‘Culturally, we’re so afraid of emotion. We repress them but they pop up elsewhere and cause havoc’

Life Lessons: Oonagh Murphy, theatre director

Theatre director Oonagh Murphy: ‘I can tend to hold people to very high standards.’

Theatre director Oonagh Murphy: ‘I can tend to hold people to very high standards.’

 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Feel your feelings. Culturally, we’re so afraid of emotion. We repress and pause our emotions, we intellectualise them, and then they pop up elsewhere and cause havoc. One of the most radical things I’ve learned to do is to actually sit with emotions and let myself process them.

And the worst?

I’ve had some pretty awful advice about my career. I was told by a few people that the quantity rather than the quality of work was important as a theatre director. While that advice might work for some people, it definitely made me quite frantic and frustrated for a few years. Now, I try to do less and do better.

Is there a moment that changed your life?

I can’t identify one single moment. Some significant experiences that I think have shaped who I am today are coming out as gay, moving away from Ireland, seeing a therapist and prioritising my mental health, the campaigns for the two recent referendums in Ireland, the sudden death of a friend.

What is the most pain you’ve ever experienced?

I had some pretty bad years of mental health which left me feeling a bit hopeless and exhausted. It led me to finding new ways of relating to myself and seeking support from others. Emotional and physical pain are very connected for me, and often when I’m stressed or otherwise not making space for myself, it’ll manifest in illness or body pain. It’s a pattern I’d like to break. 

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?

I love directors such as Shane Meadows, Sean Baker, and Ava DuVernay for their commitment to chronicling social issues and amplifying marginalised perspectives; bell hooks and Audre Lorde for their articulacy and hope in the face of oppression, and then some key thinkers in psychology, like Susie Orbach, and Bessel van der Kolk, for reinterpreting Jung and Freud and helping me develop how I think about character, choice and action when directing and telling stories.

What practical thing do you do to help your personal development?

I’ve been lucky enough to do decent stints in therapy. I’ve scrimped and sacrificed to be able to afford it, and it feels like an investment in myself. I’m a big advocate for it but understand the barriers people might face to be able to do it, so outside of that I try to keep a daily practice of meditation or something else that gets me out of my head and into my body. 

What location do you return to for a sense of calm and time out? 

I grew up by the sea so periodically get pulled back to it. Walking by the sea, full-body immersion in freezing cold water, or even just listening to sea sounds, is like free therapy to me.

What’s your biggest flaw?

I can tend to hold people to very high standards. I’m working on it, but it means that I can sometimes be disappointed by the smallest misdemeanour.

And your worst habit?

Biting my nails, drinking wine, internet addiction, poor time management. Take your pick.

What personality trait would you anticipate your friends identifying as your most dominant?

Impatience.

How about an unfulfilled goal you don’t tell anyone about?

Starting to save into a pension.

Is there a particular moment in your life where you feel you were treated unfairly?

A letter was sent to my school principal complaining that I shouldn’t continue to play the lead role in our school musical, so I was given a tiny part that year. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get over my indignation at the unfairness.

Is there a gift you tend to purchase repeatedly for different people?

Massages.

What’s the wisest thing you’ve ever heard or read?

The idea that the things that drive you crazy in other people’s behaviour can teach you a lot about yourself. It feels connected to Jung’s idea of our “shadow” – the parts of our self we don’t allow ourselves to express. So if you find yourself having a strong reaction to someone else, it can be helpful to follow a line of inquiry about what they represent and how you might be repressing those qualities in yourself and why.

What are you most proud of in your life?

Radical softness – being a leader who prioritises the welfare of everyone in the room and leads from a place that is about dismantling old systems of oppression.

What’s your life motto?

Ursula Le Guin’s words have been giving me comfort in this moment of global chaos: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” Oh, and I have Audre Lorde’s “Your silence will not protect you” on my bedroom wall.

Oonagh Murphy directs Medea at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, which runs until February 22nd.

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