nature, nature, nature, nature, the seasons even now. I love April and May. It’s the promise of summer, it’s the birds in the trees, the cacophony, the sound of it. Plants returning, that cycle. Plug into it, that’s what I do and it is such a comfort – it wraps itself around you. It’s always there. The sun will rise, darkness never stays forever. Nature is a big one for me.
Work and art >>Watch Video>>
Everytime I’ve hit a wall, work and art have helped pulled me through. I remember when my mother was dying and we knew that she was dying, we knew it was over. I remember her looking at me in Tallaght Hospital saying, “Jesus Deirdre, it’s all over. It’s over now – me theatre, the concert hall.” That’s what she was thinking of and it broke my heart.
With Róisín when I lost her as well, my career was actually just taking flight; it was 2009/2010. I was invited to do something with the BBC over in London and I remember just kinda walking out of the daze and going over and doing that week with these television writers – I can’t remember what it was all about but it saved me. It got me up, it got me out of the daze. I was writing, writing, writing and plays were going around the world and you were tuning into these other people and these other places and it just lifts you out of yourself and out of your grief.
Cancer treatment >>Watch Video>>
Family and friends, my god, held me up particularly during the cancer treatment. It goes on a year, tears the soul out of you physically – you’re just so drained. You never know if you’re gonna get your intellect back, or your vigour back.
I remember even looking at a friend of mine calling into me one day and watching her just kinda hop up the step to my house. Just looking at her with envy thinking, “Jesus will I ever be able to do that again?” Because you’re so flattened by the chemotherapy, I mean it’s indescribable what it does to you.
During that period flowers arrived at the door, alcohol arrived at the door – not that I could touch it at the time – books, poetry books, films. I remember a friend of mine sent me this gorgeous silver bracelet and on the inside of it said, “Keep fucking going”. I remember bringing it into the oncology ward and showing it to the nurse and her laughing and saying everybody in here should get one of them. The days that I could stand, I stood. Even though I was like an old lady and could barely walk, some days I used to walk up and down the garden on my husband’s arm. You do what you can on the day. Anytime we possibly could Gary and I would book a little overnight in Howth, an overnight in Clogherhead.
I remember, it was nuts, I think it was January and I was in the middle of treatment and we were doing an overnight in Howth. I was in the middle of chemo, I was half dead. The boat was going over to Ireland’s Eye and I’d never been on Ireland’s Eye. I said, “Awh Gary, will we go over on the boat?” It was running because it was a beautiful day. “It’s the fourth of January Deirdre, you’re in the middle of chemo, there’s no way”, and I said, “Ah sure we’ll be grand, we’ll be grand, I’ve never done it, I’ve never done it. I want to do it”.
The two of us got on the boat and we thought they’d have rugs but they didn’t have rugs so we were just in our coats. Here’s me standing – not quite Titanic – I was at the front of the boat, not a screed of hair practically left at this stage, just there heading out into the sea with the gulls and it was freezing and the rocks and it just really invigorated me.
Back with a bang >>Watch Video>>
Again coming out of the cancer, Fishamble came straight in and commissioned me to write a play, Embargo, for the War of Independence. I was thinking, “Wow, really you think I can do that?” Jim was so funny, he’s so gorgeous, he said, “I don’t think there was anything wrong with you at all, I think you just took a year out to take a rest”.
I had kinda just jumped straight back into work. I was writing a play for Landmark as well, The Saviour, and that was supposed to happen the year I was in cancer treatment. I remember Ann Clark just saying, “Dee I’m gonna make this happen whenever you’re ready, take your time”. She insisted on holding onto it and The Abbey were the same – I was doing The Unmanageable Sisters for them and I think I had another play in the mix. Everybody just said, “Look, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere. You come back to it when you can.”
I was supposed to write this beautiful tribute to Mary Lavin with my friend Gerardette Baily out of Meath County Council. I was writing a piece inspired by her work. That was the first thing I came back to in June 2019 and I remember going away to write it with my husband down to Kilkee. I was still quite sick and I remember thinking, “Oh Jesus I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this at all”.
When I wrote that piece, I didn’t sit down to write a piece about a woman coming out of breast cancer. It was a tribute to a brilliant short story writer and in Mary Lavin’s stories there were always women putting themselves second, there were always women who had an opportunity. There’s one called The Cuckoo’s Spit and the principal character gets an opportunity to have a love affair with a younger man who’s besotted by her but she won’t take it because he’s a younger man and, “What would people think?” Conventions, social expectations pull these women back, shut the door and create the barricades.
I didn’t intend to write a play; it was a prose piece that I was going to deliver as part of this event commemorating and celebrating Mary Lavin but it turned into a play about a woman just who says, “No. Fuck the begrudgers, I’m off”. A woman who bolts through the door and goes, “Why have I lived this way? Why have I put myself second time and time again?”
The character, Rosie, was coming out of cancer and she was re-assessing and re-evaluating her life and making decisions. It was actually very funny, very darkly funny because believe it or not cancer can be hilarious because it’s just so stark and dark and tough. The compulsion was to write a play about a woman who opens the door and gets the hell out but because of the place I was in – literally just coming out of cancer, coming out of cancer treatment – that felt like a good place from which to write from.
I remember when I wrote it and reading it to Gary and reading it to my daughter Síofra and asking, “Is it good, is it any good?” They were like, “It sounds good to me.” I gave it to one or two of my artistic friends asking, “Am I still able to do it?” and they were like, “You’re back Dee. You’re back with a bang”. Just being able to move back into that, oh corralled me, pulled me up, pulled me out. I buried myself in other experiences and other emotions. Getting swept up in that so my focus wasn’t on my own fears and my own quite real anxieties.
Therapeutic >>Watch Video>>
When you’re in there you can’t help but write about some of the brutally darkly comic moments that you encountered during that experience. It was therapeutic. I do remember crying my eyes out, sure I always cry my eyes out at my own stuff. What am I like? I don’t know if that’s vanity or whatever but if I don’t feel it, who else is gonna feel it? So I’d be sitting there like a lunatic either laughing me head off or bawling crying because I’m there with them. I’m in the room with them. I have to be in order to make something that impacts on and affects and speaks truth to the people who’ve paid money to come to see the play.
It’s very therapeutic to write a piece of music or play a piece of music or create an extraordinary building or write a poem or write play because it’s just so focussed – it’s just so all consuming. It’s a quiet contemplation, it is mindfulness in and of itself. It is meditation. I’ve never done meditation but sure I meditate all the time like when you’re in a play, I’m just locked in there. I’m in with Rosie. I’m in her shoes, her tights, her knickers, her top. Her roads – I’m seeing what she’s seeing. I have to if Rosie’s going to be convincing so you enter those worlds but by entering those worlds you do absolutely shave off some of the darkness of your own, some of the joy of your own, some of the learning of your own. You absolutely inject that into everything that you’re writing.
Everything you write is therapeutic. You don’t write it for yourself because then I think you’d disappear into some tragic space. I write always for an audience, always with an audience in mind but you always mine your own experience and you always mine your own self and the people around you. To me, it’s in the air. There’s a velocity, a dynamism in which we all live as human beings. There are always things bubbling around, there’s a zeitgeist, there’s an energy and you’re plugged into that.
Your audience >>Watch Video>>
My advice is: write or act or play to the beat of your own drum. Don’t go with what you think other people want you to be doing. Don’t try and please them because you never will. Now by that I don’t mean your audience, by that I mean your notion of your peers, critics, reviewers, those pressure pulpits. Put them out of your head, put them out of your mind. They’re not the reason that you got involved. You got involved because you love music or you love theatre or you love dance or you love architecture or you love whatever it is you love. Just stay true to that because if you don’t then I think you’re in trouble.
I remember writing a play called Halcyon Days and it came out of my own experience of an uncle with dementia in a nursing home. I was writing it, it was a two-hander for two older people, and then at some point I thought, “Jesus this could be a real hit”. Because you’d be imagining putting two major senior actors into it and I nearly choked because then I thought, “How do you write a hit? I don’t know how you write a commercial hit?” I remember going, “Oh my god, why did I even let that fecking thing in” and I remember talking to my husband about it and he said, “Forget about a hit, forget about it, go back to that image you had with Seán and the flower and why you wanted to write this in the first place.” I said, “Yes you’re dead on” and I went back in and wrote a hit.
Anxiety >>Watch Video>>
My kids talk about anxiety and I don’t for a moment undermine it or say it doesn’t exist, of course it exists. It’s how you handle it that matters. During COVID my 19 year old daughter Sadhbh – she was 17 at the time – really, really felt it and was saying, “I just feel so anxious”. I told her, “but you’re still getting up in the morning. I don’t know how you’re sitting in front of that screen and still going to school on screen but you’re doing it so actually you’ve got the resources inside you and you don’t realise it. It’s not stopping you.”
Be kind to yourself
Be kind to yourself. I never have a problem treating myself, spending money on myself. I love spas, any day I could I’d get myself a massage, reflexology, all of that kind of thing. We all think about retirement and put energy away into that but tomorrow might never come. I’m with feckin’ Fluther in Plough and the Stars – drink it now, sure they’re blowing themselves to bejaysis outside. Live for today.
Never stop loving it >>Watch Video>>
I remember it well and it is really hard starting out. My advice to anyone starting out is never stop loving it, just never stop loving it. I said to myself at the beginning of this life in theatre, “The day I stop sitting in an auditorium with my jaw open totally and utterly swept away by a play, is the day I stop working in it”. If I sit there and pull it apart or get into that negative headspin, that would kill something that’s very fundamental to me.
I started going to see plays when I was eight. I fell in love with going to see plays before I ever thought about writing them. So going to see plays and big productions and films and music gigs, that’s me, that’s been a constant and I could never lose that. Never stop loving it. That’s been the key for me.
I know I’m in a very comfortable place. I’m very established, I am “successful” whatever that means. I have people knocking on my door asking me to write things. Somewhere I just crossed a line where instead of you chasing your career all the time you were suddenly sitting in it. It takes a long time, it took a good 10 years and I self-produced for 10, nearly 15 years before anybody in Ireland was producing my work but, again, I just had to say, “OK if that’s the reality. I’m gonna do it and I’m not gonna be bitter about it. I’m just gonna get on with it.”
You need that fervour. You know the ones who are just gonna do it anyway and that’s it. You’ve got to be prepared to just do it anyway because the truth is nobody arrives fully formed shooting from both hips. Nobody gets it handed to them on a platter – don’t believe for a second that they do. Yes there are lucky breaks but talent is one thing, dogged self belief – that isn’t arrogant – is the other.
I get very frustrated with people who say, “All I want to be is an actress”, “All I want to be is a playwright”, “All I want to be is this, that and the other”, and you’d say, “So what was the last play that you saw? What was the last play that you read?” If they kinda say “Huh?” I just don’t understand that, it’s like trying to play the All-Ireland without a football.
My education in theatre – because I didn’t go to The Lír or Trinity or any of those standard gateways – was going to see plays everywhere all the time and loving them and yeah of course I’ve sat in the theatre thinking, “Oh my god this isn’t for me, how am I gonna keep myself awake?” and there are always ones that aren’t going to do it for you and there are bad ones. Even then, there’s always something that you’ll find to be admired or that will inspire or that will sit with you and you just can’t allow yourself to get locked into the negative.
I understand that ardent feeling of “I’ll do anything, I’ll do anything”, but sometimes I think you need to relax a bit and tune back in to why it is you love the theatre. Why it is that you want to be a part of it. It’s usually not all about you. It’s really all about that connection and that extraordinary empathy that is created and the magic of that world – whether it’s theatre or music or dance, just never lose the love.
Eggs into one basket >>Watch Video>>
A big problem – and I get into trouble for it sometimes – people put all their eggs into one basket. So say if they get a gig in The Abbey or whatever, they think, “That’s it”, they’ve made it. They’re now an Abbey playwright but it doesn’t happen that way. It shouldn’t happen that way because theatres like The Abbey have a remit to the entire country, the entire community and to every aspect of theatre making.
Work with different communities, different theatres, different projects, different genres.I produced myself for years, worked with different theatre companies and cross-genre. It’s very exciting and exhilarating and you don’t get bored and you don’t get stale but it also keeps the career in flight. On a personal level, make sure you’ve got something else going on.
Create a life outside >>Watch Video>>
In my experience of 22 years working in the theatre I do think it’s a good idea to create a life outside it as well. Lots of people – because they’ve come through Trinity or they’ve come through The Lír – their friends and family are all involved in it. That’s a pressure pot.
I was 27, I moved to Meath, had kids so I was kind of outside it and inside it but if you just focus all your energies and all your emotions and all your passions and all your everything into one thing, I just think that’s a recipe for disaster. Make sure you still keep your head up and look about. If you love playing football, if you love travelling, if you love surfing, keep it going.
Lovely new little play
I’ve a lovely new little play called Bloody Yesterday that’s opening with Rex Ryan and his gorgeous new Glass Mask Theatre on Dawson St., Dublin. The beautiful venue is a new writing house, totally dedicated to new writing – it has cocktails and wine and cheese boards. I really admire the team behind it, they opened during COVID and they don’t have any funding to date. It’s full of new, young enthusiastic, extraordinarily talented writers and performers.
Rex got in touch with me and asked me would I write a play for them. He reminds me a great deal of Karl Shields – the same energy, commitment and no-nonsense-do-it mentality. I was delighted to write something for him. I wrote this lovely little bespoke piece for the venue. I went to see a couple of plays there and was really quite charmed by it.
This story was knocking around my head for ages and this was a nice opportunity to write it. Bloody Yesterday is a two-hander about a mother and daughter and they are estranged. The mother basically walked out when the kid was six and this is the moment where they come back together. It’s about motherhood, it’s about social expectations, it’s about love, it’s about many things. It features two brilliant performers, Elizabeth Moynihan, and this gorgeous girl I hadn’t come across before, Sinéad Keegan – a brilliant musician and actress. That’s running now until May 28th.
Also wrote >>Watch Video>>
I also wrote The Visit for Mary O’Donnell. She’s a brilliant actress who was in The Unmanageable Sisters which I wrote for The Abbey a few years ago. The Visit is a one-woman show I wrote for the Dublin Theatre Festival last year and that’s going on tour.
I wrote Rathmines Road in 2018 and that’s getting a new major German production so I’m going over to Germany for that this month.
Major big project >>Watch Video>>
My big, big baby at the moment is a new play I’m writing for Bryan Murray. He’s a lovely actor and I’m collaborating with a brilliant composer Paul Frost on this. I’m working a lot recently with musicians and this is a co-production. The play is being commissioned by The Abbey and I’m co-producing with a brilliant company called SOFFT productions – Natasha Duffy and Conor Jacob. They run musical festivals and they make documentaries and I’ve done a lot of work with them. We came together during COVID doing a few gorgeous local pieces.
I work a lot with Meath County Council Arts Office and I was doing some local events. Natasha and Conor also work a lot down here. That period has really changed the way my career works – we’re making a television documentary out of this project and I’m going to be story editor which is something I’ve never tried before so that’s my major big project for this year.
Load of other bits >>Watch Video>>
I’ve a load of other bits on the go: I’ve an opera that we’re trying to get off the ground, I produce myself sometimes too, I work very closely with Meath County Council Arts Office and I work for a lot of companies like Landmark or Fishamble or The Abbey.
I work a lot internationally; I never put all my eggs in one basket. I like to mix it up a bit. I’m just very lucky, I think I’m at a stage in my career now where I get asked to do a lot and that’s a real privilege. It’s a real change from running down roads and over bridges and up staircases begging people to put your plays on – I’ve done that too.
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