Photos Pat Shortall
Words: Gerry Cody
What, in the name of all that’s holy, possesses people to go on stage. Stage fright has afflicted some of the biggest stars the acting world has ever known. Laurence Olivier suffered years of debilitating performance anxiety, recalling in his autobiography: “My throat closed up and the audience was beginning to go giddily around.” In 2016, Hugh Grant told the Hollywood Reporter: “I do live in terror of an attack. I used to get three or four [on a film].” Hollywood star Jack Lemmon once observed that, without “heightened apprehension”, an actor “probably won’t give as good a performance as he should”, but that stage fright was something else.
Actors speak of the physical “hurt” and mental anguish the anxiety would induce, with one likening it to “a death experience” and the feeling of “losing consciousness”. They detail symptoms ranging from swollen tongues to fainting, uncontrollable crying, cold sweats, breathing difficulties and palpitations.
I don’t think that people really understand what some actors go through to deliver their performances.
And worse still, is a show where you are the only person on the stage.
A ONE WOMAN SHOW
So it was, when Catherine Shortall Cronin took to the Watergate stage with her one woman show ‘Orphan disease’.
Certainly, if the actor suffered any pre show nerves, it wasn’t evident during her 90 minute performance.
She carried it off with the aplomb and panache usually reserved for an actor with more stage experience.
Over the last ten years or so, a few one person shows have been staged around Ireland that not only worked but are arguably in the top five shows in the canon of Irish theatre. These include ‘The Man in the woman’s shoes’ ( Mikel Murfi) ; Forgotten ( Pat Kinevane) ; Tom Crean-Antartic Explorer ( Aidan Dooley).
Other people will have their own choices, but you get the idea.
Orphan Disease can take its rightful place alongside these aforementioned plays.
This one-woman show opened in Zurich, Switzerland last August with the company Close Encounters Theatre (CET). Cronin has been living in Zurich for over twelve years but Kilkenny and Ireland remain close to her heart and her work. This is certainly evident throughout Orphan Disease.
CANCER DIAGNOSIS FORCES EVALUATION
In December 2018, Cronin was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and, later, the BRCA2 gene mutation. This incident forced her to re-evaluate her life and goals. She immersed herself in writing which emboldened and encouraged her to face her illness with strength and positivity.
During the pandemic, she joined an online writing course with CET and was later approached by the company’s artistic director to write a play about her experience with cancer and the impact the BRCA2 gene had on her family. The journey of Orphan Disease has been a cathartic experience for Cronin and her family. Cronin’s paternal grandmother, Annie Dwan, passed away at a very young age from breast cancer and, likely, carried the BRCA2 gene also. Orphan Disease explores the two very different journeys these women had in two very different time periods, all while walking the line between tragedy and comedy.
I AM MY MOTHER
Interestingly The Playbill on the night contained a poem ‘I am my mother’ by the actors father Pat Shortall. The final verse reads
“But I live for the mother I never knew
She was without choice,
Selected as one, who must not survive
Two thirds of her existence, pilfered,
This is the son,
Bereft of mothering.
Each time a lady, such as his mother
is gifted with motherhood
She, and all others become
Mother’s forever-it is their destiny.
Six years are not forever
Six years are but a sample
Of mother and son moments”
TICKED ALL THE BOXES
The play ticked all the boxes.
Entertaining, sad, funny, audience engagement. Yes to all.
What makes these plays stand out so much ahead of all others? Honesty. Pure and simple. Yes of course, it takes a great actor to carry these shows. But if the words in the script do not have the main ingredient of honesty then you are on a hiding to nothing.
And boy oh boy does this Cronin play have honesty.
Orphan disease sees the author and actor discuss openly her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
It looks at how this diagnosis affects her life, her family and especially her grandmother who also was diagnosed with breast cancer, and who was to die from the disease in 1959 at the age of forty one.
Catherine relates to the audience how, when researching her families medical history, she was able to trace the gene that was handed down from generation to generation.
Cronin leaves no stone unturned as she describes the trials of undergoing cancer treatment including the horrific extent of sickness, sadness and bewilderment.
Strangely enough some of the symptoms described in the introduction to this article about actors come to mind once again. Hurt, anguish, palpitations, sweating, cold sweats. And some.
But if Cronin’s ability to perform the darker side of this piece stood out, so too did her ability to inject snippets of black humour throughout the show. Her movement and timing was perfection personified and she crossed from serious to comedy with natural ease.
Set in an attic and a hospital room, the play sets the audience with a challenge to confront our fears and to find happiness in our everyday lives.
It not only sets out, but proves beyond doubt that when the chips are down family and close friends will get you through.
DESIGN AND COLOUR HIT THE SPOT
A special word of praise should be given to the set designer who transformed a stage into both the attic of a house, and a hospital.
The colours chosen seemed to deliberately throw out a sense of calm onto the audience. There seemed to be nice relaxing colours of blue and green and lilac creating an effect for the audience as if to say that all is ok, you can relax and enjoy the performance. And when change was needed to portray a darkness to the show this was captured by swapping the pastels to more muted colours.
IMPORTANCE OF A TEXT MESSAGE
According to Cronin, it is amazing the strength you get from good friends and family members. The actor also offers one piece of advice to people who are unsure about contacting people who have been diagnosed with a serious disease.
“Make contact, or send a quick text to say you are thinking of them. It will mean the world”
Today, Catherine continues her treatment for cancer but thanks to an excellent medical team and a life enriched by following her passion for writing, the prospects for a longer, healthier life are now much more realistic than back in 2018.
Orphan Disease was written and performed by Catherine Cronin, directed by Tara Brodin, with dramaturg by Emma Kelly. It was dedicated to the author’s grandmother Annie and her close friend Karen.
The author’s parents and family as well as neighbours and friends attended the Watergate performance and the standing ovation at the final curtain was not one bit surprising.