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Waking Hours - Neil Watkins, actor, playwright, singer


Neil Watkins

Neil Watkins

Neil Watkins

Neil Watkins, 37, works in The Fumbally. He is also an actor, playwright and singer. He trained as an actor in Drama Centre London and soon he will play the part of Jesus. From Artane, he lives in the Blackpitts, Dublin 8.

I live right beside The Fumbally, which is in the Blackpitts. This is Dublin 8. Basically, it's the Manhattan of Ireland. Today, the alarm went off at 6.30am, but I turned it off. I was tired because it took me a while to get to sleep last night. I try to do Bikram yoga every day. This is not because I'm very organised - I do it because my life was in a very bad way. I lived with chronic pain and that can lead to depression. For 10 years, I've had headaches. I tried everything - including a mouthguard, which I spat out - but with Bikram, the headaches are nearly gone. It balances me out and, even better, it makes me feel good. At this stage, I think I'm addicted to it.

Then I go to work in The Fumbally. I usually do the shift from noon to 4pm. I've worked here pretty much since the beginning, two years ago. I came across this restaurant quite by accident. I had just come back from touring my one-man show, which I had also written - The Year of Magical Wanking. I performed it in four major cities in Australia, and got glowing reviews. I enjoyed the glamour of opening nights. Everyone was saying, 'Oh, you're going to come back to a hero's welcome. And everyone is so excited about what you're doing'. Then, when I came home, it was very anti-climactic.

Here I was, this actor, writer and singer, and after all the excitement in Sydney, I felt pretty empty. I wanted to go home to Artane, to be mollycoddled by my parents, but instead I got an apartment in Dublin 8. Then I started going out. One morning, I was lying in the bath, a bit demented after a weekend at the Body&Soul festival. Then I put on my best clothes and went for a stroll down this lane and found this place. I thought it was unbelievable. It suddenly felt like I wasn't in Dublin.

I was heavily involved in the Fringe scene and I also knew everyone in the gay scene, so I felt like I knew Dublin. Here, I saw people I didn't know and I thought, 'who the hell has done this?' I was jealous, but not in a dark way, just a really nosy way. I was impressed by the sense of style and the confidence of it all. I loved all the light and the daringness of the location. It reminded me of Melbourne and it was just very, very cool. A few weeks later, I was introduced to Aisling Rogerson and Luca D'Alfonso, who run The Fumbally; I may as well have met Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was star-struck. We chatted and they asked if I wanted to do a show there, but I said that I wanted a job. I needed something to keep my brain busy. So that's how I started.

There's something very special about the place. This is 'be yourself' land. This is, 'are you passionate and do you want to love yourself? Well, that's OK'. When it's really busy here, I'm the maitre d', so I'll meet and greet people. It's all sincere and supportive, and the ethos of the place is that we don't open in the evenings or on Sundays, so everyone is allowed to have their life outside of it. Then, when we come into work, we are present and interested in being nice to people. We work hard, but we enjoy it.

After I'm finished a busy shift on a Saturday, there might be a party on but I'll say, 'I can't see another person'. Or, 'if I hug another person, I'll scream'. Yes, a lot of trendy-looking people come in here, but I don't like the word 'hipster' to describe it, because that prevents anyone who doesn't like hipsters from coming here. And besides, I have a different image of hipsters. I love the food here and the chefs are encouraged to create their own dishes each week.

If I worked anywhere else, I know that people would say, 'Who does that guy think he is, with his acting and his writing?' But it's different in The Fumbally. A lot of creative people work here. One guy is a drummer, another guy is a concert pianist and there are a lot of singers too. We're also great pals. During the summer, we closed for a week and many of us went away together. While there is leadership and structure, there is no 'them and us'. Even though, in my job, I may have to serve - and I am often serving other actors - this is very healthy. It helps me get over myself.

Also, working here has helped me open up to different kinds of music, and now I'm even in a band called Buffalo Woman. Before The Fumbally, all I knew was Madonna, but the lads here have tried to condition me against her - kind of a 12-step programme to get her out of my system. I don't care how much of a hippie I've become, if I ever meet her, I'll throw my arms around her and cry like a baby. I still think she's brilliant.

On my days off, I'm usually rehearsing or performing. At the moment, I'm rehearsing for a devised piece which will be on at the Project. It's called 4 Scenes from the Life of Jesus: In Development, as the work is still in development. It's about Jesus in the desert and his encounter with Lucifer. I play Jesus. I've had my beard for quite a while, but with this role, I've just gone for it. The beard gets a lot of attention and I'm quite jealous of it now. It's like having a dog on your face. They all want to rub the dog and ignore you. It's all about the beard. Now that everyone touches it, I've started looking after it and I even shampoo it.

When I have a show, I try not to do anything too energetic that day. But I do Bikram beforehand because it's a good exercise warm-up. Then it's quiet time, a bit of meditation and a bit of prayer. After that I burn some sage on the stage. I know, I sound like Shirley MacLaine. Then, once I go out on stage, I love it. Once you know what you're doing, it's fun.

Sometimes after a show, I'll end up going out drinking. But ideally, the healthiest thing for me to do is to go home, have a cup of camomile tea and meditate; otherwise, it's carnage.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

'4 Scenes From The Life of Jesus: In Development', October 11, 6pm, Project Arts Centre, 39 East Essex St, Temple Bar, D2

Sunday Independent