7th August 2015 We had a great evening in Pittenweem. A full house enjoyed the show very much and we had a lovely time browsing just some of the many galleries/exhibitions around the town. A big thank you to the organisers and to Ruth Warmer, who was instrumental in getting "Music for Dogs" to the Festival.
The Pittenweem Arts Festival and East Neuk as featured in the Guardian where we are performing on Monday 3rd August 2015.
After Annie and I had decided to work on a project, I started looking around for something with a cast of one and that could be easily staged. It wasn’t long before I found a copy of “Music for Dogs”, a trilogy of radio plays by Paula Meehan, that I’d bought some time before but hadn’t got around to reading yet. (Paula – who is currently Ireland Professor of Poetry – had, with fellow poets Theo Dorgan and Tony Curtis, given readings and workshops over the years at the summer school in my brother Dave’s Schoolhouse in Allihies, West Cork, to American university students. She and Theo had most generously helped look after things when Dave was suddenly taken ill in June 2007, shortly before his death.)
Once I read “Janey Mack is Going to Die”, the first play in the trilogy which we’ve re-named “Music for Dogs”, I was hooked. It was about a woman on a beach with a dog – which resonated really strongly with Annie who, with her dog Toby, lived by the sea in Greystones, Co. Wicklow – and with my own childhood memories of Burrow Beach and other beaches like it. It showed us someone dealing with personal tragedy and terminal illness with amazing courage – something I’d witnessed in my own family – and it was a beautiful script, by one of my favourite poets and someone with a deep personal link to my brother. It seemed like (and proved to be) a serendipitous choice.
I think it was sometime in early 2010 that we started work on it. At that stage, my two sisters, Sheila and Linda, and I were still mourning our brothers Dave and Peter, who had died within six months of each other, but Sheila’s cancer treatment had been successful and we believed that she was out of the woods. I would probably not have chosen the play if I had known her cancer would return, but I can safely say working on it – though the subject matter made this very difficult at times – has been my lifeline and paradoxically the saving of me.
Annie wanted to work on the play in a very organic way, using and refining a process she was developing with a film project she had underway. I wasn’t to read the script at all during this phase, apart from the first reading we did together in Bushy Park, in Terenure, Dublin sitting on a bench and looking at the ducks in the lake. That read-through – which we did to get a sense of how long the show would run – was the only time in the next couple of years that we looked at the script. It sounds very odd, I know, but everything else we did sprang from our own – probably unconscious – responses to that first reading and our respective imaginations.
Because we lived in different countries, a lot of our work was done over Skype. Without wishing to divulge trade secrets, and Annie’s process which is uniquely hers, we explored different stages of Janey’s life – her back story, if you will – in a variety of ways. There were times when I’d be at the computer doing automatic writing and would be asked to go to the piano to make up a song and then come back and recount a dream Janey had experienced. I drew pictures of holidays she’d taken with Julian, wrote diary entries as Janey and dialogues between her and her friends. Much like Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” (!) I have files of writings that I hope to use one day. There were times when it looked like the play would never get off the ground and I would console myself with the thought that those files meant at the very least I had something to show for the whole thing.
This wasn’t a full-time process. We would communicate on a semi-regular basis for a while, and then perhaps be busy for a time with other projects and pursuits. When finances allowed, I would go over to Ireland and we’d work intensively on more of Janey’s character and her story. We’d use Greystones Beach or the real Burrow Beach, go to clothes shops and take the train (with me in character) and once visited Kilmainham Gaol (a very out-of-body experience.)
During this on-off year or two, Sheila’s cancer came back and this time the outlook wasn’t good. I will always be grateful to “Music for Dogs” for allowing me to spend time with her in her last, brave battle, under the guise of work, without making either of us self-conscious about what might be - each visit - our last time together.
Of course, the family situation made the subject matter of the play too close to the bone at times. There were long periods when the whole thing was just too painful to get near, and Annie was very understanding about my need to stay away from it for long periods of time. Eventually, though, we would get back to it and continue our exploration. I desperately wanted to get it on before Sheila died, but it was not to be. We were a long way from that at the time. Sheila’s death in July 2011 was heart-breaking for everyone and the situation became unbelievably more tragic when Linda was diagnosed with terminal cancer just beforehand. It came out of the blue and we had hardly absorbed the news when she, too, died a mere five months after Sheila. (Sheila’s beloved husband, Joe, himself died only a year and half after her. Their incredible daughter has the courage and spirit of them both; Linda’s husband and children honour her every day by carrying on her zest for life and the growing brood of her grandchildren are witness to life’s determination to continue.)
It was a dreadful time, of course, and somewhere in that maze I wondered if I would – or even should –ever get the show up and running. I think there was never any real doubt, though. I had put so much into it already that it would seem like a sinful waste not to take it further. It took a long time, though. For a year or more after Linda and Sheila had died, I took refuge in writing. Annie and I were technically still working on the play, and I was supposed to be fund-raising in order to realise Annie’s vision for the production, but I found myself quite incapable of doing that. My solace was to escape to a fictional world, and I spent bouts of time writing crazily – a TV script, short stories, bad poetry – and trying to deal with a world without my brothers and sisters.
Eventually, Annie and I came to a mutually-agreed decision that we had taken the process as far as we could together and – again, eventually – I felt ready to get the show on. I asked Dave’s wife, Trish, if she would direct it and thankfully she said yes. The only problem? She lived in Paris, so we would be back to long-distance stuff… (Trish is a very talented actor and director, and many moons ago when I, too, lived in Paris - for a year - we had worked together on a number of plays. She has continued the summer school in Allihies since Dave’s death and so has maintained close links with Paula.) This was now very much a family project, which I dedicated in my mind to my lost brothers and sisters.
And so we come to the penultimate stage of the process – rehearsals. Trish’s first instruction to me before a planned week in Paris was: learn the lines. I tried to explain to her that I hadn’t even looked at the script since a first reading some years before, but she was relentless. I had only a few weeks in which to do so, as finding a week which would suit us both was proving difficult, and I felt things were getting off on the wrong footing by her insistence on this. There was also the small matter of whether I would be able to learn them at all, never mind within a short time frame. But that, as they say, can a wait for another day. As usual, I’ve meandered on for far too long. As Jim would say, I’ll get back to you
Here we are on the conference website. It will be a real honour to be part of this.
I’m often asked how I came to do the show and the truth is, it’s a very complicated and somewhat roundabout story which I’ll try to explain in a moment. I’m sure, when I first dragged my friends here in Shropshire along to see it (first of all in my kitchen for a dry run before the “world premiere” in Allihies, West Cork – another long story – and then to the Wightman Hall in Shrewsbury) many of them had not known about my acting past. They had /have known me as Owen and Joanna’s mum, Brian’s wife, sometime teacher and more lately, an aspiring writer. The truth is, I am all those things, but I was also, in the eighties in Dublin, a working – or, more often, a resting – actor, secure in my identity as such if not in the amount of work I got. For a variety of reasons, I came to live in Shrewsbury once I’d met my present husband, Brian and, again for complicated reasons, I left actor Carol behind me and embraced my new life as wife and mother willingly. It was desperately difficult to quash the “yen” inside me, but life intervened, as it does, and I made some sort of accommodation with that decision. (Mostly, it was because of fear and insecurity; I knew no-one in Shrewsbury – much less anyone “in the business” – and had always relied on contacts already made over time or through my brother Peter, who was a well-known actor in Ireland and the UK at the time, to get things going. Doing it myself, initiating anything, seemed beyond possibility.)
I’ve performed this play by Irish poet and playwright Paula Meehan nine times now (sporadically, over the course of a year) and the idea for it was born about five years ago, so I can safely say it’s been a long time in coming. We’re off to Edinburgh with it in August for a two-week run (web link) – preceeded by an appearance at the Pittenweem Arts Festival on 3rd August (web link)
Fast-forward twenty-odd years to September 2009 (I know, it seems crazy, but life really does go by that quickly) and I’m organising a benefit concert for the Irish Hospice Foundation in memory of my brother Peter, who had died in January 2008, six months after my brother David. It’s on in the Sugar Club in Dublin, and with the help of my good friend Celia Willoughby and sister Sheila (whose cancer is, unknown to us, about to return in a few months) we’ve got a fantastic line-up of actors and musicians, all of whom had worked with and loved the brother. Honor Heffernan and her fantastic jazz trio, Stephen Brennan wearing his musician’s hat,not his actor’s one , the wonderful Zrazy, Barry Devlin (of Horslips, for God’s sake) singing a capella, Eamonn Hunt (off the tele and and old acting colleague of mine) Alan Stanford (who was a magnificent MC) the fantastic story-teller Brendan Nolan, Paul Bennett – who’d acted with Peter since the early days, ditto Garret Keogh and Susan Slott – and Catherine Donnelly, who wrote the wonderful Barry’s Tea radio commercial that my Irish friends will know and love, that Peter did the voiceover for, and the one and only Anita Reeves, fresh from her award-winning show at the Edinburgh Fringe and – well, if I’ve forgotten anyone please forgive me. There were also lovely tributes to Peter in the programme from Gabriel Byrne, Jim Sheridan and Brendan Gleason, who had worked with him over the years. (Peter had suffered a devastating stroke in 2000 which left him partly paralysed and with severe aphasia, but it was the return of his cancer that caused his death.)
Sheila and I at a photo shoot in St Stephen’s Green to promote the memorial gig in the Sugar Club. That’s Pete in the photo frame we’re holding. It was a fantastic night (we raised about 5,000 euro for the Hospice Foundation) and it brought back in a bitter-sweet rush all I’d been missing in the intervening years. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great family whom I love dearly, but this was a part of me that existed before them, and I’d missed it. I’d never lived on the exalted plane that these people did, but I’d been loosely connected to that world and that evening re-kindled something in me. Somewhere on the bill were The Bawdy Beautifuls, aka me and Annie Kilmartin, whom I’d first worked with when she was Artistic Director of Moving Theatre and who had offered me one of my first Equity contracts. (I was working as an extra at the time in the Gate’s production of Amadeus. Peter was in the cast (Alan was Salieri) as was Gerry Walsh, who had worked with Moving Theatre in the past. Gerry told me they were auditioning for someone who could play the piano as well as act. Who knew all that scales practice would lead to where it did?) Annie and I had enjoyed something of a moment on the comedy scene back in the eighties and though we’d both moved on and out of the business since, we’d stayed in touch. That night in the Sugar Club we had such great craic doing some of our old sketches that we resolved to work on something together again.
And so, I come, by roundabout fashion – much as my character does to her tale in Music for Dogs – to, well, Music for Dogs and how it all started. Why that script and how has the production evolved? Truth to tell, this piece is already so long that I should probably leave it till the next post to answer. Thanks for listening. As Jim Rockford would say, I’ll get back to you.