ArtsEmerson, a new and exciting theatre project has come to Boston. Emerson College, a school of the arts and communication, which has acquired and renovated four downtown theatre spaces, inaugurated an annual season of American and international productions – seventeen in all for 2010-2011. The series began in September with the Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.
In 1998, following the highly publicized fatal beating of twenty-one year old Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, , Moisés Kaufman and nine members of New York ’s Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie – the site of the killing. Prompting the journey was Kaufman’s question: “Do we as theatre artists have a role to play in this national dialogue?” The company’s immediate purpose was to learn about Matthew, the murder, and the townspeople. Their long-term goal was the development of a theatre piece.
Kaufman, influenced by Brecht’s essay, “The Street Scene” – in which recounting replaces reenactment – conceived the play as a docudrama to be created collectively by the company from material gathered through taped interviews. Certain company members selected interviewees because of a particular interest. Propelled by his journalistic experience, Stephen Belber investigated the killers’ background, hunting down their friends, relatives, and acquaintances. Some gay members sought out the gay community. Kaufman met with the chair of the theatre department.
The company put aside its preconceptions about the town, and the townspeople opened themselves to the group. The Tectonic team arrived at a crucial moment. The people of Laramie were traumatized both by the murder and the media coverage, which they felt maligned and stereotyped them as homophobic, red-neck Westerners. They needed to talk and the Tectonic company were non-judgmental listeners.
When the company felt they had gathered sufficient material, they returned to New York. The interviews were read, discussed, and workshopped. They explored character, spatial relationships, and the story they were to tell. In these initial steps, the actors had no text, but improvised with props, costumes, sound, movement – whatever fed the imagination. When there was a gap in the story, they returned to Laramie – five times over a year and a half – conducting more than 200 interviews that were culled down to 80 characters, composed of townspeople and actor-interviewers. Although all the company members participated in the collective creation, some were more equal than others. Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowsi were the principal writers; Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, and Stephen Wangh the associate writers; the rest received credit as dramaturgs. Kaufman and Fondakowsi cast and directed the actors. In a metatheatrical twist, the actors were not always themselves when playing the interviewers.
When first produced in 2000, The Laramie Project hit a national nerve, not surprising in an era when Gay rights had become a national debate. It premiered in Denver to an audience that included Laramie townspeople before moving on to New York and outstanding reviews. The play took on a life of its own as professional, amateur, college, and high school productions proliferated across the country, making The Laramie Project one of the most performed plays in American theatre history.
A decade after Matthew Shepard’s killing, four members of the writing team went back to Laramie see if and how the town had changed. Their original idea of writing an epilogue morphed into a two-hour play, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.
At ArtsEmerson, both works were presented together for the first time.
The thrust of the productions changed; they are no longer full-fledged collective creations. Several actors in the original did not come back, their roles picked up by actors who had no part in the play’s development. And Ten Years Later is more writer-driven, with presumably less actor investment. Nonetheless, as seen at ArtsEmerson, the plays were exciting and meaningful theatre.
They are true to their Brechtian inspiration in that the performances are thoroughly engrossing, but do not overwhelm emotionally. Largely, in one-sided conversations with the audience, the actors face out most of the time to tell their stories, both as the interviewers and the interviewed. Occasionally, they interact as in the prison scenes in Ten Years Later. They enter their characters through a costume piece, change of accent, or physicalization. While believable, the characters are sketched rather than probed – an impossible feat in any case with eight actors playing eighty roles. The focus is on the community’s reaction to the crime, and not the individual. Matthew Shepard never appears.
Both plays use the same simple set. An upstage screen projects images; lights moving along a road as if viewed from a truck bring to mind Matthew’s fear when he was kidnapped. Beneath the screen (stage left) is a clump of dry grass that evokes the fence and/or the prairie. The actors use wooden chairs and tables that are frequently reconfigured. Since the scenery is so sparse and movement minimal, the reconfiguration has dramatic effect. In the funeral scene, the chairs are arranged facing front in rows on one side of the stage, evoking a church. At the same time, the scene depicts the outdoors, since some of the characters sit holding open umbrellas. It is a multilayered iconic image that recalls Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later – as yet unpublished – is not as strong or integrated a play as its predecessor, perhaps because its story is less dramatic. In it, we discover history has been rewritten. Despite court evidence to the contrary, some townspeople maintain that the motive of the killing was robbery or that the murderers were on drugs.
Others, new to Laramie are ignorant of the event or don’t care. Those most deeply involved with Matthew are deeply disturbed by this turn of events.
In the play’s weakest section, a folklorist lectures the audience on rumor, as various falsehoods are bruited about. The highpoints are the interviews of the incarcerated killers who tortured Matthew and left him to die, tied to a fence. (The symbolic fence has been torn down.) Stephen Belber (played by Jeremy Bobb) meets with Russell Henderson (played by Mark Berger); Greg Pierotti (played by Mark Berger) interviews Aaron McKinney (played by Greg Pierotti). Both men have their stories, which in this play about memory, history, and denial, appropriately leave the audience without answers.
Although the playwrights claim that The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is a “stand-alone play,” it works best shown following the original. Without it, the play’s arc is incomplete.
The Laramie Project
By Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Reviewed by Jane Baldwin
By Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber
Productions by the Tectonic Theater Project at the Cutler Majestic Theatre,
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Directed by: Moisés Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski
Set Design: Robert Brill
Costume Design: Moe Schell
Lighting Design: Betsy Adams
Composer: Peter Golub