Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera
What: “Grace, or The Art of Climbing” world premiere
When: Today through Feb. 17
Where: The Space Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver
Info: denvercenter.org/buy. NOTE: Boulder residents can save $5 on performances through Feb. 10 by using this promo code: BOULDER
When Kynan Waggoner looks at a climbing wall or bouldering problem, his brain begins churning and formulating new ways to get from the bottom to the top.
The climbing wall, whether it’s been climbed before or not, is a blank canvas for him to sketch lines on with his body.
In this sense, Waggoner considers himself less of an athlete and more of an artist.
“If I’m bouldering, I’m rarely climbing the taped routes,” said Waggoner, a Boulder resident who serves as operations director of USA Climbing. “I look at the wall, and the tape is secondary. I just see a bunch of handholds by which I want to create something.”
Waggoner brings both his artistic and athletic abilities to the play “Grace, or The Art of Climbing,” which makes its world premiere today at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Space Theatre.
The playwright, Lauren Feldman, approached Waggoner last spring and asked him to be the show’s climbing consultant, teaching actors with no climbing experience how to squeeze their feet into tiny climbing shoes and scale walls effortlessly on stage.
Waggoner agreed to the new challenge. The 37-year-old, who’s been climbing since his early 20s, began setting competition routes in 2000. He and his brother opened a climbing gym in Miami, where Waggoner worked as manager and youth climbing team coach.
A little more than five years ago, Waggoner moved to Boulder, the home of USA Climbing and a hub for climbers worldwide.
When the seven “Grace” cast members arrived in Denver in December, Waggoner showed them what it’s like to be a first-timer at a climbing gym.
Waggoner said the actors learned what hundreds of stinky feet and chalk bags smell like, how sore those tiny, hidden muscles can feel the next day and to applaud when someone’s climb transcends athleticism and approaches beautiful choreography.
“Grace, or The Art of Climbing” follows Emm (Julie Jesneck) a 25-year-old woman living in Miami who is trying to process changes in her interpersonal relationships, including her father. She begins climbing, joins a gym and uses the sport as a way to work through grief, depression and change.
The lessons Emm learns while climbing apply to her life: It’s OK to fall, take time to breathe, and realize it’s not about the end point but about the steps along the way.
“What do you do when you feel yourself slipping?” Emm asks her unofficial climbing coach and mentor, Sims.
“You get your breathing under control; you focus. You grip tighter,” he answers, speaking only partially about climbing.
Waggoner emphasized that in no way is the play comparable to Cirque du Soleil, adding that the movement and climbing skills are secondary to the actors’ emotional connections with each other and the audience.
Feldman wrote the script to be performed on a spectrum of movement, which ranged from full-on climbing to a version where the actors’ feet never leave the ground.
The idea of using the actors, not the set, to tell the story intrigued Feldman when she began writing the script. The challenge for the actors, who each play two to three characters, and director Mike Donahue became channeling climbing feelings and situations to the audience without relying heavily on the set.
“In a film, you can put a bunch of actors on a cliff and film them actually climbing,” Feldman said. “But you wouldn’t have an actual cliff on stage. I have no interest in seeing the cliff or a climbing wall. How does one evoke the essence of these things in a more poetic way? To me, it’s so much more exciting to watch an actor tell me or create with words and their body what is happening.”
The fascination of the main character, Emm, with climbing is also not really about the sport itself. It’s about deriving meaning from climbing lessons and principles and translating them to her life, Feldman said.
One lesson in particular stuck out to actor M. Scott McLean. Waggoner taught the cast that hanging from their body’s skeleton rather than muscling up the wall is the most efficient and sustainable way to climb.
McLean said he found parallels between that lesson, Emm’s struggles and his own life.
“If you hang on your bones, it’s so much easier,” McLean said. “No matter how hard something is, there’s a way to make it easier on yourself. It is hard to overcome disappointment and grief when a relationship breaks up or your relationship with your parent changes.
“But in that journey, you can find ways to change your perspective, breathe, realize where your feet are. We don’t have to muscle through it, we can find grace.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.