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.
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.
A packed house of 500 patrons just saw the final reading at our 2012 COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT. Based on the novel by JANE AUSTEN, with Book & Lyrics by Jeffrey Haddow and Music by Neal Hampton, SENSE & SENSIBILITY THE MUSICAL was a lovely conclusion to our three-day new play festival.
If you haven’t seen the interviews, please tune in to get a glimpse at what happened during this extraordinary event:
BRUCE K. SEVY, Director of New Play Development, Denver Center Theatre Company
Mark your calendar for next year’s Summit Feb 8-10, 2013.
Professional rock climbing serves as a metaphor and catalyst in a young athlete’s life. Much as our own Colorado Rockies have peaks and valleys, so to does Emm’s life in a variety of ways - health, emotions, relationships and fitness.
Told with heart and humor, Emm learns that, among several “number one rules about rock climbing,” sometimes you need to loosen your grip and be prepared to fall in order to climb what seem to be insurmountable heights.
Next up is THE HAND OF GOD by Richard Dresser. Stay tuned.
The second day of the COLORADO NEW PLAY SUMMIT had our 100 artistic team members actively engaged in five hours of rehearsal. The casts and crews of Lisa Loomer’s HOMEFREE and Richard Dresser’s THE HAND OF GOD had an “on stage” rehearsal when they worked in The Jones and The Ricketson theatres respectively.
Meanwhile, the casts and crews of Jeffrey Haddow and Neal Hampton’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY THE MUSICAL, MIchael Mitnick’s ED, DOWNLOADED and Lauren Feldman’s GRACE, OR THE ART OF CLIMBING were rehearsing in our cleverly named (and painted) Yellow, Purple and Orange rehearsal studios.
But you might be wondering what happens on these days. While directors SAM BUNTROCK (Ed, Downloaded), MIKE DONAHUE (GRACE…), PAM MACKINNON (The Hand of God), MARCIA MILGROM DODGE (Sense & Sensibility) and JUSTIN ZSEBE (Homefree) work with the actors on bring the script to life with tone, inflection, dialect, etc., the playwright spends a lot of time listening, gauging and refining.
Then lines are cut, dialogue is added, scripts are changed, copies are made and the whole process begins again tomorrow in preparation for the weekend’s public readings.
And then there’s tonight - a time for the participants to see plays that went through this same process last year and are now being fully produced by our DENVER CENTER THEATRE COMPANY: THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter and TWO THINGS YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT AT DINNER by Lisa Loomer.
Then there’s a little food and drink to connect, refresh, reminisce and anticipate what the coming days will bring.