Theatremaker and Brokentalkers’ founder Feidlim Cannon writes for Culture about their remarkable show Have I No Mouth, currently on tour across Ireland.
A telephone conversation, between my uncle and me.
Uncle: Are you sitting down?
Uncle: Maybe you should sit down.
Me: I don’t won’t to sit down. What’s wrong?
Uncle: Your father’s dead, he died this morning.
That was the first and last time my uncle ever rang me, and the day the seeds were sown for Have I No Mouth.
My Father is dead.
How do I deal with the most dreadful event, that has happened in my life?
Attempt number 1: I’ll write poetry. (Not very good)
Attempt number 2: I’ll make a video art piece. (Worse than the poetry)
Attempt number 3: I’ll get a tattoo (Painful, but I like the metaphor)
Attempt number 4: Consider counselling (Don’t go)
Attempt number 5: Make a piece for Theatre.
A conversation with my mother on Christmas eve.
My Mother: Goodnight.
Me:(slightly inebriated) I was thinking about making a piece of theatre about healing.
My Mother: Oh!
Me: Yeah, a piece about Da, I’d like you to help me make it.
My Mother: Sure.
My Mother: Yes.
My Mother: Goodnight.
The following February, my mother and I, Gary Keegan (Co-founder of Brokentalkers) and Erich Keller (a Dublin-based psychotherapist who was invited in as a consultant on the project) all got into a room and had conversations about life, the passing of time, mortality, religion and the afterlife. We spoke about how we build strategies to avoid, cope, and reason our own mortality. (It was a laugh riot.)
These conversations helped shape the workshops that would aid in the devising of the show.
My mother became a vital cog in the memory swap workshops.
We started with swapping memories of my dad. (His name was Sean.)
The workshops helped me understand my parent’s history, their narrative. Not just to see them in the role of my mother and father but to see them as individuals, to see them as teenagers in love, to see them as a man and a woman who tried for seven years to have a child (It took nearly two Olympics before I come along.)
One memory swap workshop really stands out, my Mother told me that the day my youngest Brother died (His name was also Sean) she looked out the window at the hospital and it was snowing.
This immediately took me back to that phone conversation with my uncle.
After I got off the phone with him, I looked out the window and it was snowing.
Those two snowy experiences made their way into the script.
That is an example of how the script was collated.
The memory swap workshops had laughter, tears and surprises. My Mother and I would sometimes have contrasting and contradictory recollections of memories. (That was always fun.)
It struck me how fragile, and brief memory is, that memory isn’t something permanent or reliable.
This realisation really upset me, memory is all that I have now of my father. With every passing day, those memories deteriorate.
Erich Keller, the psychotherapist who was invited in as a consultant in the workshops, immediately became a comfortable presence. Over a short period, of time his role transformed from a consultant to a performer in the show. Erich is an integral part of Have I No Mouth.
Having my real-life Mother and real-life psychotherapist on stage with me brings an authenticity that is curious and compelling for the audience.
It can be a difficult show for my mother and I to perform in.
Inviting an audience into a theatre to witness the grief shrapnel that we still carry, can be challenging for the both of us, and the audience. (But don’t worry, there is lots of humour.)
My father’s memory has become a potent, dramatic, evocative tool for performance, and there is a healing in that. Doing this show keeps him alive.
Have I No Mouth is currently on tour across Ireland, with dates at Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire 19 April | Belltable Limerick 21 April | Town Hall Theatre Galway 25 April | Lyric Theatre Belfast 27 April | The Everyman Cork 2 & 3 May | Project Arts Centre Dublin 5 & 6 May | Mermaid Arts Centre Bray 12 May.