Love of theatre saved my life


The true story of a woman who treated her depression by going to the theatre and then creating her own show, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

IT’S STILL quite uncommon for people to speak openly about how they dealt with depression but it’s almost always helpful to others when they do.

So, when retired school teacher Marie O’Rourke gets on stage and explains how going to the theatre brought her out of her depression, it’s an extraordinary uplifting experience to witness.

In the show, 565+ Theatre Saved my Life directed by documentary theatre director/producer, Una McKevitt, O’Rourke tells the story about how she sank into a deep depression following the death of her husband who had suffered from alcoholism for years.

She tried all the usual treatment options – individual therapy, group therapy, three different forms of meditation – to no avail. But when her doctor suggested she should take up a new interest, she decided to go to the theatre.

“It all started with Jane Eyre at the Gate Theatre in 2003. When the show was over the person who left the show was a different person. I was transformed by the experience and my love affair with theatre had begun,” she says.

Over the next few years, O’Rourke saw more than 565 shows and kept all the theatre programmes and personal notes she took after each show.

In the biographical performance, O’Rourke describes the theatre programmes that are strewn across the stage as the “footprints of my recovery”.

“Going to the theatre got me away from my worries. I often went to 20 shows a month and I travelled all over Ireland to get to a show. A month without plays and I’d go back down,” she says.

“You can go to the theatre alone,” she tells the audience. “I love going to the theatre alone – sitting there in the darkness, seeing lots of my problems resolved on the stage. It was in the theatre that I learned to sit with my fear and possess it rather than it possessing me.”

Never did O’Rourke think that her experience would later be turned into a show itself and now one year after the first performance of the material at the Dublin Theatre Festival, she is still – modestly – in shock.

The fact that theatre director Una McKevitt is her first cousin gives a more personal feel to the whole thing.

“It started with a 20-minute performance for the Dublin Theatre Festival. But, it changes. Sometimes, it’s 20 minutes, 35 minutes or 45 minutes. Sometimes, I play the piano and dance.”

In the performance, O’Rourke speaks with unflinching honesty about living with an alcoholic and the effect it had on her now grown-up children.

“My husband had a serious drinking problem and he was sent to rehab when he was 50. It was the first time we were open to family therapy.

“At that time, we separated and a few years later he died. I was very confused afterwards. I felt so guilty, so powerless. I loved my husband.

“After he died, I felt trapped in my house for a long time. I spent a lot of time on the stairs. Upstairs was the bedroom and depression and downstairs was my dysfunctional life.

“I didn’t say to anyone, ‘I’m in a bad place and I don’t know what to do’,” she says.

Watching her on stage and speaking to her afterwards, you wouldn’t think this was the same person she describes. And, in fact, it isn’t.

Going through depression and getting beyond it is indeed a transformative experience and O’Rourke personifies that experience.

So, what’s it actually like to be on stage? “Being in the show itself is like doing a job,” she says, matter of factly. “The theatre staff and the technicians all make you feel you are in a nice little world of its own.

“But sometimes, it is exhausting, sometimes, it’s annihilating, sometimes it’s liberating. Some nights are better than others. I do have self-doubts and wonder if it is self-indulgent. It’s easier when there are others on stage with you.”

O’Rourke says that at some point, she would like to see her own story performed by someone else.

Her daughter, Helen Long, was at the show we attended. So, how does it feel to see her mother tell her story on stage?

“It was my second time to see the show. It was tough the first time because it was more serious than I expected it to be. I’m sensitive to the material and I feel an irrational loyalty to my dad,” she says.

“I’ve always said that she was born to be on the stage. She was a primary school teacher all her life and she was performing in the classroom every day. The show has definitely made her more confident,” she adds.

As a producer, McKevitt says that she is drawn to people’s personal truths. “I’m focused on the performer and the story. Not having a script is fundamental to my work because people are forced to go into themselves to reach things,” she says.

“I believe over 90 per cent of people want to be on stage,” she adds, with a grin.

565+ Theatre Saved My Life is on the George Bernard Shaw Theatre, Old Dublin Road, Carlow, on Saturday at 8pm. Booking on 059-9172400 or at