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INTERVIEW Actor and playwright Seamus O’Rourke

Going Out
Seamus O’Rourke’s James Anthony Lowery, farmer and GAA fan, contemplates life and death at the graveside of his wife and son in ‘The Sand Park’.
Seamus O’Rourke’s James Anthony Lowery, farmer and GAA fan, contemplates life and death at the graveside of his wife and son in ‘The Sand Park’.

Swapping the saw for the stage

Ciara Galvin

For some people a blank page brings with it anxiety, the pressure to fill it with information. For others it might not present anything at all, merely a sheet of paper. For Leitrim man Seamus O’Rourke, a blank page makes the hairs stand on the back of his neck.
“I love looking at a blank page and you get the hairs standing on the back of your neck thinking about what could happen in a few weeks writing a play,” says the actor, playwright and director.
Seamus’s one-man play ‘The Sand Park’ will be staged at the Linenhall Theatre, Castlebar, this Thursday, January 24.  The play revolves around James Anthony Lowery, a big-hearted farmer and Offaly GAA man in his mid 50s, and how he came to terms with the death of his son 15 years ago, and now more recently, his wife, Rose. He deals with the inevitability of death in a way that is exclusive to being Irish – with humour – but there’s sadness too.  
Seamus, who is 47 and a father of three, lives on the Leitrim/Cavan border. In an earlier life, he played inter-county football, but his career on the pitch was cut short due to ongoing injury. For many years he worked as a carpenter, and back in his mid-twenties, it was carpentry that brought him to the stage. 
The local amateur drama group needed help building their sets, and Seamus came to the rescue. Soon, he was appearing in plays himself, eventually taking on lead roles and even directing productions.  
He may have been involved in theatre for 20 years, but it took him eleven to decide to put pen to paper. But when he did, those hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he was addicted.
Last year, Seamus decided to take the plunge and turn professional. He hung up his tool belt for good and now concentrates his efforts solely on theatre.
So what drove the 47 year old to take such a risk in such testing times? An offer from a theatre company to play a lead role in his own play, and the fact his children are now ‘nearly reared’.
“I’m over a year at it now full-time and it’s going great. I’ve developed a bit of a following at this stage, and as an actor I’m not waiting for the phone to ring. I’m creating my own work and getting it out there,” he said, with an accent diluted by his neighbouring Cavan.
Rural Irish life is his muse, but it was an overheard conversation at a breakfast table in Offaly that inspired the specific story of ‘The Sand Park’.
Seamus favours simple ideas, and to preserve the simplicity of the play’s plot, he avoids changing from character to character. He lets James Anthony describe the other personalities that people the play.
Thinking of acting on stage by yourself in front of an audience would set many a confident person’s nerves on edge, and Seamus admits candidly that he too struggled with nerves at first, particularly when it came to performing a one-man play, which he found ‘very scary’.
“I found the first couple of performances very strange. To be there on your own with nobody to bounce off. You need to create the energy between yourself and the audience,” he explained, adding that it is a very difficult style compared to an ensemble piece where there are other actors sharing the stage.
He intentionally kept the play upbeat and ensured there were plenty of laughs scattered throughout in  order to help lift the intensity of it being a one-man play about life and death. He also says writing about ‘what you know’ ensures you’re more comfortable too, which is undoubtedly why the Leitrim playwright finds himself bringing ‘the lovely characters of rural Ireland to the page’.
So does he identify with his Offaly farmer? “You always think these characters are nothing like yourself, until your wife tells you that that’s exactly what you’re like,” he confessed with a wry laugh.
Asked if he has any advice for upcoming playwrights, the unassuming man of many talents stressed the importance of being true to yourself. “Don’t write what you think might be impressive, write it the way you feel it, and if you do that it will come out right.”

Seamus O’Rourke will perform his one-man play ‘The Sand Park’ at the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, this Thursday, January 24, at 8pm.