Interview with Carmen Nasr – writer of The Climbers
Can you tell us a bit more about The Climbers? For you, what is it about?
It’s about many things, at least I hope it is! On one level, it’s about the commodification of climbing, about the imperialist roots of the concept of conquering a summit, and the uncomfortable power imbalance between the wealthy, often Western climbing clientele and the local porters and guides, who make it possible for them to climb. But on another level, it’s about individualism in our contemporary world, and its relationship to our search for purpose, as well as how this might manifest in romantic relationships. It’s also about grief and mothers and memory.
What inspired you to write The Climbers?
I was initially inspired by my brother’s experience of climbing Kilimanjaro. As someone who had never climbed a mountain, he went into it quite naively and slightly on a whim and was taken aback by the power imbalances he witnessed and kind of blindsided by how challenging it was, both physically and emotionally. When he told me the whole story of the climb, in full detail, from arriving at the airport, to vivid descriptions of the landscape, to the horrors of altitude sickness – I was captivated. There was an element of classic fireside storytelling, as well as really rich thematic territory. The first idea I had was of a kind of comedy of an unprepared and slightly clueless couple bickering their way up Kilimanjaro. Then through my research I found out that there were over 200 bodies, frozen and stuck on Everest, and the sheer absurdity of this fact, drove me towards the setting of Everest and it grew from there.
There must have been a huge amount of research you had to go through to put this story together, can you tell us more about that process?
It’s a tricky balance with research sometimes, you want to do enough to be deeply informed and rigorous, but not too much to overwhelm the imagination and tip into journalistic or documentary territory. I started off by doing an internet deep dive, reading hundreds of articles about Everest, covering everything from mountaineering ethics, the Sherpa community, technique, tragic accidents, and the commodification of the mountain. From there I then made a reading and watching list of key documentaries and mountaineering literature. Then I had to force myself to stop. I’m much less interested in the accuracy of what kind of crampons or ice axes are used, although it’s important to get the basics right of course! I was more drawn to the themes and the world and the characters’ motivations. Once I’d done that, I also did the fun ‘rabbit hole’ type research into cute animal stories, Italian pop songs and ghost stories. Also there’s the active research and then the kind of research that happens when your ears and eyes are open to the topic, things sort of start finding you. I also did short bursts of research in between drafts as new questions came up.
Do you have an interest in mountaineering? Are you outdoorsy?
No I’m not very outdoorsy! Before writing this play I wasn’t particularly interested in mountaineering, although of course I can really appreciate why people enjoy it, or even become obsessed with it. I do love a good walk or hike in the countryside, and I find the sea extremely calming and meditative. But I’m a city girl at heart, I find cities totally magical and fascinating, I keep expecting it to wear off, but it never does. I’m really drawn to people and stories and relationships, perhaps that’s why.
Have you read a lot of other mountain literature? What did you want to add and what’s different about this piece?
I read a handful of books as part of my research, both colonial-era accounts like Annapurna, and the more modern Everest horror story kind, like Into Thin Air. The literature is unsurprisingly dominated by the white western male perspective, and the stories and voices that are missing from the genre are multiple, and many of those voices are not really for me to fill. I often joke that this play is an ‘anti-climbing’ play, which is kind of tongue in cheek, but I guess it’s a critique of the ‘hero’ narrative of the western climber. I can’t help but feel a sense of deep outrage that as a society we glorify and almost worship those who risk their lives in pursuit of the summit of Everest, but vilify and demonise those who risk their lives by crossing the channel in a boat, simply in search of safety and security. That’s the absurdity of being alive today. So I guess what’s different about this piece is that it asks – why the hell are you on Everest?
The play touches on some uncomfortable truths and asks questions about the role of Sherpas in relation to western mountaineers, can you talk to us a bit more about this?
It’s a big topic with a lot of history and one that anyone writing about Everest cannot ignore. It’s also an issue that exists on other mountains, such as Kilimanjaro, with its own nuances and history and context. I knew I couldn’t write this play without touching upon the fact that guides and porters from the Sherpa community are often risking their lives and working in very dangerous and unethical conditions for very little money and often little or no recognition. Although the play is not overtly about this issue, it is an important part of the story. Finding the voice of the character of Tshering, who is a local guide, has taken many years of thinking, planning and research, and I look forward to continuing this journey with the actor playing the role. There are some fantastic documentaries and articles out there on the topic, and I would urge people to go and explore them, as they address the issue through journalism and first-hand accounts, and that is often more effective than fiction when it comes to political action and raising awareness.
Had you envisaged how theatre makers might approach putting Everest ‘on stage’ or is that something you leave to the designers?
I love theatre designers, I’m kind of in awe of them and if I wasn’t a writer I think I’d love to be a designer. The great thing about being a writer though is that you can kind of go wild and do what you want, and then it becomes someone else’s puzzle to solve. I love offering a big challenge to designers and directors. The creative team have done such fantastic and inspiring work in terms of design – it’s going to make the show!
Is there anything that might surprise audiences about the show?
That’s a hard question – when you are so close to a piece of work, it becomes almost impossible to see it from outside eyes, it’s a real struggle to step outside of myself and imagine how an audience might see the piece. Although, I do hope people will be surprised by the how complex and contradictory the world of climbing is when you start to dig a little deeper.
Finally, who have you written this show for?
I started off writing the play years ago, with no commission or attachment to a theatre, I was kind of writing for myself, because I was totally alone with it in a way. I was writing the play I wanted to see. When it was programmed at Theatre by the Lake, suddenly I had the privilege of a space and an audience and a geographical context. The pandemic delayed the play by two years, which was heart-breaking, but also meant there have been many more drafts, and the re-writing process very much had a Theatre by the Lake audience as part of the intention. Come and watch!
Find out more about The Climbers here.
Download press image of Carmen Nasr here.
Read the Q&A from director of The Climbers, Guy Jones, here.