Patrick J O'Reilly is Mr Panto

The actor, writer and performer brings lessons learnt in the Jacques Lecoq International School in Paris to The MAC and Waterfront Hall this Christmas

There’s no denying it, Patrick J O’Reilly is a talented guy. Actor, director, writer, physical performer; all these disciplines come easily within his remit. As the creator of not one, but two of 2013’s big Christmas shows, he has flexed his writing muscles to pull in crowds of children and adults alike, dazzling them with his clever takes on classic tales.

The brain behind Belfast Waterfront’s Little Red Riding Hood and The MAC’s Hatch – an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling – O’Reilly has arguably installed himself, for this year at least, as Belfast’s Mr Panto.

Yet that is just one part of a creative personality who has dedicated himself to producing fresh and challenging content. As an actor, Podge – as he is universally known within the theatre world – has appeared in shows for his own Red Lemon company as well as in productions for, amongst others, the Lyric Theatre, Bruiser, Kabosh and Replay theatre companies.

Asked if it is possible to possess too many talents, O’Reilly demurs. While there are myriad ways for him to convey a story, such a range tends to inform the process rather than cloud it. ‘You can have many strings to your bow, but one is just as important as the other when you’re in a room creating theatre, or a play or a dance piece.'

Physical theatre holds a particular fascination for O'Reilly, where the body, and not the spoken word, is the source of what occurs on stage. ‘I’ve always been interested in how the body moves,' he adds, 'in how it can create character and gesture and also how interpretative dance and choreography relate to a story, just through the use of visual imagery.’

It was this commitment that proved crucial in O’Reilly’s decision to attend the prestigious Jacques Lecoq International School in Paris, one of the world’s premier institutions of physical performance. Despite being fairly established in his chosen field, he still felt it necessary to test himself further. He points out that at 31 years old ‘it was a bit of a gamble'.

It was important ‘to understand why I really want to do theatre and what kind of stuff I want to create in the future. That year nearly broke me. It’s a tough school. It’s like the Foreign Legion! But it really gave me a sense of where I want to go.’

A native of Killeshandra, County Cavan, O’Reilly has called Belfast home since 2000, and even after a year spent in the City of Light he remained drawn to this place. ‘When I went to Paris people told me I’d not be back, but I missed Belfast a lot. It’s just one of those cities,' he says.

'There’s a lot of work happening. A lot of art happens here. There’s passion here. There are very few places I’ve been where people are so up to do stuff, to take risks, whether it’s physical theatre or music. It’s just a really good hub.’

Nevertheless, O’Reilly's French experience was a invaluable one: ‘My mind was blown in Paris in terms of the very essential basis of theatrical creativity. No words, just visuals and sounds. We were told not to make nice theatre but unforgettable theatre.’

He refers to the seemingly unusual techniques the instructors at the Lecoq School passed on to him, techniques he now uses when it comes to writing. ‘I use the elements now. That character is that element, this character is this element. She’s wind, he’s fire. How do wind and fire interact? What text goes with wind? What text goes with fire? I never thought about things like that before.’

While O’Reilly believes that the styles in France and in Northern Ireland are not as dissimilar as one might assume, he has returned home with an increased willingness to collaborate and to exercise more parsimony when it comes to his dialogue.

This translates rather simply: ‘The less words the better. I used to be guilty of not editing text enough.’ He suggests that the highly collaborative approach of drama companies in mainland Europe now influences him. ‘It’s a very different way of working, but it’s a very good way of working.’

The traits picked up in his year abroad appear to have taken hold immediately. ‘Hatch has been described as European,’ O'Reilly explains, though he recalls no conscious decision to go in that direction. Whatever its style, both The MAC show and Little Red Riding Hood have proved successful.

 

O’Reilly even admits to going to both as an audience member and laughing out loud along with everyone else. As far as he’s concerned, this type of theatre is something he truly enjoys. ‘I love writing for children because you’re able to tell it like it is. Children aren’t cynical. In fact, they’re even more open to things.’

Acting remains a discipline close to O’Reilly’s heart, however, and 2014 will signal a return to his acting roots. That said, this present year saw him starring in Replay’s children’s show Wobble, which took him all the way to New York for dates at the Irish Arts Centre.

He was also drafted in, at very short notice, to star in The Conquest of Happiness, a Prime Cut co-production that played in Derry~Londonderry during the City of Culture year and toured the Balkan nations of Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia, where it was staged under the historically significant Mostar Bridge.

His was an acclaimed performance in an equally acclaimed production and O’Reilly, without hesitation, attributes his willingness to jump in at the deep end to the bracing experiences of his time in Paris. ‘The one thing about Lecoq is that there’s no fear factor.'

That attitude will likely serve him well as he prepares to tackle Bruiser’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose in the New Year. ‘We’re going to create a very political satire with that,’ he adds, though it will also make use of O’Reilly’s signature style. ‘It’s going to be a brilliant, physical comedy.’

Comedy, he believes, ‘is the best way to get in some sharp bites about society'. In his estimation, satire is a perfect vessel for his brand of theatrics. ‘We’re weird. Human beings are nuts,' O'Reilly concludes. 'Nobody has a clue, and I really love that. The audience is laughing at itself. We’re all able to enjoy how absurd we are. I love the absurdity of everything.’

Little Red Riding Hood runs at Waterfront Hall, Belfast until January 4, and Hatch runs at The MAC, Belfast until January 5.