‘The Climb’: InterAct Theatre Company presents new play on intertwining love and art

Ciera Gardner and Samantha Rosenstrater
From left, Ciera Gardner and Samantha Rosenstrater, who star in C.A. Johnson's 'The Climb.'

“The Climb,” a new play by C.A. Johnson, receives its world premiere from InterAct Theatre Company beginning on May 31. The work centers on the relationship between Marge, a renowned photographer, and her wife Tiffany, who emerges during their relationship as her spouse’s primary subject. The play deals with how art and love intertwine in harmonious and fractious ways. PGN spoke recently with Samantha Rosentrater and Ciera Gardner — queer artists who portray Marge and Tiffany in the production — about creating intimacy onstage, LGBTQ+ representation in theater, and what they hope audiences will take away from seeing the show. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Can you talk a bit about the play itself and how your characters fit into the story?
Samantha Rosentrater: “The Climb” is told in present and flashback, with a good deal of drama but also a lot of levity. This story is about a married couple, Tiffany and Marge. Marge is a pretty famous photographer and professor, who has kind of made her fame by taking pictures of her wife solely. Her wife is 10 years younger than her and her former student; Marge is also white, and Tiffany is Black. Tiffany goes through this change where she says, “I need to figure out myself. I need to figure out my place in those photos.” So she decides she has to get away.

Ciera Gardner: I play Tiffany. The play is called “The Climb” because it’s about Tiffany going on a month-long hike on the long trail in Vermont, to kind of clear her head to say the least, but also to reorient her life. She’s spent the past seven years being so intertwined with her wife, who is a very famous photographer, and Tiffany is her muse. There are so many layers of complication when you consider their marriage and being really close to somebody for such a long time, artistically and personally. It has left Tiffany a little confused and looking for answers.

When you both read the script, what attracted you to this project?
SR: As a queer person myself, I’ve gotten to play very few really meaty, complicated, three-dimensional queer women. I’m in my forties, and I’ve been watching and reading stories about gay people for a long time, and usually it’s an angle where the lesbian never gets the happy ending. It was so awesome to read a play where the story didn’t hinge on their sexuality — it was just a part of their story. I also really love the representation on stage. As a slightly butch woman, getting to play someone close to myself is very cool. Playing opposite Ciera, who is also queer, is something that excited me.

CG: I can relate to Tiffany in the sense that I’ve been in places where I wanted to remove myself, to figure out who I am and how I wanted to define things for myself. I relate to the desire to want to put things on the back burner for a second and see where my heart is. It’s a hard place to be, really vulnerable, to have love for your partner but to have love for yourself too.

What is some of the work that you all do to make the intimacy of a marriage believable onstage?
SR: Ciera and I have the benefit of having been friends for about six years. In our audition, I think we kind of just went for it. We just really dig each other, so that’s one thing. We also have an intimacy coordinator who takes away some of the butterflies of crafting these moments onstage and makes it kind of like fight choreography. Part of their job is to help choreograph the story of a couple who has been together for a long time and are still in love. We were also blessed with a couple extra days of rehearsal and an incredible director, Catharine Slusar, and spent the first couple days doing table work, which was such a gift.

CG: I’m fortunate to have known and worked with Sam, and we have a nice rapport. Lots of comfort goes into it, and it’s important to have a safe room. We’re so fortunate to have a great cast and a great director. Paying attention to each other is important. I’ve noticed in the room that even if Sam and I aren’t in the same scene together, we pay diligent attention to each other while we are acting with our other counterparts. Finding the layers and loving them is important for both of us, for everybody.

Pretty soon, you’ll be in front of an audience. What do you hope people will take away from the show once they see it?
SR: I hope that the conversation on the walk home is about how nobody has an answer. I hope it’s just filled with questions and possibilities and interpretations. I want to give them something complicated to really chew on. Who do we make art for? Why do we make it? Whose responsibility is it in making it and receiving it? It’s the ambiguity and the questioning that I’m really looking forward to audiences taking away.

CG: I think audiences will take away that it takes a lot of work to be in marriage. It’s not just that you do the work once and then you’re set — it’s a continuous choice to be there for each other and to understand each other. There are so many layers within relationships, especially artistic ones, and it’s important to love yourself and love your partner. I don’t want to give away too much, but I hope that audiences will understand that it’s OK to dig deeper and ask questions in order to find a closer connection.

“The Climb” runs May 31-June 23 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit interacttheatre.org.

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