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Meet the multitalented artist drawing inspiration from the city’s soul

Joe O'Byrne, the multifaceted artist from Greater Manchester, shares insights into his accidental journey into writing, the challenges faced, and the inspiration drawn from the city's soul.
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Joe O'Byrne

Joe O’Byrne is a freelance writer, director, actor and teacher and Greater Manchester features so prominently in his work, it almost feels like another character.

Two of his plays are headed to two theatres in the area, so we caught up with him to find out how he got started, what influences him and a bit more about The Bench: A Tale from Paradise Heights and The Haunting of Blaine Manor.

How did you get started as a writer?

By accident really. I was a student at Salford University. I went to university to act, and just that.

In my first year, I got to know the best actors in my courses and the kind of roles they were good at, along with my own.

I started writing scenes for us to film for showreels, I didn’t think the scenes were that special but I started getting a lot of good feedback on the writing. Tutors then persuaded me to do much more writing.

One of the courses I was doing was twentieth-century theatre acting, the module would finish with you being marked on a 10-minute well-known monologue.

I asked the tutor if I could write a piece and perform that. He told me to write it over the weekend and bring it in for him to look at.

I went home and started work on a piece about a ruthless loan shark, it had to be 10 minutes. 

I’d been trying to write a book at the time and the loan shark was in that, there was a paragraph of his dialogue and I thought that was a good place to start.

So I sat down and started writing…and I couldn’t stop.

This character was coming to life as I was writing, almost tearing his way off the paper. I ended up writing a full one-act play, the first I’d ever written, in one night – tinkering a little with it over the time I had left before handing it in. I very reluctantly handed it in on a Monday.

My tutor was a seasoned ex-actor, who had worked with some of the best in the business and had read just about everything.

I was terrified he tore it to pieces and wondered what was going on inside my head.

As it turned out he didn’t believe I’d written it in the time I had, he said it was one of the best pieces he had ever read, a brilliant character study and would work fabulously on stage.

And he was right.

The play became I’m Frank Morgan, the first play I’d written in the series, Tales from Paradise Heights. I wish I could write them all that fast!

What quick tips would you give someone who wants to get into writing?

I’d say write a monologue, or series of monologues first – as long or as short as you want them to be.

Different characters but each an interesting piece on its own, put yourself in the shoes of those characters and write as them.

Try to get actors to perform them for you at spoken word events and suchlike.

Ask for genuine feedback and be prepared to take some honest, structural criticism – be prepared to change things around. If the feedback is good that’s great – the next step would be to try to put two or more of those characters together for a first attempt at a play – you know the characters so it’s a good starting point.

What has been the most challenging piece you have written and why?

A piece entitled Milton Walk. I just wanted to write a TV series, a short 4 x 1-hour episode series.

I wanted to set it in a place that would be a mix of BallyKissAngel meets Twin Peaks, a beautiful Irish village.

A priest of the parish with a secret (not the kind of secret we are all familiar with), a village with something terrible going on behind the charming facade, a series of horrific murders and something of a ghost story.

Writing anything that touched on the horrors that were going on within the Catholic church was the challenge and keeping it grounded, not exploitative – believable, but also with a strong supernatural tone, a feeling of encroaching doom.

I got on a real roll with it and it came out in one draft.

I sent the first episode to a very famous writer and he loved it.

Asked to read the rest. He couldn’t stop reading it and he asked me if I’d mind if he commissioned it as a TV series to make through his production company.

Of course, I didn’t mind and I was excited he wanted to do it, particularly a writer of his standing.

Soon the late, and great, Pete Postlethwaite was attached as lead and other well-known actors were being approached.

However, a new head of ITV was installed there and the plug was pulled as at that time it was felt ‘ghost stories don’t work on TV’…of course, we’ve had loads since.

The script is still sitting there, it’s a cracker. One day…

Incidentally, Tales from Paradise Heights is a TV series waiting to happen.

How does Greater Manchester inspire you when you write?

Oh, Greater Manchester inspires me and is the inspiration for Tales from Paradise Heights.

The fictional community I’ve created is based on places I have lived, and still live in. They are the poorer areas of Greater Manchester, the real soul of any town or city I feel. But I’m biased, I grew up in a poor community, and I still live in one but the buildings and the characters I meet daily inspire me.

I’ve said this before but for me, Paradise Heights is an area of dark towers, monolithic blocks, over a council estate at their base.

These blocks are like dark giants casting long shadows over the houses, their ‘children’ at their feet. I base my Tales in a place like this, but with a supernatural edge, a creeping darkness – a land of urban myths, and terrifying fairy tales.

But at the same time a place where angels walk among the gangsters, dealers and sharks, and where between the crumbling walls and stripped-out shells these people call home you will find heart, so much humour, soul and humanity.

It’s an urban supernatural gothic, but it’s also the life that teems within, the joys, the strife, the struggles, the terrors. I grew up in communities like this where I let my imagination run riot as a child. Fertile ground for any writer.

You have productions coming to Bury and Stockport. Very different pieces. Can you summarise what each one offers audiences?

Well, there’s The Bench: A Tale from Paradise Heights that’s coming to the very lively and wonderful The Met in Bury on the 30th of May.

It was the next play that I wrote after I’m Frank Morgan, and Frank is also in this. It’s the play that gets us cheered off the stage everywhere we go, audiences left with either tear in their eyes or big grins on their faces, all applauding, all cheering – I mean we’ve never had a bad night with this.

It just gives you the complete theatrical experience – what more do you want from a night at the theatre? It’s a slice-of-life comedy-drama built from urban grit and painted with a little of the strange and supernatural.

The play will move you to laughter, horror and tears. I can promise you it will have you gripped from start to finish.

It’s 12 months, 12 scenes, 1 park bench, 1 war memorial, 1 bin – and oh yes, 16 characters played by 6 incredibly talented actors.

It’s more of a mathematical equation than a synopsis right? But it adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. It is – as so many audience members have said down the years – just magic! And it’s naughty – so bring yer gran!

Then there’s The Haunting of Blaine Manor at The Plaza, Stockport on the 26th of April.

What a theatre, a stunning Art Deco palace of a theatre, a time capsule and throwback to a more glamorous age, with the kind of architecture that makes it a bit…spooky. What better place to bring a ghost story?

I wrote this as a challenge to see if I could write something for the stage that was far removed from Tales from Paradise Heights.

A period piece, set in the fifties in a haunted manor. Well critics and audiences just love it, it’s award-winning and is commonly referred to as the new The Woman in Black.

We’ve taken the play from fringe pub theatres to some of the most beautiful and characterful theatres in the UK, like Blackpool Grand, Swansea Grand, Whitby Pavilion, Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Scarborough Spa and to large audiences with as many as 830 people seeing the show in one performance at Buxton Opera House, some people have seen the show as many as five times.

With an intriguing plot paying homage to Hammer Horror Films and M R James, England’s greatest ghost story writer, and loaded with all the glamour and patter of those MGM thrillers, but possessed by a terrifying haunting presence that will have you gripped right to the very end. This critically acclaimed chiller/thriller has a voice and style all its own. It’s an unforgettable haunting evening you will not want to miss! Don’t take my word for it, check the reviews.

What do you love about Manchester and if you could, what would you change?

What do I love? With the thriving cultural scene, you can’t beat a good Manc night out, then there’s the Village – quite a historical landmark now as much as a great night out.

The Northern Qtr, bursting at the seams with a kaleidoscope of culture and vitality is still one of the most welcoming cities in the world with 2 great (well alright, one!) football teams – but two amazing clubs with such a rich history.

What would I change?

I’d stop the gentrification, stop treating people in poor living accommodations like rats, stop trying to force them out so they can build homes for richer people, and stop treating people who live on the streets like rats. It’s all vile.

The Haunting of Blaine Manor is at the Stockport Plaza on 26th April and can be booked by clicking here

The Bench: a Tale from Paradise Heights at the Bury Met on 30th May and booking opens soon. Find out more by clicking here

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