Jenny Macdonald is a community engaged theatre artist whose practice encompasses writing, performing, directing and facilitating. Much of her work focuses on embodiment – how we experience and express ourselves physically. Jenny was awarded a Seed Grant to further develop her theatre project ‘The Tightrope Walker’. This is an audience-participant stage play exploring tensions between the inherent loneliness of illness and deep connections grief can make possible with others. The title comes from a conversation Jenny had with a therapist when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer six years ago.
My therapist described the journey as walking a tightrope between grief and gratitude. I loved that metaphor and the image it evoked. I’ve since taken lessons in tightrope walking and it’s a mad thing to do. But then sometimes life is mad, and we don’t have a choice. We’re faced with a tightrope and there’s only one way to get across it.
Given the need to navigate opposing physical and emotional forces in the journey through a serious illness, balance is also an important aspect of ‘The Tightrope Walker’. As is the interplay of loneliness and connection – both with self and with others.
One of the things the tightrope walker image signifies to me is those times in our lives, as with experiencing grief and loss, that will change us so profoundly, there will be no going back to before. I felt I was on an epic journey which I alone could find the path through – the way across the tightrope. I was also more deeply connected than ever before to a crucial network of amazing support from other patients, healthcare workers, friends and family. But only I could do what had to be done – walk the rope alone.
Although ‘The Tightrope Walker’ is a solo show, it requires a collective engagement. Audiences will be co-participants and be invited to consider questions, participate in physical actions, and connect and share with each other. There will be levels of choices of participation to ensure it’s an enjoyable experience for all, rather than a threatening thing to do. For example, the stage is designed as a hospital waiting room and audience members will have the option to sit beside Jenny in that imagined space.
Jenny acknowledges this isn’t a piece she would have made prior to her illness and hopes this is partly because she’s emerged from the losses that accompany serious illness as a more open, accepting, and generous person.
I’m conscious the type of theatrical embodied work I do can help us try to understand each other better. Ultimately, however, we’re just visiting. We live in a central conundrum of wanting so much to understand and care for others but are only able to do so from what we know within ourselves.
Like Jenny, most of us will experience a serious illness at least once in our lifetime and all of us know someone who has.
As well as grief and loss, illness comes with fear and taboo. Taboo compounds the difficulties endured by those who suffer illness and those who support them.
Through her community engagement work with SoloSIRENs, a Dublin based theatre-making / producing collective, and our own Compassionate Culture Network, Jenny has seen many times how sharing stories, particularly those that are difficult to share, can dispel taboos and inspire the bravery that allows more stories to be told. The ultimate aim of ‘The Tightrope Walker’ is to do just that – facilitate a safe space where stories of serious illness, and the myriad emotions that come with a diagnosis, can be safely shared, felt and explored.
Jenny is currently working towards a full production of ‘The Tightrope Walker’ in Autumn 2023, along with director Joe Salvatore of New York University’s Verbatim Performance Lab. In the meantime, there was a work-in-progress sharing of the piece at Rua Red South Dublin Arts Centre in July 2023.
About Jenny Macdonald (Writer)
Jenny Macdonald is a theatre-maker whose practice encompasses writing / performing and directing / facilitating. Her solo show ‘Enthroned’ premiered at First Fortnight Festival in 2016 and has since been presented by the New York International Fringe Festival, Town Hall Theatre, Galway, glór, the Civic, and First Fortnight online in 2020. In 2019, Jenny created SoloSIRENs, a theatre-making collective based at the Civic in Tallaght, Dublin. SoloSIRENs amplifies women’s voices onstage and beyond, and works to create a more just, sustainable, and caring way of making and presenting theatre. Jenny and SoloSIRENs were also part of Irish Hospice Foundation’s Compassionate Culture Network 2021 – 2022. In additional to being awarded one of our 2023 Seed Grants to further develop her theatre project ‘The Tightrope Walker’, Jenny is also our inaugural writer-in-residence.
About Joe Salvatore (Director)
Joe Salvatore founded and directs New York University’s Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Lab (VPL) and teaches courses in verbatim performance, ethnodrama, and community-engaged theatre. His recent VPL arts-based research projects include ‘That’s Not Supposed to be Happening’ (2023) about housing in New York City, and ‘Whatever You Are, Be a Good One’ (2022) about political polarisation in the United States, both co-created with Keith R. Huff from interviews conducted with participants about those specific topics. Awards include the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s Johnny Saldaña Outstanding Professor of Theatre Education Award for demonstrated excellence in teaching, research, creative activity, and service; NYU’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Award; NYU Steinhardt’s Teaching Excellence Award; NYU Steinhardt’s Champions of Equity: Gender and Trans Justice Award; and the NYU LGBTQ Student Center’s Dedication to Education Award.