It is an overwhelming feeling when you sit in a theatre and experience the words that you wrote come to life onstage. It makes all the late nights, bouts of writers block (or as I have christened it, crippling self-doubt) and excess consumption of tea worth it.
When I graduated from my Performing Arts course in Sligo IT with an acting degree in 2014, I was like a headless chicken, darting from one audition to another. Tired of waiting for the phone to ring and aimlessly reciting monologues, I took a chance and entered a 10 minute play that I wrote for a project in college into the annual 10 x 10 production by the Cork Arts Theatre. I Confess was chosen to be produced and that is when I officially got bitten by the writing bug.
Whilst working on productions, I wrote whenever I could, submitting work to as many theatre companies that were looking. The most familiar e-mails in my inbox were ones of rejection which I was used to, being an actor. One of my many submissions was to the Fake Escape Theatre Company. They had a call-out looking for four writers under the age of 30 to write a 20 minute play based on a true life mystery. For the submission process you had to send in samples of your previous work and the mystery you would write about if chosen.
After humming and hawing between cases such as the Black Dahila and the Zodiac Killer, the story I ultimately suggested was the local story of ‘Peter Bergmann’, a man in his 50’s who’s body was found on Rosses Point beach in Co. Sligo in 2009. He arrived in Sligo town on June 12th via a bus from Derry. When he checked into Sligo City Hotel, he gave the fake name ‘Peter Bergmann’ and an address that ended up being a empty lot in Austria. Throughout his stay, he dumped his belongings in bins around the town centre. He asked a taxi driver to recommend a nice quiet beach where he could swim and the taxi driver suggested Rosses Point. He was also seen purchasing eight stamps and airmail stamps, presumably to send letters home to loved ones.
On June 15th, he checked out of his hotel and took a bus to Rosses Point where he was spotted by witnesses walking the beach. The next day, his body was found by a father and son, his clothing and belongings close by. According to the autopsy done by the Sligo medical examiner, the cause of death was drowning. He was in very bad health, he had advanced prostate cancer and bone tumours. The toxicology report stated that he had no medication in his system despite the pain he must have felt with his illnesses. Despite the best efforts of the Gardai, he has never been formally identified and after a five month investigation he was buried in Sligo with only four Gardaí and a priest in attendance.
His story moved me deeply, the intense loneliness one must feel to end their life in such away, with such assuredness that they would never be identified, astounded me. Reading about the case was like going down a rabbit hole and picking up countless questions and almost no answers on the way down. I promised myself that whether or not my application was chosen, I would write a piece about this mysterious man.
Of course life distracted me with other business (as life has a habit of doing). I found myself in the midst of yet more rehearsals and I forgot all about my submission. Until, during a break from a dress rehearsal, I received an e-mail telling me my idea was one of the four chosen and that I had a month to write a 20 minute script. After the excitement died down (and the mandatory Facebook celebration status was typed up), the panic set in. How could I tell ‘Peter’s’ story when I only knew the actions in the last days of his life and not the whys? Could I tell it in a way that was respectful and not sensationalising a mystery? In a way that may get message boards buzzing but at its core was the sensitive story of a solitary man? And more importantly, could I really create something substantial in a month!?
After I got over all my fretting, I settled down in front of a laptop and began creating A Dream of Dying. I decided to tell ‘Peter’s’ story as a one-man show (if anyone deserved the complete and utter attention of an audience, it was him) and I created a life for him, a childhood, a family, friends, hopes and dreams. I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a young and enthusiastic ”Peter’, a man who was looking forward to his life and achieving his goals, tragically aware about his last days on earth, but with no idea how he reached that point. It was surprisingly easy to give him a voice, his words bled through my fingertips and onto the page in way that felt almost like magic. I finished it before the month was up and sent it anxiously away.
Thankfully, the Fake Escape Theatre Company loved it as much as I did. They picked the perfect actor to embody the part of ‘Peter’. Lawrence Boothman plays him and his story with remarkable sensitivity and honesty. Getting the opportunity to see the production in London was an experience (I got to tick off having a production staged in London AND seeing Cats on the West-End from my bucket list).
To my immense delight, I was asked to take the piece from 20 minutes to 40 minutes so that they could take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This gave me a chance to flesh out ‘Peter’ even more and I was amazed that more details about his life emerged whilst I was revising the script. He was coming to life all his on own and I was only the willing sounding board.
A Dream of Dying is not a voice for the real ‘Peter Bergmann’ and it can never claim to be because we will never know that man truly. But I want A Dream of Dying to honour his memory and to let others that may feel as hopeless as him, know that there are always people out there willing to listen to your story.
(c) Treasa Nealon
Treasa Nealon is a playwright, actor, poet and co Founder of
@RabbitsRiotTC. Follow her on Twitter @TreasaNealon