Clarecastle native and playwright John O’ Donovan’s work effuses both sagacity and wit. Despite leaving for London over ten years ago, Irish sentiments are deeply embroiled in John’s characters. Speaking with the Clare Echo, Johns talks about his authorial pilgrimage from humble beginnings to the illustrious but not always glamourous life of an Irish playwright living in London.
John’s writing began to shape itself from a tender age, “Writing was always something I did but I didn’t start writing plays until I was in UCD. I used to write short stories as well as music and poetry before that. The music scene was always great in Ennis.” A rich and vibrant academic setting provided the baseline for John to showcase his talent, “There was a chance at university to adapt a short story I had written. The drama society there showcased two plays each day and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have had much of an opportunity.” On his transition to writing for theatre John recalls attending his first play ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’ for his leaving cert. “Glor itself wasn’t open very long when I was living in Ennis and it hadn’t occurred to me how to get involved in local drama clubs at the time. It wasn’t as obvious when I was a teenager, either you played sports or you played music whereas now it seems there’s a greater variety of things to do.”
John was recently nominated for a Stuart Parker Writers Trust award, a prestigious accolade he acknowledges as something, “I’m really proud of and it’s great that the play got some recognition. For something that started out small and worked by its own momentum most of the way, rather than something that came from a big commission. I’m proud of it being something that’s up there being recognised nationally.” John’s nomination ‘If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You’ was something evinced in the spur of the moment, a slender opening of fate capitalised on “when someone dropped out of a short play night in London that I often write for, they asked me last minute would I write something. The play itself wasn’t something I planned on writing. I had a week to put the whole thing together. It all happened very fast but it was good to get out of my head. Luckily those characters came to me quite vividly and the situation the characters were in set its own rules early on which made it easier to write.”
On the life of a budding playwright, looking to get their work out there to a wider audience John admits, “I don’t think any artist wants to start out being a producer. Sitting around waiting for that big commission and it won’t happen. I think there’s a lot of great artists out there and theatres want to represent as many people as possible. I don’t think it’s a closed shop but the funding for the arts in Ireland has really taken a toll. For all the promises Leo Varadkar has made it still hasn’t happened.” Relating to this personally, John tells of how the cutbacks inadvertently led him to where he is now, “the cuts that happened ten or eleven years ago that led to people like me emigrating haven’t been restored and I think it will remain tricky until governments realise the arts need central funding in order to trickle down onto the ordinary citizens. In the meantime, we will all be independent producers and jacks of all trades.”
Getting into the nuances of his craft, John draws contrasts between writing a novel and writing for theatre, “I try to understand point by point what my story is going to be before I start writing. I see it more as shaping a sculpture than I do going out for a walk.” On the technical aspects of writing John admonished that it took him a long time to free up his schedule in order to craft his plays, working his way up in other careers in order to generate some time to write. “There was nobody sponsoring me on writers retreats, I had to find that time whether it was in the evenings after or before work whereas now I get to write a lot more during the week, which is really valuable as you can give yourself time and space to think those bigger thoughts. The people that can write the best nowadays are those that can tune out of the world we live in and tune into the thing that they’re interested in at the time. That’s something I’m still working on.”
John’s upcoming play Sink is delivered as a one-person show. An actress plays two characters, with both of them heading west set at the backdrop to a large archaeological site. The play will premiere in Dublin in the middle of September and will be produced by One Duck. John is bound by contract not to disclose all the details but nonetheless he is looking forward to finishing the final draft. A GoFundMe page has been set up in order to sponsor the production costs and can be found online at: GoFundMe.com/sink-by-John-ODonovan.