Rob Gaetano tells us about his one-man show at the Fringe which he created to explore his fears around growing old and developing dementia.
What drew you to write and perform a show about dementia? Do you have a personal connection?
My Nonna was diagnosed with dementia in 2005 while she was living with my parents. I witnessed first-hand her memories, and ultimately her identity slip away. Her battle with dementia took her from being a bit confused and forgetful, to paranoid and aggressive and finally she spent the last few years of her life in the dementia ward of a nursing home, a shell of her former self.
It was heartbreaking, not only to bare witness to her slipping away, but to see the way it effected my father, a son grieving over the loss of his mother who in the end didn’t even know who he was.
I was terrified by the thought that this could eventually be me. I thought about the other things I was afraid of, I thought about what I have in life and what I hold dear. What will I leave behind? What will be my legacy? In the end, what are we without our memories?
I needed to find answers to these questions, or at least try to explore them and make some sense of it all. As an actor, creating a show about it seemed like the most logical avenue of exploration for me. I can’t say I’ve found all of the answers, and I doubt I ever will. I’m certain that life’s experiences will continue to throw up questions for me, but by performing this show, I somehow manage to feel a little bit less afraid of the future.
Can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind writing the show? Where do your characters come from?
This show began as a two hander about an elderly couple and how their relationship changes when one develops dementia and the other becomes the carer. It was part of a festival called Short and Sweet in Melbourne, Australia and only went for 10 minutes. I played a man whose memories were fading, and Lily Fish (the director of this version of My Pet, My Love) played my wife. It was a simple story that used heightened poetic language and beautiful physical theatre. It was very well received and it was the first time I had performed in something I had created. Until that point I hadn’t really considered myself to be a ‘theatre maker’.
We then further developed the piece into a half hour show. We retained the original narrative but decided to cast a different actress, allowing Lily to transition into the role of director. The piece was again well received, but I wasn’t totally satisfied, I felt like there was more of the story that I needed to tell. We were then very fortunate to have been awarded a two-week Artist Residency at Hothouse Theatre in regional Victoria. We were all set to go and spend two weeks further fleshing out this idea, when our actress, Michelle had a change of heart and decided to step away from acting.
So where to now? We had a two-week residency, a director, myself, and then no second actor. It was at that moment Lily said something crazy “How would you feel about making this into a one-man show?” My first response was “No way!” It was my fear talking. But with Lily’s guiding hand we soldiered on and after the two weeks of development we had a show. In this new version of the show I play a child who discovers death for the first time when his pet fish dies, both halves of an elderly gay couple dealing with the impact a dementia diagnosis has on their relationship, and I play a heightened version of myself, a 34 year old actor revealing his fears from the trivial to the profound.
How long have you been touring ‘My pet, my love’? What kinds of people come to see it and what reaction do you get?
After our two-week creative development we premiered My Pet, My Love in January of 2015 at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne as part of the city’s queer arts festival, Midsumma. After our first season I was hooked! The fear was still there but it had become more of a driving force and less of an obstacle. So in February 2016 we toured the show to BATS Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, as part of Fringe NZ. Later that year we took the show to the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City. It had been a dream of mine to take a show to New York City and at the end of the festival I was thrilled to be awarded BEST ACTOR of the festival. This award was the icing on the cake and I’m so excited to see what Edinburgh Fringe has in store for us.
What do you hope people will take away from your show?
I created this show because I was scared. I was afraid of growing old, losing my memories and by extension, my identity. I want audiences to walk away with a greater appreciation of life’s fleeting moments, to think about the things we leave behind, to reconnect with their grandparents and remember where they came from. I want to shed some light on the duality of life and to realise that within our darkest fears can also lie humour and love.