Toolkit Extra: Jody O’Neill- A playwright in Isolation

The Royal Exchange Theatre, the home of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, may be closed, our stages may be quiet, our hearts may be breaking, but we continue to be creative, to be writers, directors, artists and theatre makers. We are in unknown territory and are busily making plans about what this means for our future work. We do not yet know what the impact will be across our sector, for the artists who we make work with, the participants that we support and for our audiences going forward.

We are exploring ways in which we can all remain connected and optimistic. Human connection is something we all need, to share stories, to engage our imaginations and emotions. As well as reposting our writing Toolkit– winning writers have been offering insight and (hopefully) support from lockdown.

Jody O’Neill was Commended in 2019 for her brilliant play- BALLYBAILE

 

As I write this, it is four weeks and five days since the Irish government announced that schools would be closing as part of measures to try to ‘flatten the curve’ of Covid-19 in Ireland. I have an eight-year-old, so the announcement had an immediate impact on our household.

At first there was the mental scurry to figure out how we would manage work commitments with childcare, but it became apparent over the next few days that work as we knew it, would not be happening for the foreseeable future.

Then came a flurry of innovative ideas to figure out how we would turn the time into a productive experience. Then came anxiety…how long was this going to last? Would we be paid for work that had been cancelled? How would we manage to remain productive whilst also giving due time to ensuring we gave the right support to our son?

Then there socially-distanced meet ups with friends, meet ups we’d probably have cherished even more had we known what was coming next. When we realised we wouldn’t be meeting in person for a while, Zoom provided some novelty contact until we realised how exhausting and unlike real socializing it is.

Throughout all this, the sun shone down on our country, which was unstoppably opening up its Spring self. We live in Wicklow – known as the garden of Ireland – and so have fortunately been able to take advantage of having mountains, rivers, lakes and the sea within our permitted travel area. This has provided many pockets of sanity; moments of laughter, joy and amazement in what might have otherwise been a far more difficult time.

If there is such thing as a typical day in isolation, it goes something like this.

We get up around 6.30 -which seems to be the time my son has settled on waking at, much to our disappointment! After breakfast and some reading, drawing for Tom and work catch-up for me, we start homeschool around 9. My son writes a timetable and is pretty meticulous about sticking to it, which has really helped all of us in terms of maintaining a routine.

The school day finishes with an excursion to one of our preferred destinations, depending on whether we’re mainly hoping to spot fish, tadpoles or both on that particular day.

Once we get back, it’s my work time – my partner uses the mornings. The thing is, though, that in this strange world, I’m finding creativity a real struggle. It’s like somehow, overnight, the narrative of the world shifted, and so a lot of what was at the forefront of my mind suddenly doesn’t fit with our new reality.

In the first week or two, I was lucky. The Abbey Theatre commissioned me to write a short play based on the theme ‘Dear Ireland’. The deadline was tight, and somehow, I managed to write three short plays instead of one. It then took me about a week to figure out which one to submit. Decisions are something I’ve struggled with recently.

After that initial flurry of creativity, there was a new order of tighter restrictions from the government, and that really flattened me – spiritually, energetically and creatively. I sat with it for a week or two, achieving the bare minimum in terms of productivity before realising part of my problem. Typically, I do most of my creating in transit, be that on the train, on the bus, or on foot. Being confined to my house seemed to have the effect of completely zapping any creative impulses.

And so now, still not knowing how long this will go on, I have set myself some guidelines.

 

  • Go for walks alone. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling…sometimes I’m able to bounce along, greeting everyone I pass from a 2-metre distance, but there are a lot of days when my head is down because I’m just not in a place where I can make eye contact and exchange pleasantries with strangers. No matter what, I feel better for this time that I spend by myself and it gives me the impulse to move forward creatively.
  • Really limit social media and news. Really. (and then I break my rule, and remember why I made it)
  • Keep a manageable daily to-do list.
  • Don’t feel inadequate if the day is not a productive one.
  • Keep talking.

 

I’ve turned forty in the Covid-19 vacuum. There were lots of things I foresaw for the year ahead. Living in a lockdown wasn’t one of them.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I had a production scheduled for this year that actually got to take place. I may be one of few playwrights who’ll be able to say that in 2020. And even though the future is uncertain, I had somehow in the midst of my tech week in January applied for an Arts Council Bursary, which I’ve been awarded. And so, I know that whatever the next three months brings, we will be able to pay our rent. We will be able to eat. We will not have to worry about paying electricity and heating bills.

After three months, we will start to struggle, but I can’t think that far ahead at the moment, and I know that I’m very privileged to have even three months’ worth of security.

 

Now, to try to write something that will be relevant in whatever world is left to us when we emerge on the other side of this. Wish me luck.

 

Jody O’Neill is an autistic writer and actor.

Her most recent play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, a co-production with The Abbey Theatre, premiered at the Peacock, The Everyman and Mermaid Arts Centre in February 2020.

In 2019, Jody was awarded a Judges’ Commendation at the Bruntwood Awards (Europe’s biggest playwriting prize), she was shortlisted for the PJ O’Connor Award, and was one of the six final playwrights shortlisted for Fishamble’s A Play for Ireland. Her play, Eating the City, was selected to be part of The New Theatre’s 2019 Path to the Stage New Writing Week.

Working with Draíocht and Blakestown Adult Day Centre, Jody has developed two solo pieces of inclusive theatre as part of HOME Theatre Ireland (2018) and Our Place Our Stories (2019). She has a keen interest in creating relaxed performances in inclusive settings.

From 2014-2018, Jody was regular script and story writer for RTE’s long-running soap opera, Fair City.

29 Apr 2020

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