March 7, 2012

Climbing Towards Opening Night

This week has been a frenzy of activity as we moved into technical rehearsals for The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, putting together transitions with sound, lighting, projections, moving scenery, and costume changes. There have also been several mundane trips: to storage to look for suspenders and shoes, to thrift stores to look for teacups, to the Crafty Beaver on Lawrence to look for a broom with a wooden handle. Things are really coming together, and we are very excited for opening night on Saturday!

Caffeine also produced a staged reading for the AWP Conference in Chicago last weekend. Founding Artistic Director Jennifer Shook came in from Iowa to direct the reading of Things I Didn’t Know I Loved, Zack Rogow’s lovely biographical piece about Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. The reading was introduced by Cornelius Eady (author of Brutal Imagination, which Jason Beck directed for Caffeine last season) and featured a cast composed mainly of Caffeine regulars.

Cornelius Eady (at podium);
Ian Randall, Carey Burton, James Elly, Erik Schnitger, Dana Black (L to R).
Photo by Jennifer Shook.]

A large and appreciative audience heard our interpretation of Rogow’s script, which makes use of several Nazim Hikmet poems to explicate biographical moments. Here is an example from Hikmet’s long prison sentence for political agitation:

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example—
I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole life.

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved includes a scene set in 1920, when Hikmet and his friend Va-Nu went to join the Turkish army. Every time we got to this scene, I couldn’t help thinking it was happening at the same time as the events of The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion. I was also continually reminded of T.E. Lawrence’s role in defeating the Turkish army during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. Specifically, I remembered Ned’s self-deprecating comment in the first scene: “I blew up a few Turkish trains.”

At the end of that first scene, Ned and Robert begin their roof-climbing adventures together. (No mean feat in the low-ceilinged Lincoln Square Theatre, by the way. I’m biased, but I think our director, designers, actors, and TD have found an elegant solution). Climbing is a recurring trope in the play, and it turns out the historical Graves and Lawrence were both known for their climbing. Graves was an avid mountain climber, favoring rocky terrain, while Lawrence apparently preferred the challenge of trees and rooftops.

Flora Armitage writes of Lawrence’s precocious climbing ability as follows: "At two, following his father without his knowledge, he climbed up a steep ladder into a loft, never pausing until he had reached the top and safety in the arms of an astonished parent. During the family's sojourn in the New Forest this prodigiousness on Ned's part became even more marked. 'No tree was too high for him to climb,' his mother said, adding that she never knew him to fall." (The Desert and the Stars, p. 17)

Robert Graves summarizes his own attitudes toward climbing in an early chapter of Good-Bye to All That, comparing his climbing talents to his poetic talents and expressing greater pride in the former: “I felt very proud to be on a rope with [rock-climbing expert] Geoffrey Young, and when he told me one day: ‘Robert, you have the finest natural balance that I have ever seen in a climber,’ this compliment pleased me more than if the Poet Laureate had told me that I had the finest sense of rhythm that he had ever met in a young poet.” (64)

Graves also recounts the camaraderie of climbing, recalling an essay he wrote in his youth: “In an essay on climbing written at the time, I said that the sport made all others seem trivial. ‘New climbs, or new variations on old climbs, are not made in a competitive spirit, but only because it is good to stand where nobody else has stood before. It is good, too, to be alone with a specially chosen band of people—people in whom a man can trust completely.’” This notion of choosing a particular group of people is reminiscent of Ned’s selection of Robert as a member of The Oxford Roof Climbers, the Benevolent Order of. Comparing climbing to fox-hunting, which involves factors beyond the hunter’s control, Graves contends that mountain climbers do not have to trust to unpredictable horses: “Climbers trust entirely to their own feet, legs, hands, shoulders, sense of balance, judgment of distance.” Graves’s comments on the independence fostered by climbing reflect his distrust of institutions as depicted in the play.

Robert and Ned relish the danger of climbing; a repeated refrain of the play involves the two characters daring each other: “It’s awfully dangerous….”/ “It’s your favorite kind.” Describing his experience climbing a particularly challenging peak in Wales, Graves offers a fascinating explanation of this danger: “My worst climb was on Lliwedd, the most formidable of the precipices, when, at a point that needed the most concentration, a raven circled round the party in great sweeps. I found this quite unsettling, because one climbs only up or down, or sideways, and the raven seemed to suggest diverse other possible dimensions of movement—tempting us to let go our hold and join him” (GBTAT 66). The raven inspires a desire for flight and a simultaneous fear of falling, emotions that similarly confound the characters in Oxford.

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