TOWN IN A MIRROR: The Laramie Project

Moises Kaufman had a hunch. When news reports started emerging from Laramie, Wyo., in October of 1998 that a gay college student named Matthew Shepard had been savagely beaten, tied to a fence on the edge of town and left to die by two local roofers he met in a bar, Kaufman sensed that this was no fleeting news event. The Venezuela-born, New York-based writer and director, who'd scored an enormous theatrical triumph in 1997 with his play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, saw that people all over the world were being emotionally affected by the symbolism and the brutality of Shepard's death.

In Kaufman's hands, Gross Indecency clearly dramatized how Oscar Wilde's prosecution and imprisonment for homosexual behavior became a public referendum on Victorian England's attitudes about sex, gender, money, class and education. Now Kaufman wondered if the lethal gaybashing of Matthew Shepard might be a similarly resonant turning point for American culture -- a moment around which a socially conscious piece of theatre might be created.

"What I read in the press about Matthew Shepard told me that the crime captured people's imagination," he recalled recently "How did it do that? And how do we deal with it in the theatre? Before this, did anyone in Laramie ever have to talk publicly about these questions? I wanted to hear what they were saying among themselves." So in November, barely a month after the murder, Kaufman flew to Laramie with nine members of his company, the Tectonic Theater Project, to interview as many people as they could about reactions to the crime.

Fifteen months, five more trips and four workshops later, the company presented the world premiere of The Laramie Project at the Denver Center Theatre Company. The Feb. 26 opening night performance was extraordinarily emotional, partly because the audience included several Laramie residents who were characters in the play, and partly because the company had managed to create a powerful and evocative work of art. Eight actors played dozens of characters (including themselves) based on some 200 interviews.

Although the play factually recounts the events that took place on the night of Shepard's beating, the three-day vigil before he died and the trials of his assailants, The Laramie Project is not primarily a re-enactment of the crime but a portrait of a small town -- think of an Our Town 2000. Its form -- open stage, minimal sets, direct address -- harkens back to Greek tragedy, in which the outcome is known from the beginning and the play provides an opportunity for the community to talk about things that are on its mind. After a well-received six-week run in Denver, the play transferred directly to the Union Square Theatre in New York in April for an open-ended Off-Broadway run.

This gratifying result was never a foregone conclusion. As Kaufman puts it, "I had a panic attack on the plane to Laramie. I thought, `What the fuck are we doing?' I was terrified."

FROM THE BEGINNING, THE LARAMIE Project was an unusual experiment in collective creation. Among those who accompanied Kaufman on the first trip to Laramie were not only three actors from the original cast of Gross Indecency (Michael Emerson, who played Wilde, Andy Paris and Greg Pierotti) but also its set designer, Sarah Lambert. Others on the trip had longer associations with Kaufman and Tectonic, including Kaufman's assistant director Leigh Fondakowski, writer and actor Maude Mitchell, and the company's managing director Jeff LaHoste, who has been Kaufman's partner for 11 years.

It was the success of Gross Indecency, whose 18-month run Off-Broadway spawned companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and London, that gave Tectonic the financial luxury of funding their first round of research on The Laramie Project. "To take 10 people to Laramie for a week cost $20,000," says LaHoste. "We challenged our funders to fund us off their regular cycle. The Rockefeller Foundation gave us $40,000 for development. Whether a play happened or not, we knew it would be an experiment in gathering material this way and building the company."

Equally important was the fact that Gross Indecency was the third most-produced play in the American theatre last year. Its popularity gave Kaufman enough cachet to call out of the blue and introduce himself to Rebecca Hilliker, head of the theatre department at the University of Wyoming. When he told her the company wanted to interview people in Laramie about their response to Matthew Shepard's murder, she told him, "I feel like you just kicked me in the stomach. The students here need to talk, because the press coverage has cut off all dialogue on the subject." It was Hilliker's encouragement that emboldened Kaufman to proceed with the project and opened the first doors in Laramie.

THE NEW YORKERS ARRIVED IN LARAMIE WITH A FAIR AMOUNT OF trepidation, expecting to encounter a hotbed of Wild West homophobia. Kaufman decreed certain safety rules -- no one works alone, and everyone carries a cell phone. Fondakowski and Pierotti, two gay members of the company who had a special interest in finding out about the gay community of Wyoming, prefaced their first trip to Laramie with a visit to Colorado Springs to interview John Paulk. A poster boy for the ex-gay movement that claims sexual orientation can be changed through the power of prayer, Paulk manages homosexuality and gender issues at the right-wing Christian organization Focus on the Family. Fondakowski and Pierotti were curious to explore why such groups had issued statements to the media distancing their work from the murder of Mathew Shepard. Although the Focus on the Family material never made it to the stage, it braced the company for the conservative sexual politics they would face outside of New York City.

"It's very scary how organized they are," says Fondakowski. "They get more mail than anyone in the country but the White House. After spending a couple of days with them, I was really frightened driving into Laramie at dusk. It took me four trips to feel safe jogging there."

Once they hit town and started meeting people, though, the theatre artists found they had to reconsider their stereotypes of small-town Westerners. Some churchgoers they interviewed held narrow-minded judgments about gay people; at the same time, one of the most heroically self-searching characters in the play is a Catholic priest. The artists met gay citizens who were political and outspoken, as well as many who were content to blend in with their surroundings rather than embrace public gay identities. They encountered not only female ranchers but also an Islamic feminist born in Bangladesh who'd lived in Laramie since the age of four. Nothing was as simple as it may have seemed.

The company members were clearly empowered by the experience of doing this kind of first-hand research. Back in New York, they transcribed tapes of their interviews and began developing performable impressions of the people they'd met. The first draft of the script was written in three weeks by 10 people. After viewing about 90 minutes of material in January, a team of four consolidated as the writers' group: actors Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti, project advisor Stephen Wangh (who had served as dramaturg on Gross Indecency) and Fondakowski as head writer. (Fondakowski had been developing a similar kind of piece called I Think I Like Girls, based on interviews with lesbians from around the country, which is being co-produced by Tectonic and New Georges Theatre in New York. ) Actors Amanda Gronich, John McAdams, Barbara Pitts and Kelli Simpkins each continued to feed material to Fondakowski and the writers' group. They are listed as contributing writers in the almost comically elaborate, but scrupulously respectful, program credits for the play.

Between November and April, company members returned to Laramie several times, to attend -- among other things -- the trial of Russell Henderson, one of Shepard's assailants. "In the course of six months, people changed," says Fondakowski. "For example, Romaine Patterson was incredibly young when we met her." Patterson, a 21-year-old lesbian who had been a friend of Shepard's, learned that his funeral would be picketed by Fred Phelps, the notorious Kansas-based homophobe, carrying signs saying "God Hates Fags." Patterson marshaled a group of people wearing gigantic white angels' wings to encircle the demonstrators and provide a buffer between their hateful chanting and Shepard's mourners. Patterson went on to form an activist group called Angel Action. "One of the great achievements of the piece was following the journey of various individuals and showing the magnitude of their change," Fondakowski says.

After a three-week workshop in May at New York's Classic Stage Company, the next stage of developing The Laramie Project took place at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah, whose artistic director, Robert Blacker, attended the first reading of the play. "Sundance usually brings in a writer and a director," says Jeff LaHoste, "but they actually paid to bring 12 of us out there for a three-and-a-half-week workshop in July." The first two acts were roughed out at Sundance and further developed at Dartmouth College in an August residency sponsored by New York Theatre Workshop. The third act, which depended on the outcome of Aaron McKinney's trial in October (he, like Henderson, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), was finished during the rehearsal period in Denver.

WHILE THE WRITERS AND ACTORS WERE PRIMARILY RESPONSIBLE for boiling the research down to a text of suitable length, it was Kaufman's task to shape the piece theatrically. "Tectonic refers to the art and science of structure," he says. "We're interested in doing plays that explore language and form. As a gay man, I'm interested in revealing the structure: Who tells what story, and how, is important to me. How many stories of Oscar Wilde were told by gay writers? Most of the biographers I read referred to him as being `diseased.' How do we tell stories? How do we construct our identity as a person? As a gay person, you're forced to define yourself -- that's how we learn that identity is a construct." Kaufman's gift as a director lies in his ability to create a structure that allows multiple, potentially conflicting points of view to stay afloat at the same time. Rather than dictating a single truth or conclusion, he invites the audience to synthesize the material themselves -- a classic Brechtian strategy.

Kaufman's key collaborator in shaping The Laramie Project theatrically was Steve Wangh, who had been a teacher of his at New York University. The oldest member of the company, Wangh kept a healthy distance from the interviewing process and every few weeks would meet with Kaufman for dramaturgical discussions on the level of theory and form rather than "carpentry conversations," as the director put it.

"We would talk about whether staging a particular moment would work better with a Brechtian approach or one from Meyerhold or Piscator," Kaufman recalls. "One of the big problems with this piece is how do you create a whole town onstage with only eight people? Meyerhold was a genius at doing that kind of thing." Asked to describe a Meyerholdian moment, he refers to the arraignment of the men arrested for beating Shepard: "All the chairs are facing sideways, and as the court officer reads aloud the details of the crime, you see the bodies of the people listening slowly implode as the horror of the scene sinks in. That's the kind of reaction that can only be done onstage."

There are, of course, many precedents for the kind of company- created, Living Newspaper-type work that The Laramie Project represents. In the 1970s and early '80s, Max Stafford-Clark's London-based Joint Stock Company unleashed actors to do the original research that culminated in such plays as David Hare's Fanshen and Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9. The Laramie Project calls to mind Emily Mann's "theatre of testimony," plays derived from verbatim transcripts of original interviews, especially Execution of Justice. And anyone familiar with Elizabeth LeCompte's work with the Wooster Group, especially L.S.D. (Just the High Points), would surely recognize it as a model for Kaufman's split-level, highly presentational staging of Gross Indecency.

Kaufman acknowledges and admires these artists while carefully distinguishing his work from theirs. For instance, asked about another artist who has created powerful theatre from headline news, he says, "I love Anna Deavere Smith's work. She's interested in the intersection of language and character, though, while I'm interested in what happens onstage, the intersection of language and form." His biggest role model, he says, is Peter Brook's International Center for Theatre Research, especially the era in which Brook's company created The Ik, which Kaufman saw as a teenager.

"In Venezuela, because of the oil boom in the early '80s, they hosted an international theatre festival," he says. "When I was 14 or 15, I saw [Polish director Tadeusz] Kantor's Cricot 2, Pina Bausch, Peter Brook and Grotowski's Akropolis. That was the theatre I grew up with. So when I saw my first naturalistic play -- it was Noel Coward's Private Lives -- I thought: `Wow, how avant-garde! Real props!"'

Born and raised in a Jewish family, Kaufman started college at a business school in Caracas, but his first accounting class was so boring that he sought refuge in the theatre department, where an experimental company called Thespis was in residence. He joined the company as an actor and spent five years performing Ionesco, Moliere and new work staged by the artistic director, Fernando Ivosky, who was deeply immersed in the work of Brook and Grotowski.

In 1987, at the age of 23, he realized that he wanted to be a director At the same time, he was coming to grips with his homosexuality. "At the time, I couldn't be gay in Venezuela," he says. "It was too much of a macho Catholic country." Moving to New York, he spent two years studying at NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing, where Brook and Grotowski were also major heroes. "I needed some theoretical basis, so I was able to study what I'd been doing for five years without knowing it," Kaufman says.

ETW turned out to be the launching pad for what would become the Tectonic Theatre Project. "I told them all I need is space and actors to do what I want, and it was enough of a hippie atmosphere that they said, `Great! Do it!"' Women in Beckett, an evening of short plays performed by actresses aged 65-80, led to incorporating Tectonic as a not-for-profit theatre, and Kaufman started building a reputation with striking productions of early plays by Naomi Iizuka (Coxinga and Marlowe's Eye) and Franz Xaver Kroetz's The Nest, which won an Obie Award in 1995.

David Rothenberg, a veteran producer and publicist of Off-Broadway theatre, recalls seeing Kaufman's production of Marlowe's Eye at St. Clement's Church in 1995. "It was very avant-garde," he says. "I couldn't tell if the play was any good. But I remember being constantly surprised by his creative staging, where people were coming from, how he used the set and the lighting. It was very innovative. It reminded me of certain landmarks in my own theatergoing, such as Ellis Rabb's production of Pantagleize with the APA or Peter Brook's staging of Marat/Sade. His direction was that extraordinary."

But it was Gross Indecency that really put Tectonic on the map. Kaufman gathered around him a company of actors and designers willing to devote two years to developing the piece from trial transcripts and other source material about Oscar Wilde. "Many actors just want to be given a script and five weeks' rehearsal," he notes. "This work attracts a very specific kind of artist. These are people who are thinking deeply about theatrical form."

Kaufman credits Brecht and Erwin Piscator as primary influences on his staging of Gross Indecency, in which eight performers played a variety of characters without ever "disappearing" into their roles. Literary sources, contemporary news reports and court documents were cited aloud in the text, and the characters who were speaking would be identified by other performers, the same way that TV sportscasters identify ball players for the viewing audience. As anyone who dares to follow Brecht's example all the way discovers, exposing the theatrical structure can create an almost paradoxically involving theatrical event. By admitting the truth that we are watching an artificially constructed event, rather than pretending otherwise, we are able to confront more directly and engage more fully with whatever moral or philosophical investigation the play is putting forward.

THE LARAMIE PROJECT GOES EVEN FARTHER into Brechtian territory than Gross Indecency, which revolved around the central figure of Oscar Wilde. The Laramie Project ostentatiously declines to represent Matthew Shepard onstage. This choice ingeniously sidesteps sentimental images while at the same time giving the play a mysteriously satisfying spiritual dimension. The unseen presence is much more powerful than the overly familiar depiction of a crucified figure.

Kaufman's aesthetic is anything but dry and severe. The piece begins with actors, grouped around five tables and eight chairs, playing themselves -- a theatre company sharing the results of their own investigation. However, as the play opens up and we meet the people of Laramie in various settings, the director and a skillful design team begin to fill the theatrical space with telling touches. A spotlit window box of cornstalks becomes the Wyoming prairie. As the media descend upon Laramie, TV monitors drop from the ceiling (a moment I couldn't help associating with the Wooster Group's Route 1 & 9, which displayed on similar TV monitors scenes from Our Town). In a scene at the Fireside Bar, the soundtrack features not country music but, more authentically, white-boy hip-hop. A video screen repeatedly shows footage of a two-lane highway late at night as seen in the headlights of a slightly wayward vehicle.

Still, the center of the performance is the actors. Donning a jacket or a pair of glasses, shifting a vocal inflection, the actors slide from one character to another creating indelible impressions in as little as 15 seconds. For a play with no central character, it's almost miraculous how the actors sustain a compelling tension through a narrative whose outline is surely known to almost everyone in the audience. Two things help. One is the forthright way that the actors establish contact with the audience as themselves; we never lose sight of them even as they slip in and out of different roles. The other core element is the company's insistence on representing the people of Laramie in ways that allowed the residents to recognize themselves.

Easy as it would be to depict Shepard as a sentimental martyr, we hear friends of his describe him as "a blunt little shit" who lacked common sense. And rather than caricature the folksy humor and rural accents of Laramie residents, the performers mine those attributes for the savvy they mask. Commenting on the media's frenzied news coverage, Laramie's police chief drawls, "I didn't feel judged -- I felt that they were stupid." A particularly haunting character is Reggie Fluty, the female deputy sheriff (played by Mercedes Herrero) who cut Matthew Shepard down from the fence where he was tied. Told by the hospital that Shepard was HIV positive, she was treated with AZT, which made her lose 10 pounds and much of her hair. This information, not widely known, comes as a bit of a bombshell and raises numerous questions that the play provocatively chooses not to pursue. Instead, the anecdote resonates as part of Fluty's experience of the Matthew Shepard ordeal.

As The Laramie Project started coming together last summer, the Tectonic Theatre Project began considering possibilities of where to perform the piece. They didn't want to open the piece in New York, as they'd done with Gross Indecency. "We needed some distance from New York," says Leigh Fondakowski. "This piece needs time to grow in front of an audience." A number of regional theatres, including the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., were interested in presenting the show. Kaufman was eager to mount it as soon as possible, and he wanted to do it somewhere close enough so that the people of Laramie could see it. Fortuitously, the Denver Center Theatre Company, whose production of Gross Indecency was so successful that they brought it back for a return engagement, had a sudden cancellation in the middle of its season. Since it is the closest regional theatre to Laramie, it seemed a perfect place to present the premiere.

On opening night in Denver, it was impossible not to be aware of the enormous responsibility that the actors felt to do justice to the people who had entrusted them with their stories and their innermost feelings. I found myself sitting next to Zackie Salmon, a 52-year-old lesbian university administrator, who was very attentive to how she came off in the play. Aside from some personal vanity about being seen as the "town nerd" in her oversized glasses, she generally approved, although she told USA Today that what didn't come through for her was "the depth of grief that was a communal grief. I don't know if it's possible in any way for anybody to capture that. I think they did the best they could."

One of the central characters in the play is Matt Galloway, the bartender who served both Matthew Shepard and his assailants the night of the murder. As played by Stephen Belber, Galloway is effusive and somewhat comically self-possessed, yet highly articulate. Heartbreakingly, he questions whether he was to blame for not stepping in to intervene between Shepard and the men with whom he left the bar. After the show, a ripple of electricity ran through the lobby as we realized that the tall, handsome young man embracing Kaufman was Galloway himself, who was later heard saying to a friend, "I hope I'm not that bad...."

Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center, told me how he felt about presenting The Laramie Project at his theatre. "Matthew Shepard's family and the people of Laramie have suffered way, way, way more than they should have to," he said. "Very frankly, I would not have taken on the project if I felt it was contributing to this suffering. But when I met Moises, I was certain that it would be a positive experience. It's not what he said, because I never listen to what people say. It was spending time with him and the people he had with him and coming to believe that they had been profoundly moved by going through the interviewing process. I just believed that their responses would have great generosity of spirit."

American Theatre, May/June 2000

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