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Belfast man Patrick O'Reilly on using his play to open up the conversation on mental health

A Belfast man has turned his struggles with the darkness of depression into an inspiring new play. As it takes to The Crescent stage this month, Patrick O'Reilly tells Karen Ireland how he has also taken his message of hope into the community through schools and prisons

As an actor, Patrick O'Reilly (37) from Belfast is used to putting on a front but he admits even he couldn't cover up the harsh reality of depression when it struck him several years ago.

"I have a background in community theatre," explains Patrick, artistic director with Tinderbox theatre company.

"I moved to Belfast from Cavan in 2000 to study at the Met. Then I went to Brighton to study for my degree before coming back to Belfast and becoming an actor with various theatre companies.

"I also studied at the renowned theatre school Le Coq in Paris before coming back to Belfast again. I always found myself being drawn to Belfast, the people and the work," he recalls.

However, Patrick reveals that despite his growing acclaim in the theatre world, by 2011 he was battling dark demons.

"I was overcome with depression and nothing would lift it," he explains.

"I suffered acute anxiety and had no self worth or self esteem. I felt exhausted all the time and the anxiety was overwhelming."

After about six months of suffering, Patrick admits his thoughts turned to suicide as a way out.

"It just took over my whole life and I started to think about ending it all," he says with brutal and raw honesty.

"It just became part of my life that I was existing through the darkness."

When the thoughts of suicide started to take over his life, Patrick decided it was time to reach out and talk to someone and he got counselling through the NHS.

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Stage presence: Patrick O’Reilly in the Crescent Arts Centre which will host his new play

"Mental health has such a stigma attached to it, but I have to say when I actually reached out and asked for help the support network on the NHS was amazing," he says.

It was while he was waiting for help and support that the seeds of his latest work began to be sown.

"I felt like the invisible man and that I was falling to pieces," Patrick says. "I started to think about actually falling to pieces and how everyone has cracks and invisible scars which they carry around. How different would it be if we could see the cracks and know what was going on?

"Would people be more understanding and would the stigma be less if they could visually see the wounds? Would we realise that everyone has highs and lows in life? This is like Japanese Kintsugi - the art of fixing broken and cracked vases by putting gold in between the cracks - making it more beautiful than it was to begin with.

"I decided there was a lot of positivity and that if you could come out the other side of deep despair, there was a lot to be celebrated."

Patrick began writing a short story based on his experiences - The Man Who Fell To Pieces - and then started imagining what it would look like visually as a play.

"When I joined Tinderbox in 2016 we decided to make it into a play and explore the whole journey.

"I used the arts and writing and theatre work to empower me and share my story. I wanted to bring mental health to the forefront of people's minds and to get people talking about it and sharing their experiences.

"Sadly, there is such an epidemic of suicide here in Northern Ireland - and while the arts aren't a cure, we can reach out to more people through mediums such as music, dance, theatre, sculpture and workshops and put the arts back into the mainstream.

"I found when I was concentrating on a workshop or working on a piece of work for an hour or so I didn't have time for the dark thoughts. It is like exercise in a way. It promotes better mental health.

"I really want to give people back a sense of hope and that art can be a beautiful way to explore who you are."

Patrick explains that The Man Who Fell To Pieces tells the story of John, whose life literally falls to pieces.

"It explores the ripple effects and how those around him are effected. His girlfriend doesn't know what to do so she ends up carrying his pieces around in a bag and looking after him together with his mother," adds Patrick, who doesn't want to give away too much of the plot of the play for new audiences.

The play received overwhelming responses from audiences earlier this year when it premiered as part of Edgefest at The Mac in collaboration with Prime Cut Productions in February.

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Play time: The Man who Fell to Pieces stars Shaun Blaney, Roisin Gallagher, Maria Connolly and Patrick Buchanan

The company also took it out into the community to schools, community groups and even into prisons.

"We wanted to bring it into areas where people normally wouldn't have access to theatre and get conversations going," explains Patrick.

"It was really well received in the prisons, where we had some really engaging workshops afterwards and got people talking about and exploring mental health.

"It was really worth doing and something I want to do more of as I feel theatre should be inclusive to all.

"People really started opening up and speaking out about the pressures of life and how it can be overwhelming at times," he adds.

"I'm delighted now to be given the opportunity to bring the play to The Crescent. I am very proud of what we have achieved. The play celebrates the power of the arts and its opportunity to empower people. It shows that there is hope out there.

"We are also in the process of developing a video game with the Lighthouse charity, which is aimed at helping young people deal with mental health issues and encouraging them to talk about it."

Gilly Campbell, who is the arts development officer for drama and dance at the Arts Council, adds: "The Arts Council of Northern Ireland is delighted to support this new production from Tinderbox through National Lottery and public funding.

"The Man Who Fell To Pieces is a powerful drama which truly demonstrates the value of the arts in exploring challenging issues and I would encourage everyone to go along and see it."

And Roger Courtney, director of The Crescent, says: "Having seen the show earlier this year, I am immensely proud to collaborate with Tinderbox to bring this play to The Crescent and to play our part in helping to reduce the stigma attached to mental health in Northern Ireland.

"If you missed out on seeing this play at The Mac in February, we strongly recommend you don't miss the opportunity to see it at The Crescent.

"We guarantee that you will be moved and inspired by this incredible production."

  • The Man Who Fell To Pieces runs at The Crescent, Belfast, from October 16-27. For further details visit www.crescentarts.org

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