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Air

"we still cling to the intangible"

Inspired by one of Sydney's most unusual radio programs, Joanna Erskine's new play takes audiences into the world beyond grief.

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Show: Air
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Air: A Life and Death Connection

Date: 28 May 2018

“If you know anyone who is print handicapped, please inform them that the death notices are read daily on 2RPH.”

It was at the end of the obituaries in a tiny box – matter of fact and oddly fascinating. I’d been poring over the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald on a 24-hour playwriting challenge. I had to find some inspiration within its pages. It had been a slow news day, and I found myself lost in the death notices hoping for a skerrick of a spark. I’d found it.

My mind raced. I imagined a voice announcing these deaths to a silent audience. I wondered, who would be listening? Why would they listen? Did they tune in every day? And what was it like to be the person to read these deaths aloud, day after day after day? Characters began to form, voices living and voices dead. All connected through that universal weight – grief.

A dear friend once said to me, “Everything you feel in grief is right.”

This statement has provided me much comfort in my own grief for many years. My mother was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer when I was 14. She battled it for five and a half years, and in my teenage positivity, I honestly believed she would live a long life. I was hit for six when she passed away. I’d just turned 20. I wasn’t there when she died.

Seven years later my father was diagnosed with an aggressive, Stage 4 brain cancer. We had three months with him, and this time I was there by his side. I was older. I was with him at the end. This time I experienced death in its raw and humbling form. (And that is a story for another play)

Between my mother’s and my father’s death, I’d written a first draft of AIR. A cathartic experience, I had completed it over a few days alone at Bundanon. This version offered a somewhat romantic view of death. It was a sweet play, a kind of girl-meets-boy comedy, while both were navigating personal tragedy. I thought that was the story to be told.

It wasn’t until very recently when we assembled a group of actors together to read and dissect the play, that I realised what I had written no longer reflected my lived experience. One of the actors shared their own personal, very close experience with the death of a loved one. More stories were shared around the table, some recent, some decades old.

I realised that I had not revisited the play after the death of my father. It now rang hollow to me. So, with the help of a stellar cast and brilliant director in Anthony Skuse, I rewrote. And this production is where I’ve ended up. Traipsing the line somewhere between, ensuring the laughs with the tears, because that is the truth of it. It is wound together with fragments from my life, and from the experiences of others, with a little bit of magic.

I suppose, ironically, I liken the experience of death and grief to the birth of a child. An inordinate amount of energy is spent planning for the impending birth. Classes are taken, books are read, people are only too eager to tell you their experience of labour. Then when the child is born, often it is a rude shock that we are completely unprepared for how to actually care for and raise the baby.

Is this not like grief? We spend so much time thinking about death, but very little thought goes to the grief that will inevitably follow. In many ways, as with a baby, it cannot be planned for. We don’t know how it will affect us. We just privately grieve, each in our own way. It feels isolating.

Through it all, what I know to be true, is the irrationality of grief. The surprising way it manifests in us. The way it trips us up when we least expect. The times when we think we are beyond it, then it rears its head at the tiniest instigation. The many ways we deal with it on a daily basis.

The Wind Telephone of Otsuchi, Japan, (kaze no denwa) is testament to the comfort we find in the irrational.

Following the death of a beloved cousin, Itaru Sasaki erected a rotary phone booth in his backyard. He used the one-way line to carry a one-way conversation with his cousin each day, overlooking the seaside.

When Otsuchi was ravaged by the 2011 tsunami, and a staggering number of its population perished, locals began using the phone booth for themselves. Children talked to grandparents. Fathers talked to sons. Sisters talked to sisters, and so it continues to this day. All those who use the Wind Telephone are in full knowledge that their loved one will never answer. Yet they do so, and in their masses.

No matter how advanced our world becomes, no matter our increasing scientific knowledge, we still cling to the intangible. We still long to connect with those we have lost. In writing AIR, I wondered if that connection was in fact never broken. That we should see death as a natural part of life. Face death with something other than fear. That our grief is a part of us, and always will be. That rather than reject or bury grief, we should see it for what it truly is – a form of love.

An intimate story requires an intimate space in which to be told, and I am thrilled that AIR has found a home at the Old 505 Theatre.

It is a difficult story to tell on stage, given it is set in a radio studio with most characters existing via phone line. For many years I worried that the concept was unplayable. I wondered what actor would ever agree to do a play where they would be heard live but would not be seen on stage. Then Anthony Skuse came on board as director, and showed me what was possible, with a vision of how to stage this familiar yet magical world.

I first met Anthony when I sat down at his kitchen table with Eloise Snape (playing the central character of Annabel). We drank tea and read the play. He asked a few questions, gave me some thoughts to mull over, and offered concrete feedback.

He then raised one major suggestion about the play and its characters. Every fibre of my being rejected the idea he proposed, but I agreed to think about it. A few weeks later I was still adamant. No, that was not the play I was writing. Two weeks into rehearsal and clear as a bell, I realised he was right all along. But I had to realise it for myself. There have been so many instances where he has known my play even better than I have.

With Anthony, the rehearsal room is warm, collaborative, rigorous and fun. Any change to the script is discussed, options tested, and then agreed upon by all. Every moment, every punctuation mark, is treated with respect. I have even tried to cut or change things in the script which he has fought for, “on behalf of the writer.” And I am a better writer for being in the room, constantly striving to get the best out of this play.

Because I have spent years writing AIR, I can forget that so much of it is based on my own raw experiences. These moments become owned by the characters, but every so often, I hear an actor utter a line, a thought, and it catches my breath. This is the beauty of being a writer, grappling with my own life through a fictional ‘other.’ I think that each audience member will take away something different from AIR, depending on their personal experience of grief.

Whether it is buried deep, just beneath the surface, somewhere in between, or ever-changing, we have all lost someone.

And one day, we will be that someone who is lost.

In that dark theatre space, I hope they feel connected, as we all are, now and beyond.

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