Anyone who climbs understands that rock climbing is different from other sports. This may be our way of justifying its absence in the arena of popular, publicized athletics; climbing isn’t overlooked, simply set apart by choice.
It’s clear once you start climbing, though, that it’s more than a sport. As you move, there is a deep, primal sense of fulfillment that only comes from scaling a wall, swinging from branch to branch, or ascending to the peak of a cliff. The human body was made, from its earliest days, to go where other animals couldn’t. These abilities, initially protecting us from danger, fed our drive to thwart gravity, to escape the confines of the forest floor, and to break free. Then, as we stood up and ran, away from old obstacles and towards a smarter way of life, our strengths became our passions. Transitioning from necessity to pleasure, what once kept us alive now gives us a reason to live. We have learned to look for beauty in the world around us, and how we interact with it.
The act of climbing is not about reaching a destination. Representative of life, the joy is found in the climb itself. There is a flow, a beauty in the way it looks and feels to climb, and deep relevance to the struggle of life. This depth is well-captured in Brown Paper Box Co’s stage production of Grace, or the Art of Climbing.
The play was written by theatre and circus artist L. M. Feldman and first produced in 2013 in Denver—a fitting location for a play about climbing. Feldman’s work consists of plays that promote queer activism and feminism, as well as humanitarian messages and an adventurous sense of questioning that touches the explorer’s spirit inside of all of us: how we try to support and push each other, how we fall short, what happens to us when those we trust don’t meet our expectations, and how we can choose to take what we have been given and learn how to help ourselves.
As an artist, a climber and an aspiring playwright, this story speaks to me, loudly. The conversations and interactions have applications and are not just surface-level banter. It shows how people can have different perspectives but choose to allow others’ ways of life to coexist, even connect, with their own.
This is how we support each other and learn to support ourselves, so we don’t have to rely on someone else to take care of us or do everything for us. It can be enjoyable to be taken care of, but if we never learn how to take care of ourselves, then we will be stagnant when that support is gone. Just like in climbing, it’s helpful to have someone to help catch us when we fall, but the work and the willingness to fall are efforts we must make for ourselves.
Grace is being put on by Brown Paper Box Co., a Chicago company that has been producing theatre for the last decade. The director, Erin Shea Brady, has discovered countless minute details in the piece and in the world of climbing that can be applied to make the show as accurate and as meaningful as possible.
At the start of the show’s process, I reached out to Brown Paper Box to express my interest and inform them of my tie to both the worlds of theatre and climbing. They were kind enough to ask me to come on as the climbing consultant, to ensure accuracy and safety for the show. Fortunately for me, they also needed a male understudy for the cast. And, fortunately for them, I have plenty of experience making sure that climbers don’t get themselves killed. So, for the last couple of weeks, I have been graced (hah) with the presence of a beautiful, intelligent, and strong ensemble of actor/climbers, and the pleasure of witnessing a magical piece of art blossom.
Working on this play has opened my eyes to a lot of the poetic similarities between climbing and other aspects of reality—falling in love, battling mental illness, recovering from physical illness, even putting on a play. Everything requires trust in one’s own capability to take care of oneself, and in others to do the same.
It’s been inspiring to see people involved in the show instantly fall in love with climbing, gearing themselves up and restructuring their schedule around “climbing days,” thrilled by the physical and mental adventure that they get up on the wall. No matter where someone is approaching it from, whatever intent or whatever walk of life, whatever it means to them to push themselves to be stronger, there is a clear reward when they finish that one route, or their project. Sure, the joy and beauty is found during the climb, but the indisputable accomplishment of personal challenge gives one a high so pure and addictive that they cannot help but jump back on the wall. It’s something all climbers feel, but that we often take for granted, or overlook, losing ourselves in the jargon and culture of it all.
Grace is running from June 6 to July 8, at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. There is more information about the show schedule and ticket pricing on brownpaperbox.org, or the performance space’s website, and First Ascent members can get $5 off tickets with promo code ASCENT. If you’re able to attend this production, it would mean the world to the company and I’m sure, eventually, to you. If you would like to see my work in particular, I have an understudy performance on June 23rd, at the matinee time, and would greatly appreciate an invested audience. As you may know, I also work at First Ascent, primarily at the Avondale location, so if you’d simply like to talk to me about the production, about climbing, or about this post, you can find me there nearly any day of the week. But you can climb any day. Our show will only be showing for a limited time, so please, for your own sake, make your way to Grace.
—Jonathan Wilson is on staff at First Ascent Avondale, an actor, and an aspiring playwright.