Un­afraid of the dark

Fresh from her Fringe suc­cess, Eva O’Con­nor’s new BBC Three se­ries takes an un­flinch­ing look at the psy­chol­ogy of anorexia. She talks to Shilpa Gana­tra about get­ting to the heart of the story

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DRAMA -

For an artist spe­cial­is­ing in dark dra­mas, things are look­ing daz­zlingly bright for Eva O’Con­nor. Her in­ter­ac­tive play The Fri­day

Night Ef­fect was a hit at the Dublin Fringe Fes­ti­val, a month af­ter a suc­cess­ful run at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe. Her run con­tin­ues on BBC Three with

Over­shad­owed, a first TV out­ing for her and col­lab­o­ra­tor Hilde­gard Ryan.

“Ev­ery­one is ‘wow, it’s amaz­ing, you’re so lucky to get these com­mis­sions’. I know I’m lucky, but I also worked re­ally f***ing hard – I’ve been mak­ing plays for eight years, run­ning my own the­atre com­pany, and spent the time ab­so­lutely broke,” she says. “I spent years and years push­ing just to get meet­ings, and sud­denly when peo­ple re­alise what I could do, doors started to open.”

Over­shad­owed fol­lows on from her play of the same name, which de­buted as part of the arts/men­tal health fes­ti­val First Fort­night in Dublin. It’s mor­phed along the way: with her first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence on the sub­ject, O’Con­nor plays a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of anorexia – a whis­per in the ear, a de­struc­tive thought that just won’t quit – but Lim­er­ick-born Michelle Fox takes the main role of Imo­gen.

“She’s such a com­pelling ac­tress to watch – you just feel for her so much,” says O’Con­nor. “The thing that I al­ways wanted to con­vey with it is that you are not your eat­ing dis­or­der, it’s sep­a­rate, and you see the pain in Michelle’s eyes, and she gives you such a win­dow to her soul.”

The story is told over eight 10-minute videos that mix fly-on-the-wall film­ing with ex­po­si­tional scenes di­rect to cam­era. “A lot of peo­ple have thought ‘this is go­ing to be shit’ and once they’ve seen it they’re like ‘oh wait, it’s ac­tu­ally good’,” she says, with a blunt self-aware­ness that’s ev­i­dent in her writ­ing.

“You can have any sexy for­mat you want, but the truth and heart of the story has to be there. I’ve gone through it and I’ve come out the other end, so I’m sure that the con­tent is in the right place and we’re not glam­ouris­ing any­thing. Peo­ple in other pro­duc­tions seem to look in­cred­i­ble when they’re anorexic, but that’s not the re­al­ity. I wanted to show anorexia isn’t about food and weight: it’s about con­trol, it’s about re­la­tion­ships break­ing down, it’s about los­ing all sense of your­self.”

Coun­selled back to health

O’Con­nor’s ex­pe­ri­ence took place when she was in her teens in Co Clare; she be­came anorexic be­fore be­ing coun­selled back to health in her early 20s through ther­apy and a close cir­cle of sup­port­ive fam­ily and friends. When she penned the play in 2014, she found her pri­vate ex­pe­ri­ence went very pub­lic.

“An artist can’t re­ally shy away from that, for their work to have real mean­ing. So I had to get used to it. But I wor­ried about my par­ents and friends – you don’t want to hang them out to dry when they’ve sup­ported you so much.”

The pay­off is that oth­ers have found so­lace in the story. O’Con­nor says she re­ceived more feed­back on this play from those af­fected than for My Name is

Saoirse, her award-win­ning one-woman play based on her ex­pe­ri­ence of abor­tion.

“It can be re­ally f**king heavy, but it can be in­spir­ing. When I per­formed it on tour in Kerry, two girls came out of hos­pi­tal with their mums to come and see it; at the end, they were weep­ing, their mums were weep­ing, I was weep­ing. Of­ten peo­ple reach out be­cause they want you to help them, but I can’t be­cause I’m not a coun­sel­lor, so all I can do is give them links to where they can get help.”

O’Con­nor is now based in the UK af­ter study­ing in Ed­in­burgh and Lon­don, and although it’s more com­pet­i­tive, she says there’s more scope for new writ­ers in Lon­don than in Dublin.

“There’s no com­par­i­son; Lon­don is the cap­i­tal of the world in terms of tele­vi­sion, and we’re lucky to be there. We’re al­ready talk­ing to mul­ti­ple pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies in the UK about our next TV project. If you were hop­ing to get a se­ries in RTÉ, there’s a much longer line of peo­ple wait­ing and fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties. I don’t want to bitch su­per­hard about Ire­land, but that’s the re­al­ity.

“There’s not loads of Ir­ish fe­male writ­ers, and there’s not even lots of TV fe­male writ­ers who are our age,” she adds. “I don’t watch my life on screen ev­ery day, in the same way that

The Fri­day Night Ef­fect is about three twen­tysome­thing-yearold girls on a night out. Most TV writ­ers are male and in their 40s, so it’s ex­cit­ing that there are oth­ers com­ing up.”

Next project

Along with direc­tor and script edi­tor Hilde­gard, the next project cur­rently be­ing shopped to UK broad­cast­ers is a ver­sion of

The Fri­day Night Ef­fect in which “each episode will be around 20 min­utes long, and when you get to a de­ci­sion, you can click into that episode”. O’Con­nor’s ra­dio play of The Mid­night Sand­wich will air on BBC Ra­dio 4 at the end of Oc­to­ber, and there are fur­ther out­ings of Over­shad­owed, the Fisham­ble-pro­duced play

I wanted to show anorexia isn’t about food and weight: it’s about con­trol, it’s about re­la­tion­ships break­ing down, it’s about los­ing all sense of your­self

Maz and Bricks, plus more My Name Is Saoirse to co­in­cide with next year’s abor­tion ref­er­en­dum.

“The work I’ve done so far has a theme of men­tal health run­ning through it, from my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,” the 27-year-old says. “But the older and the more re­cov­ered I am, the less I’m go­ing to write about my own ex­pe­ri­ences. I’m happy and in love, but that makes me re­ally f**king bor­ing. So I don’t know what my next project will be, but it prob­a­bly won’t be about me.”

If a clear head doesn’t make for a good story, it cer­tainly pro­vides a sharp tool to carve out a new one, par­tic­u­larly wel­come at this point in her ca­reer.

“Me and Hildy are writ­ing full time now, so we need to be well to work to dead­lines. So much is ex­pected of us. I worked through a lot of my ‘is­sues’ through the­atre, and now I’m glad I’m in a good place in my mind.”

Dark whis­pers Michelle Fox and Eva O’Con­nor in the BBC Three drama Over­shad­owed

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