Damian Gorman

Meet the acclaimed playwright ahead of new Tinderbox production Sleep Eat Party and his 'Ballycastle nativity', Stars

When it comes to theatre, Damian Gorman has seen it all. In a distinguished career stretching over three decades he has won a BAFTA, a Better Ireland Award, a Major Individual Artist Award from the Northern Ireland Arts Council and even an MBE. But for his latest project, the Newcastle-born dramatist is taking a step into the unknown.

Sleep Eat Party, a new production from Belfast company Tinderbox about young people in Northern Ireland, is Gorman’s first experiment in verbatim theatre – an approach which focuses on the real words of interviews with people connected with the play’s subject matter.

‘The point of doing any verbatim show is to try and get inside stories,’ says the playwright in a Belfast coffee shop during a break from rehearsals. ‘If you talk to a range of people you get an authentic base for what you’re doing.’

Set in a halfway house for men en route from hospital to home, Sleep Eat Party is a heartfelt but humorous tale about a group of young Northern Irish men and women coming to terms with the pleasures and pains of the adult world. The play is based on dozens of interviews with young men across Northern Ireland co-ordinated by Tinderbox outreach director Ciaran McQuillan, and has been distilled down from over 1,000 pages of transcribed text.

Gorman cites The Permanent Way, David Hare’s puissant account of the privatisation of the UK’s railways, and Richard Norton-Taylor’s Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry as inspiration. But for Sleep Eat Party he seems to have adopted his own, novel take on verbatim.

‘My job was to take the transcripts and turn them into a play – and to turn that play over to Mick Duke (Tinderbox’s artistic director), Hanna Slättne, the dramaturge, and the actors.’ explains Gorman, who never met any of the interviewees and wrote the play in three weeks.

‘I’d say about 50-55% of the words come from other people, and the rest is from me. Although some of their words I have worked on a bit, or ‘flash-fried’ as I’d put it.’

The transcripts guided the writing, but Gorman’s input was far from insubstantial. ‘I created some of the characters, but they seemed to me to be demanded by the material. It said you need a character like this or like that. But even though I made stuff up it was dictated to me by the transcripts.’

Sleep Eat Party may be based on real words spoken by real people but Gorman is keen to stress the work’s fictitiousness. ‘There’s a sense in which we were listening to something that you otherwise mightn’t hear but it’s not a documentary or an edited transcript. It’s a play,’ he says, before revealing that the final text was agreed with all the interviewees whose words he used.

The youth of today may be a popular target for the red tops’ ire but Gorman, whose own son is 17, sees Sleep Eat Party as a chance to put forward a more positive image. ‘I have huge admiration for contemporary young people,’ he comments. ‘From the outside they are often seen as self-centred and troublesome but I think young people have levels of selflessness that my generation never had.’

Having given his last play, 1974 – The End of the Year Show, a dark, unsettling denouement, Gorman was anxious for that Sleep Eat Party reached a more hopeful conclusion. 

‘I wanted to find something beautiful to hold out. One thing we know about young men is that suicide is a very significant cause of death. So I wanted to do the opposite of what I did at the Lyric (where 1974 ran), to find some beautiful, uplifting thing to hold out at the end. And I have found something,’ he says smiling broadly.

The desire to find something of a value in a seemingly hopeless situation is characteristic of Damian Gorman, a passionate man who believes firmly in the importance of being, what he calls, ‘a net contributor’ to society.

During the Troubles the playwright co-founded An Crann (The Tree) to help victims of violence tell their stories, and, as we sit chatting, a young woman comes over to our table to say hello. It emerges that they know each other from Corrymeela - Gorman regularly performs workshops at the Antrim coast reconciliation centre.

Gorman’s motivation to give back to society is particularly evident in his other new project, Stars. Subtitled A Ballycastle Nativity, it’s a two-act Christmas play with a difference – the action starts in the Catholic Cross & Passion College, then at the interval the entire audience will move across the road to the Protestant Ballycastle High School for the concluding act.

‘I live in Ballycastle and I had this notion that I’d love to tall a Christmas story here. To give people a lift, improve community relations, and put on a decent play,’ Gorman says. With a cast including TONY Award winner Conleth Hill, Gordon Fulton, Abigail McGibbon, Olivia Nash and – in the words of the promotional flyer – ‘a host of local stars’, Stars will certainly be the envy of church hall Christmas plays up and down the land.

Verbatim theatre, one play in two venues, award winning actors in Ballycastle - 2010 is shaping up to be another year of firsts for Damian Gorman. At this rate there really will be nothing he hasn’t done on a Northern Irish stage.

Peter Geoghegan

Sleep Eat Party opens at the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast on November 7 before touring. For more information check out the Culture Live! listings.

Stars: A Ballycastle Nativity runs from December 1 to 5 in Cross & Passion College and Ballycastle High School. To buy tickets contact the box office at 11, the Diamond, Ballycastle or phone 075 91887217.