Ahead of rehearsals starting for her new work, The Air That Carries the Weight, on 22nd February, we asked Rebecca Sharp about how she made the progression with her script from Rehearsal Room 25 in October 2014 to the final version.
This is the main stage production following on from the Rehearsal Room – how did the feedback from Rehearsal Room help form the final script?
RS: When we had the Rehearsal Room in October 2014, the script was very young and there wasn’t much of it! I’d done a lot of research leading up to that stage, and was almost tentative to really commit to the writing process. I felt a sense of responsibility when writing about a real person (Marion Campbell), and in dealing with such huge, weighty issues – death, fate, friendship, interconnectedness… But what was lovely from that RR experience was the genuine warmth and interest that came from the audience – real interest in these characters; Yvonne’s illness and the weight Isobel carries after she’s gone. I was touched by how openly people connected with the ideas and shared their thoughts on some pretty sensitive subjects. Neal Ascherson was also there at that RR, and that gave me such a boost! He knew Marion well, so it was almost like having her there in the room. I’m a huge admirer of Neal’s work (his book Stone Voices had been hugely influential), and to have his encouragement meant a great deal to say the least. He looked over during one of the ‘Marion’ scenes and gave me a smile and a nod, and it was such a relief – I swear I’ll hold on to that moment forever! I knew I was on the right track and that gave me the confidence to carry on. The experience of working with the actors and with Muriel in that concentrated space of time also really helped to distil a lot of ideas, which gave me clear impetus for what to do next.
Do you feel that The Air That Carries the Weight has moved on from your original idea?
RS: Yes – my initial thought had been to combine an original story with an adaptation of Marion’s novel The Dark Twin. Not only is The Dark Twin an incredibly dark and twisty novel, so that it almost defies adaptation, but I also came to realise that a mere adaptation wouldn’t do justice to the ideas that were at stake. The relationships between characters started to take over – Yvonne/Isobel, Yvonne/Marion, Marion/Mary – and I realised that I could explore the themes of the novel while in fact barely mentioning it. In May 2015 I spent a week staying at Marion’s cottage at Kilberry, and also visited the Castle, invited by Marion’s relatives John and Charmian Campbell. That made everything more personal – and revealed even more connections. I just started to feel everything so much more clearly, and followed those instincts, rather than sticking rigidly to an initial outline. There have been a few surprises along the way – themes that have popped up when I didn’t expect them. I always take that as a good sign – that as a writer, I’m not putting myself in the way of the work becoming what it wants to be.
How have the discussions between yourself and Muriel Romanes who is directing the production influenced changes in the story and the characters?
RS: Massively – Muriel has been so invested in this project since our very first conversations. The play has touched on themes and feelings for us both personally, and I think that has shaped how we’ve worked. We’ve talked a lot about Argyll and the Highlands, experiences of places and the capacity of those landscapes to evoke powerful feelings and memories. A personal anecdote of Muriel’s has actually ended up in the script, with permission! Muriel is also great at cracking the whip when it’s needed – I was struggling to sharpen up the story, with all these huge themes swimming around my head, I was looking for that balance… so having her advice as I edited really helped, always bringing it back to story and audience experience.
How did you feel when you saw the set design by John Byrne and how he had created the world of Yvonne’s cottage in Argyll?
RS: I honestly had to pinch myself – I’m such a huge fan of his, it’s embarrassing. But for the work as well – I’d been carrying this story, these characters, this location around in my head literally for years – and to see it take form not just on the page but as a three dimensional object, was a truly magical moment. I love seeing how other artists work, so to see Yvonne’s cottage from John’s point-of-view, was amazing. He’d picked up on such tiny details in the script, in such clever and subtle ways. It also really helped me to finish writing the final draft, as I could now envisage the stage more clearly and how the actors might move around the set. It also just brought me even closer to the characters and what they’re going through, I wanted to live there with them.
Will you be involved in rehearsals and are you looking forward to hearing your script at the read-through?
RS: I’ll be there for the first full week to start with – it’s so important to be with the actors and hear their voices, especially as this is our first meeting with the final script. I say ‘final’ – I’ll be making changes throughout that first week, according to what we discover as we work through it. I’m not precious in that way – I want the actors (and everyone) to tell me where it flows and where it doesn’t, as they’re the ones up on stage. I say this because I’m aware that this text is quite dense and abstract in places – and we have to make that work for audiences, or there’s no point. I’m excited, and also ready for the challenge. Nothing worth doing comes easy! I also can’t wait to hear Pippa Murphy’s score – sound will play such a huge role in creating the different worlds that the story moves between. Creating those emotional and psychological spaces for the audience is crucial if we’re asking them to join us in the story – so it’s a big job, but that’s why we’re all here.
The Air That Carries the Weight opens at the Traverse Theatre 24 March