BEHIND THE SCENES with Catie Talarski

How did you first meet Brian and Beth? What made you want to tell their stories?

I met Brian in my pre-radio life, when I had an administrative job in the pulmonary clinic at Children's Hospital Boston in 2005. Brian was one of a number of adult CF patients seen in the clinic. We eventually became friends and stayed in touch when I moved to Maine and then Connecticut. Dr. Uluer, who is also featured in the doc, put me in touch with Beth, who was around the same age and struggling with end-stage CF. As I interviewed her, it was clear that she and Brian complemented each other in interesting ways, and not just their ideas about transplant.

I initially wanted to interview Brian for personal reasons. He was really sick, and I wanted something to remember him by. I didn't have any ideas of using it publicly. When Dr. Uluer introduced me to Beth, things started to come together for a larger story. They were both compelling characters, super smart and reflective. And they both were dealing with all of these issues around their disease and making huge end-of-life decisions. The fact that Brian didn't want to get new lungs and Beth did created a tension that I thought would be worth exploring.

There are so many small, intimate moments in the piece – like Beth calling her mother to say she got the call for the transplant. Did you use a combination of audio diaries and interviews to record the tape? And, if so, what were the advantages and disadvantages of each method?

I did use a combination of audio diaries and interviews, because I wanted as many options as possible to tell this story, and I had no clear idea how it would come together. Beth was already taking video diaries of herself while waiting for lungs, and I grabbed the audio from those. I gave Brian a handheld audio recorder.

Beth really understood the idea of "diary," and taped a lot of intimate moments and incredible reflections. That phone call with her mom is one of my favorite moments in the piece. Brian would tend to forget about the recorder, and I had to remind him and give him prompts and questions to talk about. For both Beth and Brian, the diary tape ended up being the most intimate, emotional, and personal. Joe Richman, whom I admire, is really the master of using this method with Radio Diaries. I almost felt like I couldn't use the audio diary approach because of his piece My So Called Lungs , about a young woman with cystic fibrosis, but I think Beth and Brian's story is just as important as Laura's. And it turns out Brian knew Laura Rothenberg. They had the same doctor in New York City, which I found out after I produced the piece.

The ambient sounds in the piece – the coughing, dog barking, physical therapy noise – seem carefully selected. How did you think about what sounds and music to include in the story?

While putting the doc together, I kept going back and forth on whether or not I should narrate it. In the end, I didn't because Beth and Brian are such strong subjects and I didn't want to get in the way. The story arc took shape in a number of "chapters." As you can see in one of the above photos, I transcribed all the tape, printed it out and highlighted it according to theme (Beth, Brian, before transplant, after transplant, what is CF, etc.). Then, I laid out the pieces of paper like a storyboard. Specific ambient sounds, like the longer moments of coughing and the dog barking, were used as transitions to get from one idea to the next. It's a long piece, so I wanted to keep it moving by varying the texture, adding music and experimenting with some of the tape (like the physical therapy part). To be honest, I wish I had more theory behind the music choices. I was trying to match the mood and let some of the audio breathe. It left me wanting more training on being strategic with scoring.

Beth and Brian interact with each other only one time in the documentary. What do you think the conversation between the two of them adds to the story?

Beth and Brian became friends throughout the process of this documentary. They would never be able to meet in person (because of the risk of transmitting bacteria), so I thought it was important to have them meet over the phone, and obviously I wanted to record it. Once again, I wasn't sure if this would be used in the final piece. Because we are hearing them separately throughout, dealing with their own lives and struggles, yet so closely intertwined via editing - I thought including that moment when they talked for the first time could be powerful (although as a listener you may not know it was the first time). It ended up being more or less a normal conversation. Beth was very excited about her transplant, Brian was more melancholy. His line, "I think I would transplant in a heartbeat if I didn't [have the cepacia bacteria]" shows him questioning his decision to not transplant, which plays into the next section of the piece.

Why did you choose to include the section about dragons at the end of the piece?

Oh, the dragons!! Oddly enough, both Beth and Brian brought up dragons in their interviews. As soon as that happened, I knew I wanted to do something with it. Beth is a poet, and Brian loved Dungeons and Dragons. One of the few times that Brian absolutely lit up during the hours of interviews was when I asked him to explain D&D to me. You can hear it in his voice. And the poem that Beth read was a beautiful expression of her relationship with CF in a way we hadn't heard so far. Beth and Brian are so much more than people with CF, and this last segment was another way for me to help listeners better understand who they are. And hopefully smile.

I read that Brian passed away since the piece was produced. What has it been like for you, to work so closely with Beth and Brian as they were dealing with the prospect of death?

It was hard. That was a particularly dark time in my life, and working with Beth and Brian brought these extremely bright moments to my life, but also a real awareness of my own mortality. We were all the same age, so I was constantly imagining myself dealing with the big questions that they were – and they were so graceful about it, even in the moments of anger and frustration. I was constantly inspired. One of the last conversations I had with Brian was about how he wanted to have kids. Beth and Brian both wanted a "normal" life. They wanted to eat and drink normally, to be able to drive, date, etc. Because of the disease, they lived this very raw, in-the-moment existence. Within all the intense big conversations about life and death, though, there were also a lot of regular moments. Brian would paint, watch scary movies, eat sushi. Beth had her own apartment and cat that she had to take care of, she often had friends over. These moments came out in the interviews and diaries too.

Brian passed away in August of 2011 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center while waiting for a transplant. That was really hard to deal with, especially because he was so close to getting his lungs. After he passed away, I was glad that his story was out in the world, and that I had even more interviews and diary tape that I could share with his family.

Are you in touch with Beth or her family? How is she doing?

I am in touch with Beth mostly via Facebook. She continues to amaze and inspire. She started her own company, The Accessible Theatre - dedicated to making art more accessible and inclusive for artists and patrons with disabilities. She also is the director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's high school summer program. I asked her for any other updates. She said: "I would say my life after transplant moves a lot quicker than my life before, I am busy all the time (as much as my schedule will allow), while I still have to work hard to maintain my health. I look forward to speaking and presenting a theatre piece at the CF Research Institute Conference in August in San Francisco, where Dr. Uluer will be the Keynote Speaker."