by Douglas Langworthy
Lauren Feldman loves taking chances. Mastering the sport of rock climbing was a way to challenge herself physically and has led to her newfound interest in acrobatics (she’s currently enrolled in classes at a circus school). In her plays she eschews traditional linear structures, preferring the freedom of fluid or fractured forms. She also has developed a passion for “devised” work, theatrical pieces created collectively in which the playwright’s voice is just one of many. When she teaches playwriting, she encourages her students to explore the territory outside the edges of dramatic convention. I recently caught up with this thoughtful writer to talk about her play, her love of the unconventional and, of course, the art of climbing.
DL: When did you decide you wanted to become a playwright?
LF: In college I knew I was excited by the theatre, particularly as an actor. I was also interested in becoming a writer of fiction or essays. And then I took a playwriting class, and I remember sort of falling in love with it. I took that class and concurrently applied for a really cool program at the Royal Court Theatre in London—a several-month online project called “Crossing the Borders.”
There were around 12 of us in the program from all over the world. We would all log onto The Royal Court’s website at a designated time and have facilitated online conversations about the many kinds of borders that exist between people—gender, race, class, etc. Then each week we would have some kind of playwriting assignment based on whichever sort of borders we’d been talking about, which you’d post on the website for everyone to read and respond to before the next week’s session. At the end of the program, the facilitator took one piece from each of the playwrights and a few segments of our recorded online conversations and created a collage performance piece. Most of us ended up going to London to see the performance. It was the first time I’d seen my work performed and I think that was pretty formative.
DL: You have collaborated on several devised pieces. Can you talk about what your role is in creating with a group?
LF: I’m sure that devised work has had a huge impact on the sort of solo playwriting I do. I love doing it. I’ve been a part of many kinds of processes, and every time it feels different depending on the group of people and the project. Some have had multiple playwrights, sometimes it’s just been me; sometimes the text that emerges is an adaptation of found source material, other times it’s all original material, and sometimes it’s based on some form of preexisting story or myth.
I find devised work feels nourishing and balancing with solo playwriting, partly because of collaboration entering the process much sooner. Also, I find myself stretched and inspired by my collaborators’ creative impulses, and challenged to find a way to weave together everyone’s different inputs into one cohesive or semi-cohesive journey. And when I come out of that and sit down to write my next solo play, I feel cross-pollinated.
DL: Could you talk about your own personal connection to climbing?
LF: The first time I saw a climbing wall I was I think 13, in summer camp, and I remember hating all the athletics they made us do. I was a very non-physical child. One day they took us out to the middle of a field and there was this very old-school climbing wall. Like a giant three-paneled science project display board, but with all these holds screwed on. And two at a time they put us in harnesses, clipped us in, and told us to climb it.
I was really not coordinated or physically agile, but there was something I guess in the inherent metaphor of ascending something, and I remember climbing one of the panels surprisingly easily. On our next turn they put us on a harder panel, and I’d watched everyone before me trying and giving up. So when it was my turn, suddenly there was this young tenacious Lauren who was unprecedentedly driven to reach the top. And she did. I remember it being a profound experience, because I’d never succeeded at something physical before.
When I got to college, there was the option of taking a rock-climbing course, and I fell in love with the act of climbing all over again. Climbing ignites my willpower in a way that no other sport or activity had. And the more I did it, the more I found I had an affinity for it. My body likes the grace of it, likes the rhythm of it, likes the “elementalness” of it—the rock in hand. Also the meditative, solo aspect of it. It doesn’t feel competitive, and it’s not a team sport where everyone is relying on you to be awesome. And it’s supportive, because there’s always someone spotting you or belaying you.
I feel like climbing has been one of the three most formative events of my life. It completely changed my sense of self. I started to live in my body differently. And I’ve noticed my plays over the past decade and a half have gotten increasingly physically aware and muscular. I feel like my plays went from being talking heads to being characters with bodies that interact.
DL: How did you get the idea to write a play about a woman who climbs?
LF: Well I’m a woman and I climb, so I’m sure that’s part of it. But more than that really, I think it sprung from a hunger to see physical quest stories with female protagonists. There’s such a large, old, rich canon of boy questers venturing forth and being strong, brave and tenacious, their physical limits tested as we get to bear witness to (and delight vicariously in) the ardor and muscularity of their trials. They’re stand-ins for the universal quester, but they’re usually male and at some point I started yearning to see myself reflected in the body, the adventures, and the physical rigor of these protagonists. It’s hard to find stories that feature the muscularity of women.
DL: At various moments in Grace, we aren’t sure whether we’re watching memory, fantasy or real life. Are we experiencing the play from the perspective of Emm, your central character?
LF: Yes. Emm is deliberately avoiding things, whether on purpose or not, and so she’s closed the door on things that are closed for us too. And then, either as she starts to open the door or other people demand entrance, that’s when we get to learn things; we are dealing with things at the same rate as she is. The idea of the revelation of information—portioning it out throughout the story—was very important to me. We don’t know everything at the beginning, but that’s OK, it’s going to be a great journey. We’ll learn another little piece here, and we’ll learn another little piece there so that we get to experience a kind of hunger, we want to know, and that is a more fulfilling ride and engaging journey.
DL: Grace, or The Art of Climbing has a very fluid use of time and memory. Are you particularly interested in non-linear dramatic forms?
LF: I am drawn to things that fall outside the mainstream in general. I’m pretty sure if being a playwright were as popular a profession as being a doctor or a lawyer I probably wouldn’t have become one. Linear structures in theatre feel like the dominant form, and certainly historically they’re the canonical form, so I feel drawn toward things that feel wildly theatrical, stories that are told in ways that are uncommon. I don’t feel drawn to creating reality that looks like our reality. I feel drawn to creating other realities that don’t have a one-to-one relationship with ours, that resonate as true but aren’t stand-ins for life as we perceive it. There’s something in that latitude of playfulness and imagination and impossibility that excites me about theatre fundamentally. I love the way that it engages audiences, it causes us to sit up a little, lean forward. It invites an imaginative participation, a leap of faith.