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