Most actors have at least one non-acting job. Something that can be relied upon to put food on the table and pay the rent during the lean times. The clichéd part-time position for the between-jobs actor is, of course, being a waiter. But actors fill all sorts of temporary (and not-so temporary) posts while waiting for the call to come from their agent: call centre staff, substitute teacher, costumed vigilante, there are very few jobs that actors haven't done. Nursing though, isn’t one of the jobs that you might think of as a thing to do while waiting for the next role sort of job. So, is Aoife Martyn a nurse who acts or an actor who nurses? Ryan Tubridy took her back to the night before her CAO form was due to be submitted, when she had Art as her first choice:
"All the way through secondary school I had gone down a more artistic route, much to my parents’ delight. And everyone said, you’ll be a nurse like your mam, and I would say, no. But then, by the time it came to it, literally the night before, I swapped everything around and put Nursing first."
Why nursing? As Ryan put it, the job is "very intense, very poorly paid and very crazy hours". And Aoife’s answer isn’t one that gives a satisfactory explanation, at first, anyway:
"I think a lot of nurses would agree that, after a very stressful shift, or a really hard, tough experience, you kind of think, 'I don’t know if I’m able for this.’ But then there might be one little tiny experience that would have been a lovely exchange with a patient or family or relative and that kind of, I suppose, destroys all the other bad feelings that you might have had about it."
Once Aoife had qualified as a nurse and working in Galway, she started doing part-time acting classes, before applying to the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. But she "ended up" as Ryan put it, as a general nurse in the Emergency Department, an experience Aoife has described as scary:
"A lot of the times when it was staff shortages, you felt a little bit out of your depth. And you’re trying to hold it together for somebody on a trolley or a family member looking at you going, you know. So, that was scary for me."
And that was before the pandemic. Aoife was nursing during the first lockdown in 2020 and she found that, she told Ryan, testing. She described the run up to Covid patients arriving into hospitals in big numbers as being like the calm before the storm:
"Everyone prepared for the worst and it was literally, load of staff and – I did nights, mostly – so, we were all just, there was no, no patients were coming in because people were told to stay away. And then, it came like a tornado and it was non-stop and I suppose the moment when I was, like, donning the PPE gear for the whatever time that night, and just going into the Covid section sweating and maybe not having had a break, or yeah, to be honest, it was those kind of nights where you were just completely drowning in, you know, that. Where you kind of thought, ‘I actually don’t know if I can, I don’t know if I’m able to look after all these people at the same time.’"
Testing, indeed. It was during the pandemic that Aoife got a call from the Abbey Theatre asking her to write a piece for their online show, Dear Ireland, which was performed by Norma Sheehan. Aoife’s script was stark and darkly funny. And that brought the conversation to her own one-woman stage show, Nursey. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a young nurse from Mayo, but Aoife plays 14 characters in an action-packed 65 minutes.
"That’s what it’s about really. It’s a heightened reality, the characters are large and colourful and definitely based on true events – pulled apart a little bit for dramatic effect."
It’s set in the 1970s because Aoife wanted it to be a show about a nurse and nursing, not a show about a pandemic. The timing also allowed her to eschew technology (much to Ryan’s delight) and concentrate on the drama. Sounds like a fascinating – and nicely succinct – evening's entertainment.
You can hear Ryan’s full chat with Aoife Martyn by going here.
Nursey, written and performed by Aoife Martyn will premiere at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, before touring to other venues. Full details here.