Northern Star

Martin Lynch in conversation with award winning playwright Owen McCafferty

Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty was described in by the Belfast Telegraph as ‘the Northern star which is shining most brightly at the moment’.

He has won three awards for his play Scenes From the Big Picture, which ran at the National Theatre – the John Whiting award and Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for new theatre writing and the Meyer-Whitworth award for best new play. It is the first time any playwright has won all three awards in one year.

In a special event run by the Creative Writers Network and the Linen Hall Library, fellow playwright Martin Lynch talked to McCafferty about his upbringing, his writing practice and his recent success.

Martin Lynch: I think it’s fair to say for everybody that their parents are a big influence. Can you tell us about your parents? Start with your mother first of all. What kind of woman was she?

Owen McCafferty: Both my parents are dead now and I’m an only child so their presence is still very strongly felt actually … I was being interviewed the other day because I have a play on at the Donmar and they were asking me how I started out play writing and I was aware that I was telling them factually how I started out play writing … but really what they wanted to know was what was unique about me that made me a playwright.

It always seemed to me that I instinctively knew how to do what I do, and in some sense that can be quite frightening because you become aware then that that ability might leave, so at a certain point in your life you start questioning that and you need to know why you have a certain talent for something

I had no background in the theatre at all, ever, I think I’d been to see two plays in my whole life before I started writing plays. I’m always asked ‘do you come from a theatrical background?’ and the answer is ‘no’. Then I discovered when my father was about 16, he was in a few amateur productions of plays on the Ormeau Road connected with Rosario. That, coupled with the notion that he was a storyteller and that my mother was a beautiful singer – she sang in the choir and things – made me realise where I’d got this sort of talent from, because the way I write embodies those two things.

The writing itself is slightly musical even though I couldn’t play any musical instrument or couldn’t sing – I don’t have a note in my head – but there is something musical about it. When I’m writing it, it does feel as if I’m composing something and it’s always in the back of my mind that no matter what I do I have to tell a good story … I don’t know actually if that has answered your question, but that’s how they’ve been influential in what I’m doing at the moment.

ML: You said earlier that you were an only child. As one of 12, tell us about it! How did that affect you?

OM: I don’t really know what it’s like as an only child because I’ve only ever been one. The only thing that I notice now on a personal level is that you don’t have as great a sense of your external family as people who come from big families do … From a writing point of view it’s helpful, just naturally, and I don’t mean this in any awful, sad or lonely way, but you do have a sense of yourself as being an outsider, so in some way maybe it might be easier to observe, I don’t know.

ML: You’re always watching?

OM: Well, yeah, you always seem at once removed … But then maybe there are playwrights who aren’t only children who have that as well, so I don’t necessarily think that’s unique to me.

ML: What do you think education did for you? How did you perceive it at the time?

OM: If I’m honest, and I hope none of my children are here, or my school teachers, not very much. Well, no, there are a few teachers I remember because they were very good teachers but what I was actually taught – and I’ve been through the whole system, I’ve done 0 levels, A levels, and went to university – doesn’t seem to have helped me much in what I do at the moment. I mean maybe it does and I don’t recognise it, maybe I’m being grossly unfair but I don’t feel as if it has … I suppose, if I’m being more honest, the philosophy aspect of [my degree] helped me do what I’m doing now because it teaches you to be more reasoned about the world.

ML: Reasonable or reasoned?

OM: Reasoned. There are always two sides to the story. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, but I think … it helps in the sense that your drama isn’t [simplistic]. It makes it more three-dimensional.

ML: What was Scenes From the Big Picture about?

OM: In very simple terms what I wanted to do was tell as many stories at the one time as I could. It takes place over one day in Belfast and there are 21 characters, so really what you get is 21 stories and they interweave with each other throughout the whole day. It was described as post ceasefire type of Belfast. I hadn’t really thought of that.

ML: Were any of those stories personal? How do you put ten, twenty stories into one play?

OM: That was strange actually. Once I started doing that, none of them could be personal because there was so many of them, so all of those stories are made up … I know that sounds absurd. That whole process started out as being very technical, a lot more so than any other play that I’ve written … I had to work out bit by bit who the characters were … and once I’d worked that out, then stories started developing and once their stories started developing I could then start interweaving them … It was quite intense and the most technical thing I had written.

ML: Scenes From the Big Picture was described by an Englishman on radio as the best picture he’s had of Belfast outside off the news … People view Northern Ireland now through Owen McCafferty’s eyes. A lot of people in London are doing that at this very moment.

OM: Part of that was to do with timing in a way, in that I definitely get this feeling from being over there quite a lot, and this has been the case for a while, that people are getting sick of us and of our wee problems ... So when that play came along because they didn’t see it in that light they took to it very quickly.

ML: What do you mean by ‘in that light’? A Troubles play you mean?

OM: I haven’t in any of my plays mentioned where anybody comes from or what part of any divide they’re on, so nobody ever knows. I do that purposely because I want people to realise the emotional problems these people have, aren’t to do with the fact that they may be Catholic or Protestant or any type of thing, that those emotional problems are with us always, all the time. The London audience and the critics seemed to take to that notion, that they were seeing something fresh.

Between me and you they weren’t really, because all those things that are in plays that are about sectarianism are in that play, it’s just that they’re not as recognisable because people aren’t beating drums and waving flags, but they’re still in it.