This Christmas Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Prime Theatre present a Sound Stage festive premiere of audio play Donald and Benoit, based on a children’s book created by legendary Scottish writer John Patrick Byrne, and adapted by the award-winning lighting designer Jeanine Byrne.
For the uninitiated Sound Stage is an innovative audio-digital venture offering audiences a unique and engrossing online theatre experience of new plays from the best in British theatre. They are works that in the future Pitlochry hope to convert for the stage.
Jeanine Byrne is best known for her lighting design, but her second cancer diagnosis means she dedicates all her spare energy to making work, including this family friendly adaptation of Benoit and Donald, which is available on Sound Stage from 17-19 December.
Our features Editor Paul Clarke had a candid chat with Jeanine who talked about how she adapted a much-loved book and the challenges of working through illness.
So, what’s the story?
It’s the story of a boy called Benoit and his father who has bought a boat called Mystic Isle. He’s trying to catch fish for a living, but he’s finding that the seas are a bit fished out, and so he’s going to have to go further afield.
So where does Donald fit in all this?
Benoit’s dad brings home a scrawny little kitchen called Donald he picked up from a passing tramp steamer in order to provide the boy with a pal while he’s away. He goes away, but he doesn’t come back as quickly as he thought, and nobody knows what’s happened to him. The boy and the cat have to survive, and they have many adventures trying to make money to make ends meet.
This piece is an adaptation of your husband John’s book of the same name so has working with him been a tricky process?
I don’t think it is. We met 15 years ago when we were working together and we worked together before then as well, we have always had a very good working, creative relationship. Primarily that was me as a designer, we designed shows together. I think it’s part of our language, and I think also after 15 years you kind of absorb the culture of your partner and all the nuances.
Maybe having the creator of the source material so close to home can be helpful?
In a way I could hear John in my head, obviously I had the book in front of me, and I had John in my head as well as I wrote. It wasn’t trying to sound like him, I certainly didn’t write it in a vernacular as John does because that would just be kind of really false and ridiculous.
How have you found your voice in this process?
I feel like it’s partly obviously my own voice, but a lot of it is John because that’s who I’m with and who I’m married to, and that’s who wrote the book. The way we did it was that I would write a few scenes and say John have you got a wee minute to come and read this with me and listen. We would read it together, have a bit of a laugh and discussion and then I would do another draft.
Now, the book grew out of John keeping his twins Xavier and Honor, amused when they were wee.
It started really because as parents do, he was making up stories to tell them at night, so basically, he created the characters, and then told them different tales. Finally, that kind of emerged into stories that he wrote out and then in 2011 was published as a book.
You are well known as an award lighting designer, but a cancer diagnosis led you into focusing on writing?
That changed everything, so that was 2019 I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer and started really heavy-duty treatment straight away, so that put an end to me working. It basically meant that I had a lot more time and I’d had an idea for a theatre piece for quite a long time, not this one a different one, and I just thought well do you know what I’m just going to sit and write it. It was something that I could do while feeling really rubbish with the chemotherapy, so I’ve written three different pieces over the last couple of years.
And you’re had a more recent diagnosis but continued working on this piece.
Now I have a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer which means that obviously you have to be on treatment all the time really. The drugs I take now are not quite as horrible, thank goodness, but I do get pretty tired, and I feel pretty sick a lot of the time. Basically, I’m not working as much, not able to do as much as I did, but in another way that’s kind of opened up a new creativity for me. I’ve had time to sit and write, to think about things and live my life slightly differently, so I wouldn’t say it’s completely negative. Obviously, you wish it was different as well, but you can see the positive as well.
I often think that festive shows really remind us of the good things in life and that despite all the problems we face coming together around a theatre piece in whatever format can give us comfort.
I think it’s also about finding the joy in life, and a sense of community and friendship and love, and all of those things. I think those things have become really important, and certainly through my diagnosis it has definitely brought John and I closer, and other members of the family. I think we’ve all learnt a little bit of that from the COVID situation as well.
Pitlochry is in the middle of a big refurb, and I know you hope to put these two pals onstage next year, so this piece is essentially being presented as a radio play.
I think it’s a really interesting process, especially for John and I as writers, because I wrote it as a stage play and then I had to rewrite it as audio. You must think if I’m listening to this, is it clear what’s going on? How do I vocalise that? You can’t just rely on a visual image. I’m really looking to the point where the visual images can be layered in, I’m also fascinated to see how after Sound Stage how much reworking I will decide it needs.
Donald and Benoit will premiere on Sound Stage from 17th – 19th December. For tickets and further information visit www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com