| By Marcus Armstrong
Ruth Hayes is an actor for stage and screen, as well as a regular voice actor on The Script Department podcast. But, in 2015, after a moment of existential crisis, Ruth made a decision that would create a wonderful and surprising tangent in her career.
Ruth had just dropped off her son at school, and found herself wondering about the direction of her career when a visit to the local radio station created a serendipitous opportunity:
“I just popped in and I said to him, the station manager, is there anything I can do? Like, answer phones or help in production. I just wanted to do something and get back into production. He knew me locally from being an actor, and said I think you'd be wasted answering the phones, would you be interested in presenting a show? And I thought I cant do live radio, so he asked if I’d ever written before and would I be interested in radio drama? So he gave me a blank page.“
It was at this point that Ruth's tangent into radio began. As many writers can attest, the pure white of a blank page can be a daunting starting point, so Ruth turned to some pages full of memory:
“I remember loving this diary that my Grand Uncle kept – during world war one. It’s a story that has developed within our own family over the last few years and our journey back to retrace his steps.”
Diary in hand, Ruth began researching the man who penned it over a hundred years ago. Men who fought in the first world war for Ireland were for years, not spoken about, and it’s only through the resurfacing of this diary that this began to change.
But the act of adapting something real to a story medium always has its difficulties. The safer option was to create a documentary around the diary and to explore the deeds of the man through the lens of fact alone. But, never one to shrink from an honest challenge, Ruth made a different call.
“One of the first things I thought about really was, I decided to change his name. What I didn’t want to do is to create a documentary, so instead, it was a drama based on his diary, and I used real diary entries. But, because I needed that kind of artistic license to dramatise it, I didn’t want to do him a disservice by adding all this drama that didn’t really happen.”
Making the seemingly small choice to change the name of her protagonist, Ruth managed to put some distance between reality and drama, freeing her up to create the story she wanted to tell, based on and utilising her Grand Uncle's diary. And as the process went on, so the story evolved:
“… to take the diary, and to do, kind of another story around that, a mother and daughter trying to mend their own relationship. And I ran the two stories parallel.”
Ruth then skilfully brings the narrative back in line with reality, by paying homage to the real man behind the words. The final moments of the drama see Ruth, her father and daughter speak the name Jeremiah O’ Shaughnessy at the Menin Gate in Ypres, where his name is present.
Today, five years after the creation of this story, Ruth sees no difference between the Drama and the reality:
“Oh, it’s the same story. I didn’t go off on a complete tangent or anything. No, I stayed very close to his diary and followed his real-life journey. I kind of drew on one page of the diary, where he said he was home in Cork for three weeks, but I made a whole episode about what it might have been like when he came home, using history and a little bit of license.”
From there, Ruth had the bug. The Diary was broadcast in 2015 and started Ruth on her new trajectory.
"But I kind of had seen that glimmer of life and I thought, I like to challenge things"
In 2017 and 2018 Ruth directed and produced two new Dramas – Witchhunt and The Rising Sisters. Both followed The Diary onto the airwaves of Cry 104 FM.
Later that year, however, Ruth released a new Radio Project – In our Faith. A departure in genre for Ruth, this was to be her first documentary.
“I’ve always been interested in documentary and I saw it as just another way of telling stories. As an actor, I tell stories, as a writer I tell stories, as a documentary-maker, I tell stories. It’s just another medium to tell a story.”
And though the medium had shifted, Ruth’s personal focus still remains as she turns her storyteller's eye towards her own community.
“I like a challenging narrative, and I think we’re moving into this quite hyperbolic society where we only listen to one opinion or only listen to the narrative that’s been fed to us by the media. And I love seeing the nuances in life – it’s not exactly how things are portrayed. And this is something I noticed in my community, knowing a few young people where something like faith is very important to them.”
Ruth decided to explore the role of faith in her own community; how has it changed, how is it the same, what does it mean? It is a heavy subject to begin in your documentary career, but Ruth handled it with characteristic grace.
“It’s quite counter-cultural now, and probably that’s true that most young people wouldn’t be interested in any type of faith. But I kind of had seen that glimmer of life and I thought, I like to challenge things, and not be confrontational, but it’s more of a window or a spotlight onto this part of the community that do have faith. And I wanted to document that and give them a bit of a voice.”
This considerate approach allowed Ruth to gain access to people and places that might be closed to others. Indeed, she had a great many members of the community reach out once the project was released to tell her what an impact it had made on them.
As is should be clear by now, Ruth is drawn to explore her world, community, history and life in what she creates. This could be seen as indulgent, but that is not a word that could ever be applied to Ruth’s work, and no more is that shown than in her most recent release: OC and Me.
“I work in a voluntary organisation called OvaCare, which is a charity that myself and my sister, June, helped to set up back in 2011 because my sister had ovarian cancer. We realised there was so little awareness about ovarian cancer out there, so we developed this patient-led and patient-focused charity. We’re still at it, and we’re all voluntary, but we’re a community of women just supporting each other.”
Ruth first set about to write this story as a drama for stage, creating and showcasing a 25-minute production called Whispers, but felt, in her words, that it "never quite took off”.
“I think, with the show, it wasn’t that I felt I was doing a disservice to women, but that this wasn’t the right voice for them. It wasn’t the right genre. I kept getting stuck!”
It was following In Our Faith that Ruth realised she might have found the right voice. Unlike breast cancer, ovarian cancer is little known, and Ruth was acutely aware of this as she set off on the development road.
“Probably coming from acting as well, I just really want to get at the humanity that the person behind an issue or a topic. So that’s why I did want to keep it more person-centric. But because I’m coming from an awareness background as well, I knew that this would be a great opportunity to make woman aware of the symptoms. It is such a silent disease, awareness is crucial to treatment and prevention.”
There is no doubt about it that Ruth set herself quite a challenge when attempting to tell personal stories, educating the listener, changing the perception of those with cancer in a way that is scientifically accurate and engaging to the listener. One way she went about this is in her choice of interviewees.
“Because of the work I do with OvaCare, I know scientists who work in the field. Dr Sharon O’ Toole who features in it, she's one of these people that gets that beautiful balance between being a scientist, but she's so great with people. I knew she’d be able to give all of this information that I didn’t want the onus on me to deliver. Pass it onto the people who know. So that’s why I had the involvement of Orla Doolan (Breakthrough Cancer Research) and Sharon O’ Toole Because I knew they'd cover that beautifully and they would do it in such a lovely, tender way as well.”
"It’s not my story, it’s their story, and as much as I can try and walk that journey with them, I can't say yes I know what this is like."
It is here that Ruth is at the height of her powers, using her personal experience to try to help and educate those who are still in the dark about such things. And it is also here that you can see the narrative experience coming into focus, as she skilfully cuts a gentle path through this emotionally charged subject.
It is clear from the way she speaks on the subject that it is very close to her, and her empathy for other people shines through every word she says. Indeed, those featured in the documentary are known to Ruth through her work with OvaCare, something she considers to be of crucial importance.
“There was a trust there, they knew there’s no agenda there other than to give voice and to share information."
But she acknowledges, that while she can talk and sympathise with those going through this, she is not one of them.
“I just wanted to make sure that they did most of the talking. It’s not my story, it’s their story, and as much as I can try and walk that journey with them, I can't say yes I know what this is like, I haven’t a clue. So I really wanted it to be sincere and come from them.”
And it is in this sincerity where this documentary triumphs. Ruth is true to her word and acts very much as a catalyst for the story, never stealing focus from those who bravely stepped forward to talk honestly about their experiences.
The final interview in the piece is from the other side, from one who is left behind; Lorcan Lawler.
“It just so happened that I met Lorcan at a different event, and his wife had only passed away a months previous. And I didn’t want to take advantage of his openness, but he seemed to really want to talk about his wife a lot, and I said, you speak so beautifully of her and I think it would be so lovely to hear your voice, and how it has impacted on you, and you can tell her story.”
Their conversation was five minutes long in total, the segment included as the conclusion of the documentary, wonderfully rounding off an expertly balanced look at the silent disease.
The future is bright for Ruth as she moves through this new career pathway. Currently in pre-production is a docu-drama, greenlit by the Broadcasting Authority. Ruth will journey once again into the 1700s and explore the story of Irish educator Nano Nagle. Nagle, named Ireland’s Greatest Woman by the Irish Times in 2005, seems a worthy topic for Ruth. And as with her previous projects, Ruth is characteristically captivated:
“She broke convention as a woman to educate the young boys and girls in Cork. A lot of Catholic boys and girls weren’t allowed an education at the time… and she made these mud huts and went in the dark of night to go to families and try to give these kids a chance, and give them an education. Her legacy lives on today around the world. She established the Presentation Order of Sisters and fought for social justice. There is The Migrant Centre in Cork and The Lantern Project; that is her legacy.”
Her legacy is impressive, with the Presentation Order reaching out to local communities in need, just as Nagle did all those years ago.
In talking to Ruth and listening to her work, one word comes up more than any others: personal. It is a bit of a cliché to say that a writer should write what they know, but Ruth proves that there is truth in it and that the best stories, regardless of genre, come from a gentle grip on truth and the vision to see beyond.
OC and Me is available to listen on all major podcasting platforms as part of The Other Story with Ruth Hayes series.
You can also listen to her performances on The Script Department Podcast in stories like Still Life, I’m Alright and The Parish, to name a few.
OvaCare is the ovarian cancer charity. If you would like to find out more their work and the disease itself, please visit www.ovacare.ie.