My Cultural Life: Rachel O'Riordan

Director on the Edge Rachel O'Riordan discusses her refusal to be average and her love of Lear

Have you always wanted to work in Theatre?

Yes - my Dad took me to a production of Macbeth in Leeds when I was very young, and I saw the actor playing Macbeth off stage afterwards, and couldn’t believe it was the same person. He looked so normal! I think from then on I was fascinated by the fact that the stage is a world unto itself, where anything can happen. I am still to this day delighted by the idea that human beings want to watch other human beings live out stories. Live theatre is magical and primitive, and it helps us understand ourselves.

You originally trained as a dancer. What led you from ballet to directing?

I trained at the Royal Ballet School, so I was working with the elite in the dance world, and I definitely wasn’t the best dancer there. I loved ballet - and still miss it - but didn’t want to be average. I started to work as a choreographer, and made some really interesting physical/dance theatre with my friend Karl Wallace who founded and ran Kabosh. I loved that period of my career. Then I realised I wanted to make work in my own way; I commissioned Hurricane and was off.

Does your dance training influence your work as a director?

Definitely, for example, Hurricane was completely choreographed. The actor had to learn the piece step by step, it was a very physical piece indeed, and very experimental within the genre of monodrama. Also, though, my dance training helps me in practical ways; I know how to stage work effectively and dynamically, I’m not afraid to explore the physical life of a script, I can read music…the dance influence is all over my work I think. I also love directing musical theatre, and am developing several projects with my friend, the composer/writer Conor Mitchell. That interest links back right to my dance background.

You’re working with Colin Bateman on a play right now aren’t you? How has that been?

Great fun. This is the first time Colin has written for the stage, so he’s working in completely new territory and that’s exciting to watch and support. It’s great that Ransom has been able to support an artist moving into working in a new genre.

Is there any playwright that you’ve worked with that you’d really like to work with again?

Loads! Owen McCafferty (The Absence of Women), Leo Butler (The Early Bird), Robert Welch (Protestants), Frank McGuinness (Gates of Gold), Richard Dormer (Hurricane, The Half, This Piece of Earth, The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society) Suzie Miller (Transparency) Conor Mitchell (Diary of a Madman, Merry Christmas Betty Ford)…I’d love to work with these writers again. I have been privileged to work with some amazing people.

Is there any playwright you HAVEN’T worked with yet that you’d like to work with again?

I would love to work with Edward Bond. And Brian Friel. And David Mamet. I could go on…

Ransom toured Malta as an example of the best of UK theatre practice. That must have been a coup for the company.

It was - we were delighted to be included in the British Council Showcase, because it represents the best of UK theatre and also because it's great to see your work in a national context, to see where you stand. For a small company like us, it was a huge achievement. We did it again with This Piece of Earth. They are a brilliant organisation, great to work with.

Write on the Edge was a major three year programme for Ransom Productions. Can you tell us a little about it why you think it was needed?

I felt that female playwrights from Northern Ireland didn’t have the same profile and recognition as their male counterparts. I wanted to expose female writers at all levels of experience to the best new writing experts I could persuade to work on the project, in order to give them the skills they needed to take the next step. The Arts Council funded the project over three years. It was a great contribution to the arts scene here.

Write on the Edge is just coming to an end now. Was it successful?

Unbelievably so. It’s extraordinary how it grabbed women’s imaginations. We have delivered workshops to over 700 women across Northern Ireland, with guest practitioners such as playwright Rebecca Lenciewicz, Nina Steiger (Soho Theatre’s Literary Director) George Perrin and James Grieve (Co-Artistic Directors of Paines Plough) and many more. We have really made a difference in the landscape of new writing here for women and I am very proud of that. It was a completely unique project for NI. The guest practitioners were of such a high standard and were so committed to making their workshops brilliant. To bring those people’s skills to women across the province was fantastic. We went to Cookstown, Omagh, Ballymena, Newtownards, Downpatrick, Coleraine, Antrim, Enniskillen, Lisburn, Derry and many more. The workshops were always extremely well attended. Vitally, the project has left a legacy of skills here.

Are there any graduates of the programme that we should look out for in the future?

Susan Jones, who wrote Transition, is definitely one to watch. So many new talents have emerged, though, it’s hard to pick one. Come along to the readings on the 5th June and see what you think!

With Write on the Edge ending do you think there will be a need for more programmes like it?

Ransom intends to keep designing training and development projects - its central to our commitment to new work and new artists. It is the case that we need to provide more opportunities for actors/writers/directors/designers/musicians/dancers to make new work together, and experiment with form. The need is there, because the talent is there.

What is your next project?

I’m directing Absolution, by Owen O’Neill, for the First Irish Festival in New York with Guna Nua. Then it’s National Anthem, by Colin Bateman, for my company Ransom at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Then I go to the Library Theatre in Manchester to direct A Christmas Carol.

Dario Argento is known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’. If students were studying your work 100 years from now, what title would you want to be given?

I don’t know…I think analysing yourself that closely is a bit weird! I'd just be grateful to be remembered.

Recently Prime Cut staged Scarborough in a hotel room. Is there any high-concept, experimental, just so crazy that it might just work idea/play that you’d love to put on over here?

I really like Punchdrunk’s work and would like to do a huge site-responsive/specific piece in Belfast. I have lots of other ideas, but they are currently a secret!

What is the one play that you think everyone should see or be poorer for it?

A brilliant production of King Lear. For my money, the best play in the English language.

Tammy Moore