Chris O’Connor on The Parting Glass
Playwright Chris O’Connor has written The Parting Glass, Red Ladder’s new touring production exploring mental health, masculinity and how we connect in a social media-obsessed world. He tells us about the story behind The Parting Glass and why this authentic new play is vital in opening up a conversation about men’s mental health…
Let’s start with an introduction to you.
I was born in Leeds but moved to Kilburn in London at four-years-old and my family are Irish, something which is a theme in The Parting Glass. I moved back to Leeds when I was 19 and have been here ever since. In addition to writing, I work with Mantality, an organisation promoting positive mental health set up by Stevie Ward of the Leeds Rhinos and his lifelong friend Dom Smith. We have a podcast, run men’s groups and also have a Mantality Club where men can open up, share and help each other achieve their goals.
What is The Parting Glass about?
The Parting Glass is the story of Jim, who fancies himself as a bit of a character, and Sara, an adventure loving Leeds lass with a great sense of humour. The play follows Sara at a special gathering she has organised telling us her story, whilst Jim tells us his story down the pub over a pint. They seem like the perfect match but we get the sense that maybe the timing isn’t right and perhaps there is a lingering darkness in Jim that will thwart any potential happiness. The piece looks at issues such as mental health, masculinity and also how we connect in an increasingly social media-obsessed world.
The play is a development of your 2016 play for Red Ladder, The Life and Soul. Can you tell us a bit about how The Parting Glass builds on the story?
The Life and Soul is a 30-minute one-man play telling Jim’s perspective of the story. Red Ladder often toured it with a Q&A after the performance and one of the things which came up was that people were interested in some of the experiences of others in response to Jim’s darker moments. The Life and Soul deals with themes such as male depression from the perspective of the person experiencing it. The Parting Glass adds in another perspective – that of a loved one – in considering how these issues can have a ripple effect.
The Life and Soul has resonated with audiences. What reactions have you had?
I have received numerous emails and messages from people who have seen the play and, unfortunately, have had direct experience of the subject matter. A common thread seems to be that the suffering of young men isn’t always depicted accurately, so it has been hugely rewarding to reflect that and show people they are not alone. Very sadly one of my close friends lost his brother to suicide two years ago. His family have come twice now to a performance of The Life and Soul and it makes me very aware of the responsibility to treat this issue honestly and accurately. The reason I wrote this play was to raise awareness and reflect these experiences authentically.
How important is it that The Parting Glass opens up conversation around mental health, particularly men’s mental health?
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics has just under 6,000 suicides a year in the UK, which means we are still doing something wrong with regards to mental health, for both men and women. Of those suicides, males make up around 75% so there is still obviously something wrong. There has been a lot of research to show that the reasons for this include men’s inability to deal with negative emotions, their lack of openness and their viewing suffering as a sign of weakness. I’m hoping this play can help provoke some people to think a bit differently about these issues.
How has your own experience fed into creating The Parting Glass?
After suffering from a head injury, I experienced quite severe anxiety and OCD. I often used to fantasise about not being here as I couldn’t see a way through it. It is important to note that at no point did I consider suicide, it hadn’t got that bad for me, but instead I used to hope that I wouldn’t wake up or a bus would hit me and it would just stop. Eventually through therapy, opening up to friends and getting into meditation it all changed for me. This first-hand experience of knowing what it is like to not believe you will ever get better, even though I still had hope, has massively fed into this piece and I hope its authenticity resonates with others.
The Parting Glass is designed to tour into non-theatre spaces. What does taking the performance out of a traditional theatre setting and into community spaces achieve?
It gives people who might not go to a theatre a chance to experience it in a local venue. Quite a few people who have taken a punt on The Life and Soul said they wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t in their local pub or community centre and that they were thankful they had seen it, which is often the best praise you can hear.
How does The Parting Glass reflect Red Ladder’s values as a theatre company?
Red Ladder was the first company to produce my work and give me a chance as a writer and I am eternally grateful for that opportunity. I feel there is a lot of lip service paid to going out and bringing theatre to communities who don’t normally interact with it, but Red Ladder actually lives and breathes that. They have been doing this for years and have a loyal core of supporters in communities all over Yorkshire and the North. The nature of this play, its setting and my own personal history perfectly match with Red Ladder’s values and aims.
The Parting Glass will tour in Leeds, Wakefield and Barnsley this September and October to community venues on the Red Ladder Local circuit. It will then tour nationally in spring 2020. Click here for more information and to book.
The Parting Glass has been developed with funding from Leeds City Council, through Leeds Community Foundation.
Photos: Playwright Chris O’Connor and cast Tom Swift and Alyce Liburd. Photo credit: Anthony Robling.