Jenny Macdonald, The Tightrope Walker. Photo credit: Vlad Gurdis.

Jenny Macdonald, The Tightrope Walker. Photo credit: Vlad Gurdis.

Jenny Macdonald

Jenny Macdonald is a theatre maker and facilitator who often works with community groups. When Jenny was recovering from breast cancer, she began creating a play inspired by that experience. Her initial instinct to capture the epic nature of a life-changing illness gave way to the persistence of her own memories and discoveries, vignettes that would become The Tightrope Walker. Exploring the dynamics of caring and being cared for, Jenny’s solo performance seeks to hold a space for the audience the way that a facilitator does, a two-way exchange where the isolation of illness is interwoven with the deep connection of community.

For over twenty years, I have worked in theatre. I write, I perform, I direct, I devise, and I facilitate and mentor other people to do combinations of them all. Sometimes the people I facilitate are professionals, those whose identity or income is inextricably linked to making theatre. More often, they are community groups, those who have something to say or to discover and who are drawn to theatre as a way to do so.

In 2016, I had a breast cancer diagnosis. In November 2023, I premiered a new play, The Tightrope Walker, about that experience.

When I was diagnosed, I had just returned from doing a solo show in New York. I was in the first wave of the deep pride and satisfaction that lands when years of work has taken to the stage. I was understandably frustrated to be interrupted in what I assumed would be many future runs (that did happen eventually, but other things had to happen first). I focused a lot during and after treatment on getting back to where I had been. Joe Salvatore, the very wise director/dramaturg of the show, advised against that approach. ‘I don’t think there is any going back’ he told me. ‘Some moments in life are portals. I think you will need to start from where you are now’.

Some of the groups I create and deliver drama workshops for are doctors. I do so as part of an Abbey Theatre and Royal College of Physicians of Ireland collaboration. In that context, I have heard many times that when doctors become ill, they often reflect that they had no idea what it is like to be a patient and that their practice changed with their new insight.

Initially, I resisted any change in my practice or in my life, as many of us will when huge events not of our own choosing are foisted upon us. But over time, I came to accept Joe’s wisdom. If I had to start from where I was now, where was I now? And what would I make next? It felt clear that my next play would be about illness. I had learned so much. I had been immersed in a new world; met a huge cast of characters, feelings and situations; been amazed and amused by the inherent theatricality of hospitals. Everything I had ever studied in theatre is writ large in the medical world: costume, hierarchy, status, overheard conversations, exits, entrances, heightened circumstances. ‘Raise the stakes!’ an improv teacher will tell participants in a scene. In the hospital, the stakes had been raised and everyone, including me, was in role.

Jenny Macdonald, The Tightrope Walker. Photo credit: Vlad Gurdis.

I wrote about my experiences throughout, knowing with certainty that at some point, I would make theatre from that time. I was positively distracted and absorbed by observation and by recording details of the people I met, the system I was in, and my responses and reactions. Writing took me out of myself. Writing also took me into myself into the struggle to make sense of terrains of grief, fear and shock I had never visited so deeply.

Still, when I started to give the piece form, I didn’t want it to be autobiographical. Cancer is vast and epic. I wanted to make something big and bold about all the madness, the chaos, and the insight. I toyed with forms and concepts. Would it be dance? Would it be circus? Would it be created from collected stories of patients and physicians?

Instead, I found myself returning over and over to my own memories and discoveries. I started refining and rewriting these. I called them vignettes. I decided to give over to this very personal process. I wondered if I needed to get the fragments of memory out of my system so I could make the piece that needed to be made. Over time, I found they were the piece that needed to be made. They are now 52 pages of text that are placed face down on a stage, each with a clearly visible number. They are the set and the script of a theatre performance. As artists have discovered time and again, the path to the universal would be paved with the very specific and personal. And as I have discovered many times, I needed to release control of the creative processto allow ideas to emerge rather than will them into form.

As it became clearer how personal the work would be, friends regularly checked in with me, ‘Are you sure you want to make a show about this? Is this really what you need right now?’ As is the case with many illnesses, cancer diagnosis and recovery leave an indelible mark. My body is certainly changed, and so is my nature for better and for worse. I have more fear and also more love and wisdom. Life feels more precious and more precarious. Having seen the benefits of story sharing and creative expression in thousands of drama workshops, I had no question whether making this work would be positive and useful for me. The more important question was whether it would be useful to anyone else. If not, I could create a studio show for a few dear friends as a thank you for their support. But I felt that the work might help others, that the story might give people insight and affirmation in crisis, in health journeys, in myriad journeys and experiences of their own. I believe that has been true in the performances thus far.

I imagine anyone who writes autobiography confronts the fear of self-indulgence. My story is important to me, the thinking goes, but why should someone else want to hear it? And of course, the answer is obvious. Because my story is your story. Because your story is my story. Because stories and whole lives are each completely unique and also part of a huge web of collectivity that unites and sustains us.

In my work as a drama facilitator, I encourage people to share their storiesto say what they have to say and to be heard. In that context, I never question the value. I know how stories may become larger for being shared, how one person’s courage may inspire another’s, and how a story shared can resonate with others and then be held and shared collectively.

When I facilitate devising processes that lead to performance, I tell participants that they don’t have to share, and that if they do, they don’t need to share their most intense or significant moments. But over and over they chose to share and to share stories of great significance. It’s what we all do in the making of art. We are drawn to the heightened places. The great highs, the great lows, the great crises, the insights of the painful journeys, the moments that ‘raise the stakes’. And it is when people are brave in going to these places, that I see audiences receive the most.

Previously, I had seen my work as a writer/performer of my own plays and as a director/facilitator of community-engaged work as different realms. In The Tightrope Walker, the two realms merge. When Joe and I created the first solo show, Enthroned, we began exploring how a performer can hold a space in the way that a facilitator does. For The Tightrope Walker nothing else made sense. I was communicating the experiences with the heightened clarity of a writer, but in a form that felt more like facilitation. I decided to try to care for the audience in performance as if they were my participants in a workshop.

In illness, I had experienced the deep loneliness of travelling a path that no one else could take from me. And I had experienced the enormous power and necessity of community. I wanted the play to mirror this combination of isolation and deep connection: a solo performance that relies on a deep relationship with the audience. A solo performance I had created before and felt I could create again. My new challenge was trying to create a dynamic of care and community with an audience in the act of performance.

Jenny Macdonald, The Tightrope Walker. Photo credit: Vlad Gurdis.

The text has two storylines. There is a set script that is the same in every performance. The set text is interwoven with the numbered vignettes on the stage floor. Audience members who chose to sit onstage are asked to select numbers from a bowl which correspond to the memories that will be read. They help me to stich the scattered pieces of a chaotic time together. Those who chose to sit onstage are also asked to play small roles. Everyone in the audience is invited to consider questions and engage in actions. We weave the course of the play together. I facilitate them and I am facilitated by them.

We may think, rightly or wrongly, that as performers or facilitators, we are all give. In the vulnerability of illness, a person must receive as a matter of necessity. And this receiving is in itself a form of care. When we allow ourselves to receive support, those who orbit around an illness are helped to make sense of it, to feel useful, to show their love, and to be with their emotions.

One of the strange gifts of illness is that it cuts through many illusions, including the illusion that the caring and the cared for are separate. In fact, they only exist in relationship. In an ever alternating, and ultimately equal, dynamic balance.

In my devising process, I tell participants to be more interested in others than in themselves. If everyone is trying to facilitate the other people’s contributions, their own contribution will naturally emerge. As a facilitator I am always fascinated and humbled by people’s offerings. I feel lucky to have work that allows me such full immersion in the richness of humanity. I search for the clues as to what each participant may have to express and how to make that visible to others in performance.

In this show, though the story is my own, I find my focus is fixed on those who come to hear it. I begin by asking audience members to take time to see themselves in small mirrors they are given. They are visible to me in half-light throughout the performance. And I am deeply reliant on whoever sits onstage. There is a constant two-way exchange. The centre of the tightrope pole is a balancing point between me and the audience. I see them as they see me. And my hope is that the seeing is healing for all of us.

Illness simplifies life against our will. If we are lucky enough to emerge from it, there can be an instinct to re-clutter our life on the other side. But without the clutter, so much more can be seen. I remember a wonderful drama facilitator telling me that the longer he worked, the less he said. The process of writing about illness took me so deeply into myself that I feel I have more space for others and that I have been more able to leave more room for the audience. I hope I have created a performance that is more about them than about me. In this sense, The Tightrope Walker feels like a performance of facilitation.


I would like to express my gratitude to the highly skilled and caring creative and production team who brought The Tightrope Walker to stage with me: Joe Salvatore, Martha Knight, Pai Rathaya, Sorcha Shanahan, Ciara Meehan, Saili Aine Ni Mhurchu, Jennifer Webster, Carla Fazio, Jeanette Keane. My gratitude also to the staff at the Civic, Tallaght where the work premiered in SoloSIRENs Festival and to the Irish Hospice Foundation who hosted me in a writer’s residency and funded the development of the work with the Arts Council of Ireland and South Dublin County Council Arts Office.

Photo Credit: Vlad Gurdis


Jenny Macdonald is a theatremaker and facilitator. She is the founding director of SoloSIRENs, a theatre collective in residence at the Civic, Tallaght. As a director/facilitator, she creates devised work with communities including Falling (SoloSIRENs Festival, 2019), Dear Ireland III (Abbey Theatre, 2020), Cessair (Civic Theatre/TCA, 2021) and Careground (SoloSIRENs Festival, 2023). As a writer/performer, she premiered her second solo work The Tightrope Walker in 2023 at the Civic and again in 2024 as part of Creative Brain Week, Samuel Beckett Theatre. The Tightrope Walker was created as part of a writer’s residency at the Irish Hospice Foundation. Her first solo production, Enthroned, was presented at First Fortnight Festival, New York International Fringe Festival, the Civic, glor and Town Hall, Galway.


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