“WHY DO YOU WANT TO CLIMB THIS MOUNTAIN?” Mike Largent, climber, actor, writer and founder of the adventure-based Theater Troupe, Theatre of the Wild, demands from fellow climbers, roaring into their faces drill-sergeant style.
The climbers, standing at military attention, shout back, “TO TELL A MOUNTAIN CLIMBER STORY THAT DOESN’T END WITH JAMES FRANCO UNDER A ROCK, SIR!”
This is the opening scene for the ground-breaking play, Lobuje, named for the 20,000-foot Himalayan peak and based on the raw experience of the theater troupe, Theatre of the Wild, who summitted the peak last November. Their docu-dramedy is the first time a mountain climbing story has ever been performed on the stage. How did the story translate to the unusual terrain? They won a People’s Choice Award at the Fort Collins Fringe Festival in July and they deserved it.
While the troupe’s leader, Mike Largent, did nearly die of hypoxia and had to be rescued by a helicopter, the opening scene guarantees the audience that that’s not what this story is about… at least, it’s not all this story is about. And that’s super refreshing because I’ve heard more than one person “meh” when the latest film debuts about badasses sponsored by Black Diamond or The North Face finding the next big edge on which to test their already considerable skills. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all still deeply impressed, but it’s getting harder for us to connect to their stories. And, frankly, we’re seeing so many that maybe, just maybe, they’re starting to be a little same-old, same-old? Where are the stories about those of us living real lives kicking and scratching our slightly less-toned tushes through a bit of adventuring?
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“Go Big or Go Home” is actually starting to get some shrugs and yawns here and there as audiences, overwhelmed with the litany of the how’s of these adventures, have started yearning for the deeper waters of the why’s and who’s, with the who’s being who are these people really, where did they come from, what drives them, and how much like “me” are they? Along with these deeper questions, people, especially non-climbers, also want to know, “Why does this even matter?”
The answer to these questions is what Theatre of the Wild’s Lobuje is all about. One of the core-binding principles of the four troupe members (Mike Largent, Sarah Grizzard, Theo Reitwiesner and Gustavo Palma) is that pushing yourself through adventures, whether in the wild or otherwise, carried out on the individual level, improves the world on a global level. The important thing is that you’re getting out of your comfort zone. “It isn’t about being the best,” says Theo Reitwiesner, a college student pursuing a double major in psychology and outdoor recreation at Fort Lewis College, one of the only colleges in the country that literally offer a degree in Adventure Education. “It makes us better people and that’s good for the whole world.”
Theatre of the Wild want to remind the audience that growth promoting adventures come in many different forms. “You can do more, you can get out there in whatever way that means for you, and it’s worth it,” says Largent. “You’ll grow.”
Lobuje brings this message through revelations not of the pure badassery of the players, but through the revelations of their lovable, fabulous human fallibility, starting with three of the climbers downing a bottle of martini premix like some sort of post-race sport drink rather than pouring it out at airport customs, which naturally came with some uncomfortable consequences over their long flight to Kathmandu. The message—that anyone can and should have adventures—is brought home as you watch this crew who had been so busy with work and school and life that they didn’t have time to fully train, struggle and crawl their way to the summit. That is, except for Largent, who had perhaps the deepest, most powerful adventure of all, struggling to breathe until he was forced to evacuate by helicopter, alone, with the hopes a rapid descent to lower elevations allowed him to live.
When asked why no one went with him, Reitwiesner said Largent waved them on saying, “What are you going to do? Lick my wounds or hold my hand?” Full disclosure from this writer: If we’re climbing in a foreign country and I just spent the last 24 hours unable to talk because I had to concentrate on trying not to drown in my deepening lung lake, I’m gonna want you to hold my hand all the way to the hospital like the big baby I am.
True to the opening scene, however, Largent’s near-death experience is only an aside in a story that is sometimes frightening, sometimes hilarious, but always raw and honest, performed by a talented troupe of performers, three of whom are theater veterans.
The entire performance is played out on the back of an old dump truck the troupe has converted to simulate the troupe’s climb to the peak. They custom built a fold out stage that features a retractable climbing wall they actually clip into and scale.
“People say they felt like they were immersed, like they were really experiencing it and that’s exactly what we were going for.” Said Gus Palma, who was relatively new to climbing when the troupe took on the climb. “We want people to ask themselves: What’s their version of their stories? What do they want to do? Not talk about, not daydream, not read about, but do?” says Largent. And nobody has to die or leaves a limb pinned under a rock for it to matter.
Theatre of the Wild have one more performance coming up October 25-27 at the Alpine Club’s Craggin’ Classic in Moab, Utah. For more information: https://americanalpineclub.org/moab-craggin-classic
Story ran in Rock and Ice Magazine October 23, 2019: https://rockandice.com/inside-beta/climbing-takes-on-the-theater-durango-dirtbags-win-award-for-their-play-lobuje/