Andrew Garman in “The Christians,” “a dazzling, challenging play about faith in America,” at the 2014 Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky.
By Douglas Langworthy
Denver Center Literary Manager
The Denver Center’s annual new-play festival, the Colorado New Play Summit, which just turned 9 this year, is one of a number of similar festivals across the country. The granddaddy of them all, the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., turns 38 this year. Last weekend, I traveled to Louisville with Colorado New Play Summit Coordinator Emily Tarquin to check out the plays and do a little festival compare-and-contrast.
One of the main differences between our festivals is that Humana doesn’t do readings of the plays. They do productions, both partially and fully staged. The first show we saw was a bare-bones, in-the-round staging of Partners by Dorothy Fortenberry. Two couples, one married and straight and one not married and gay, lead contemporary New York lives. The action centers around Clare and Ezra’s plan to start a food truck and Clare’s intrusive desire to see Ezra marry his boyfriend. All of the relationships in the play are put to the test and no one is left unscathed in this comedy/drama that feels very current, down to this generation’s love of wordsmithing (my favorite was “monogomish”).
At the end of July 2012, the creative team for Grace, or The Art of Climbing had a design conference to discuss the usual aspects of planning, designing and assembling a production—plus one more. Lauren Feldman’s exquisite metaphorical play rests on the central idea of climbing one’s way out of a deep depression. That’s climbing as in rock climbing. Our protagonist Emm has suffered two major losses in as many days. This double whammy has knocked her out. The play is about climbing out of that pit and into the light— literally and figuratively. How to put this event on a stage, let alone the stage of a theatre in the round such as The Space?
Among the artists assembled to figure this out were the playwright, Lauren Feldman (LF), director Mike Donahue (MD), scenic designer Dane Laffrey (DL), Director of Production Ed Lapine (EL) and a less predictable but in this case pivotal person: climbing consultant Kynan Waggoner (KW).
Feldman, who is a climber, contributed this to the conversation: “We’re all journeying in our way in our lives and we are supported by all of our loved ones. [The play] is a visual and physical manifestation of a solo sport with partners. Even though it’s the story of one person in this group of seven, I feel it’s part of the fabric—seeing how everyone is supporting each other and letting each other down, and failing each other and then apologizing. Seeing an actor climbing and another belaying [is] seeing that literalized.”
Below is part of the exchange at the July meeting plus some updated comments from designer Laffrey as plans for the production took more concrete shape.
MD: There is a lot of rock climbing in the show. The big question: how literal is the climbing? The language is Shakespearean, in that [Emm] tells you a lot of what you’re meant to see and where you are. We don’t always need to show that, we don’t need a fully realized climbing gym onstage. But it’s also an athletic, muscular piece of theatre about the body going through something real, and we need to create an evocative space where all of that physical work can actually happen.
Rock climbing is a solo sport with partners—the way you tackle yourself and work with others. The cast needs to understand the climbing: the kind of movements required, the way your body moves, the grace of it. It takes real work and that work wants to be somehow real in the show. It’s not about hiding the strings or creating an illusion.
Kynan will need to be an active part of the process, collaborating on the design and structures we must have; and we will have to train as a company throughout rehearsals.
KW: I see it more as about the emotions brought out via climbing than the climbing itself. The main focus needs to be about what’s happening internally.
LF: The muscularity and effort are more important than the technicality of the climbing. We’ll respond to seeing someone work hard, not to whether they’re extraordinary climbers. The other side of that would be finding physical moments of grace or beauty that are theatrical… Climbing is about the poetry or the beauty of something, the opportunities to create art out of that.
MD: The Space is perfect for us because it offers both intimacy and verticality—we can really get up high in that theatre—and she will still feel close to us. But the fundamental spatial relationship in climbing is you against a flat surface, so how do you open that up in the round so everyone can see the body through the wall? Climbing requires a structure to climb on. How do you create a structure substantial enough to allow the actors to go up high in the space, but minimal enough to not block the audience from being able to see them? That is the real challenge of the design.
There’s an idea in the play that everything is porous, that nothing is totally solid, not the walls, the ground or the climbing. It’s about the body in free-fall. This somehow feels key.
EL: What would you say drives a person to rock climb?
KW: My first experience was in a gym. Something clicked with climbing physically first, emotionally as well to some degree, but I knew I wanted to do this. For me it’s always been about getting to an emotional state facilitated by a physical response.
In climbing there is kind of an unwritten code of ethics. You want to walk up to something and say I’m going to climb this right now, not knowing the grade, what’s up there. Some climbers excel in very choreographed routines of climbing, from their breathing to their hand placements. I never identified with that, and there are people who don’t like the outside climbing that I do.
LF: There’s something that gets triggered in the human brain when you are physically ascending something. You have this incredibly literal tracking of what you’ve just accomplished. It’s very specific. There’s something lovely about the fact that the challenge is equally internal and external; it’s in your head, and also it’s between you and that hold.
The other lovely thing is that as the climber, you have a belayer who is supporting you by holding your rope and offering feedback. Once you have that support, you can feel free to explore and move and take risks. Some folks discover that their bodies really take to the movement and rhythm of climbing.
Scenic designer Laffrey, who mostly listened in silence, contributed these final words after the fact:
We never discussed the idea of a climbing wall, even a transparent one. We needed something kinetic, but also visible from all sides of the hexagonal space. We ended up with something where we can start with a completely empty stage, then a person and then stuff falling into the space: a pair of climbing shoes, small objects, all important to creating that world, as opposed to having any kind of construction in the space.
The only scenic elements on which the climbing takes place [in the theatre] are five 40-foot steel I-beams, woven together, that stack on top of each other and can move independently to the full height of the space. They exist along axes—three along one axis, two along another—because vertical climbing is really only one part of the sport. There is also horizontal climbing, bouldering as it’s called, and there is a lot of this sideways action in Grace.
The look and feel of a real gym is not particularly well matched with the piece. A gym is hot, lots of people and stuff everywhere; the sound is dull; it’s stuffy and smelly. If there is any iconography about rock climbing, it is something that transcends the environment. It’s the language of the body. The way it moves. Like dance. That visual vocabulary.
So we want to provide something simple and sparse, where the body can accomplish the many scenarios of the climbing task, where the physical can evolve and devolve and shift and create an illusion of climbing. But it’s always more interesting if the structure on which it happens does not look like something you can trust. That idea of porousness. Not only do the pieces move around Emm, but she can move on and with the pieces. Even the most basic ways in which we understand space hopefully will be shifted slightly in our interpretation of it.
We’re trying to do the climbing very faithfully, using harnesses and belays where appropriate. Audiences will see the action from different angles. They’ll see backs, they’ll see fronts. Climbing is rigorous. What surprised me is that it is not so much goal-oriented as in climbing to the top of something. It’s a much bigger thing, much more cerebral. It’s about mastery.