A queer playwright is taking theater to new heights. Literally.
The Nice People Theatre Company is kicking off its fourth year with “Grace, or the Art of Climbing,” an ambitious new play that brings the world of rock climbing to the stage.
“Grace” is the brainchild of Lauren Feldman and follows the humorous drama of Emm (played by Rachel Joffred), who throws herself into rock climbing to deal with her father’s illness, a painful breakup and depression.
“There’s definitely climbing that happens physically but it is also used metaphorically,” Feldman said about the plot.
The 30-year-old playwright is a climbing enthusiast with 11 years of experience under her harness. The cast members of “Grace” aren’t handy with ropes and pitons, which Feldman said both intimidated and excited them when they realized the scope of the production.
“I think people seem to be really excited to do something physical and unconventional,” she said. “We’re sort of nervous about how they haven’t climbed before and how they can get to a point where they can actually accomplish the things that the script suggests they are accomplishing. It’s been a fun rehearsal process. As a playwright, I like bringing unusual things into the play. There’s a perk in it in addition to it being a really exciting story that you can sink your teeth into, that there’s some other aspect that they get to take on as well.”
A local rock climbing gym has helped the cast get up to speed on the basics.
“Philadelphia Rock Gym has been very kind to us,” Feldman said. “They’re sort of our unofficial sponsors for the show. They gave us all a two-week free membership. We took group field trips out there with the cast and the designers. We would climb and learn about gear. It helps having outside experiences like that. Communal group-bonding things help serve and enrich the company within the play.”
Of course this training doesn’t gaurantee an easy climb for the cast. Feldman said that with the crew’s ever-changing efforts to transform the warehouse space in the Power Plant Basement, she wouldn’t be surprised if it takes the cast the entire run of the play to get comfortable with all the physical requirements.
“Their comfort grows exponentially with each rehearsal. The physical world that we’re creating has been largely in flux throughout much of this process. So we’re still folding in what will be on the stage. They’re still interacting with stuff and becoming familiar with it because it’s still so new. I think you could probably ask any of them and they would tell you they feel much more comfortable with it now than they did before it began. I can see it. You can watch and you can tell that they’ve all grown in their abilities. The big priority is trying to make sure everything we do is as safe as it can be, that nobody is undertaking any greater risks than anyone would see in another play. We brought in a climbing expert to check out what we’re doing and make sure that we’re doing everything as safe as possible.”
Feldman’s love for rock climbing and her tendency to incorporate queer themes into her plays don’t mean “Grace” is autobiographical. In fact, she said, there are no overtly gay characters in the play.
“In my head, I have a couple that I think are. But it’s certainly not necessary for the play or integral to the story. A lot of my plays usually have a large degree of queer content and this one doesn’t. I would argue that the theatrical aesthetic of my plays is inherently queer in terms of being non-polar and unconventional.”
“Grace, or the Art of Climbing” runs through Nov. 8 at The Power Plant in Old City, 233 N. Bread St. For more information or tickets, call (202) 744-3362 or visit www.nicepeopletheatre.org.