Interview with actor Carol Caffrey

This week I spoke to Carol Caffrey about her return to the stage after almost twenty five years, she'll soon be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe with the show 'Music for Dogs.'

1. Could you tell us a little about your journey in to the arts, and how it all happened for you?

It was a gradual slide, really from teaching into semi-pro acting and then into the full-blown professional world. I grew up with older brothers who were very involved in music and acting, and as I idolized them, I just wanted to follow in their footsteps. I enjoyed playing some plum roles in school and university, but got side-tracked into being an unemployed teacher for a few years, until I decided I might as well be an unemployed actor, as that was where my heart really was. I got my first paid, professional gig as a side-kick to a male comedy duo in the Dublin Theatre Festival (hello Pat and Dave, of Isosceles Triangle!) back in the early 80’s and from there got work with Moving Theatre, an Arts Council-funded community theatre group now, sadly, defunct. I learnt a huge amount from them and went on to form a comedy duo with the Artistic Director, Annie Kilmartin, called The Bawdy Beautifuls. It was typical freelancer’s life, I suppose; fallow periods interrupted by a glorious gig here and there, eventually creating work when there was none to chase.

2. After a hiatus, you have chosen to return to the stage this year with the show 'Music for Dogs' - how have you found heading back in to theatre?  Has it brought any challenges?  And what's been the most exciting thing about it?

I’ve absolutely loved being back in this world while at the same time have found it a terrifying experience. I left it all behind me – with great difficulty, as acting is something that’s rooted deep in the DNA, I believe - when I moved to the UK in 1991. I was starting a new life and knew no-one (apart from my new husband) much less people in “the business.” I’d always been very bad at pushing myself forward or initiating things, and I felt, mistakenly, that there wasn’t much of an Arts scene at the time in Shrewsbury. I’d been lucky enough to fall into a few things in Dublin, but this was now a blank canvas and I didn’t know where to start. I was also very keen to have children, and was pushing the outer limits of the “elderly primi gravida” spectrum at the time, so that took priority.

For a time, I took vicarious satisfaction from my brother Peter’s success (he was a well-known actor in Ireland and the UK at the time) but sadly he suffered a massive stroke in 2000 and was left with severe aphasia afterwards, which ended his career. A series of family illnesses and bereavements followed over the next decade or so, which put my own longings for my lost “career” in perspective and preoccupied me for a long time.

It was actually at a memorial gig for Peter in 2009 (he died in 2008), a fund-raiser for the Irish Hospice Foundation, that the idea of doing some acting again was born. Annie and I reprised some of our old sketches for the evening and we had such great fun that we decided to look for something we could work on together. As she lived in Greystones, Co Wicklow, and I lived in Shreswbury, (and neither of us had any money) we collaborated over Skype a lot of the time, and I would go to Ireland for a week at a time when I could. We’d work on the character and Janey’s back story - we deliberately never looked at the script at that stage – and best of all, these trips allowed me to spend time with my Dublin sister Sheila, who was ill with terminal cancer at the time, under the guise of the work. For that reason alone, among many others, I will always be grateful to “Music for Dogs”.

One of the biggest challenges was to learn the lines and my biggest fear – it’s a terror, really, every time before I go on – is that I’ll forget them, or go hopelessly wrong. I haven’t yet, or have managed to improvise my way out of trouble when the odd word has gone astray, but the memory is definitely not what it used to be. It’s an age thing, I’m afraid. I never worried about learning or remembering lines when I was younger, but it’s infinitely harder now. And the big downside of it being a one-person show is that you’ve no-one on stage with you to help you over the wobbly moments. (You’ve no-one else to get into trouble, either, I suppose.)

The hardest thing to deal with, at times, was how close the subject matter came to events in my own family’s life. At the time I chose the script, Sheila had recovered well from her bout with cancer and we thought the worst was behind us. As it transpired, however, that was not to be the case, and there were many times over the next year or two (it was a sporadic, organic process at this stage, dependent on what Annie and I were separately committed to) when it was too close to the bone and I had to leave it for a while, especially as my other sister, Linda, was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer, too. After Sheila died, closely followed by Linda, I had to choose what to do what all the work that had already gone into the process. (It wasn’t a production at that stage.) When I felt ready to look at it again, it seemed right, inevitable, really, that I had to do it in memory of them all. (It was my brother David – who died some months before Peter - who had introduced me to the play’s author, Paula Meehan.) And as Annie was now busy with other projects, it seemed the natural thing to do to ask Dave’s wife, Trish, to work on the text with me and direct the show. The only problem was, she lives in Paris! So here we were again, with distance and lack of finance playing their part. We managed three separate weeks together, two in Paris and one in Shrewsbury, before the premiere last summer in Allihies, West Cork, (in my brother’s Old Schoolhouse where I’d first met Paula at a poetry reading she gave) with Paula in attendance.

3. And tell us a little about 'Music for Dogs'?

It’s an intimate piece, very funny in places though with an undercurrent of sadness, and audiences really enjoy it. While I think the humour is very Irish at times, it is universal in its humanity. It’s a short piece, about 45 minutes long, but Janey takes us on quite a journey as she looks back over her life. It was originally written for radio (and was broadcast by RTE in 2001) but works really well on the stage. Paula Meehan, the author, is a prize-winning poet and is currently Ireland Professor of Poetry.

4.  What do you hope audiences will take away from watching it?

I hope they leave with a sense of what an extraordinary woman Janey is, and that they will have been moved through a variety of emotions. Most of all, I hope her life-affirming defiance makes them leave with a spring in their step.

5.  Why did you choose this piece in particular?

It’s full of Dublin wit and warmth but doesn’t shy away from the more brutal side of life and it’s such a beautifully-written script that it’s been a privilege to work on it. Knowing Paula slightly, and because of the content, it seemed a good fit – a touch of synchronicity, if you will - and it really spoke to me when I first read it. That was more than five years ago, and Janey has stayed with me since, in my head and in my heart, as the project has taken shape.

6.  It's your debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, how are you feeling about it?

Excited, nervous, but also a bit detached, as if it were happening to someone else. I think that’s panic’s way of calming me down. It does feels a little unreal, though, probably because this is probably what I should have been doing twenty-odd years ago when I was still in the business, in however marginal a way, and this is somehow my thirty-something self in my sixty year-old body finally getting around to it. I’m doing a two-week run (pretty much) and I expect to be completely knackered by the end of it, but at least I won’t die curious…

7.  Have you got any plans following the Fringe?

Yes, I’m hoping to take it to Dublin for a decent run and, of course, to Paris, where the director’s company is based. Then, in March 2016, Music for Dogs has been invited to open the 11th Palliative Care Conference in Glasgow at the SECC, which I’m really thrilled about. There will be about a thousand delegates there, I’m told, probably a lot more than I’ll get in Maggie’s Front Room during the Fringe, but it’s a show for all sizes!

8.  Where can we find out more about you and the show?

Details of the show can be found here:

and at: Twitter: @musicfordogs


A Music for Dogs website will be up and running before the Festival begins.

Interview (C) Amie Taylor (@spoonsparkle) 2015

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