“After all, not to create only, or found only, / But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded, / To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free.” —Walt Whitman
There are moments in history when a particular event brings the various ideologies and beliefs prevailing in a culture into sharp focus. At these junctures, the event becomes a lightning rod of sorts, attracting and distilling the essence of these philosophies and convictions. By paying careful attention in moments like these to people’s words, one is able to hear the way these prevailing ideas affect not only individual lives, but also the culture at large.
I think the trials of Oscar Wilde were such an event. When I read the transcripts of the trials (while preparing to write Gross Indecency), I was struck by the clarity with which those documents illuminated an entire culture. In these pages, one can see not only a community dealing with the problem that Wilde presented, but in their own words, Victorian men and women tell us—three generations later—about the ideologies, idiosyncrasies and philosophies that formed the pillars of that culture.
I believe that the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard was an event of this nature.
In the immediate aftermath of his beating and subsequent death, the nation launched into a dialogue that brought to the surface how we are thinking and talking about homosexuality, sexual politics, education, class, violence, privileges and rights, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
“Artists are recording our times, and the artists are the diaries of our time. In the future this is what society will look back on as a record of our time, what artists are saying.” —Robert Wilson
The idea for The Laramie Project originated out of my desire to learn more about why Matthew Shepard was murdered; about what happened that night; about the town of Laramie. The idea of listening to the citizens talk really interested me. How is Laramie different from the rest of the country and how is it similar?
Shortly after this murder occurred, I posed the question to my company, Tectonic Theater Project: What can we as theatre artists do as a response to this incident? And, more concretely: Is theatre a medium that can contribute to the national dialogue on current events?
These concerns fall squarely within Tectonic Theater Project’s mission. Every project that we undertake as a company has two objectives: a) to examine the subject matter at hand, and b) to explore theatrical language and form. In an age when film and television are constantly redefining and refining their tools and devices, the theatre has too often remained entrenched in the 19th-century traditions of realism and naturalism.
In this sense, our interest was to continue to have a dialogue on both how the theatre speaks and how it is created. Thus, I was very interested in this model: a theatre company travels somewhere, talks to people and returns with what they saw and heard to create a play.
At the time I also happened to run across a Brecht essay I had not read in a long time, “The Street Scene.” In it Brecht uses as a model the following situation: “an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place.” He goes on to build a theory about his “epic theatre” based on this model. The essay gave me an idea about how to deal with this project, both in terms of its creation and its aesthetic vocabulary.
So in November 1998, four weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepard, nine members of Tectonic Theater Project and I traveled to Laramie, Wyo. Fortunately, we had the revenues from Gross Indecency to help us respond quickly. (Ultimately, we would end up spending all of our revenues from the earlier play on this project.) For most of us, these were the first such interviews we had ever conducted.
We had many concerns before we left on that first trip. The gay and lesbian members of the company were from the onset quite afraid to travel to a town where such a brutal crime against a gay man had just occurred. Other members of the company were concerned with intruding as outsiders where we didn’t belong. Still others considered the ethics of conducting interviews about this incident (especially when the Shepard family was still grappling with the issue of maintaining privacy). All of these issues were discussed at length then, and for many, many months afterward. The company was not only learning a new way of working, but we were testing the limits of our ability to respect and trust each other and communicate with one another in productive ways.
One of the first things we noticed after a few days in Laramie was the fact that the diversity within our group was a great advantage. Some members were interested in the ranching community, others in the gay and lesbian community, others in getting to know more about Matthew Shepard, others in finding out about the lives of the perpetrators. So in a very natural way, we began to hear a rich and varied collection of community voices.
Upon our return to New York, Tectonic produced a three-week workshop to go through the nearly 80 interviews that we had conducted. For this workshop, company members transcribed over a hundred hours of tapes, selected the most important or relevant material, and presented it to the group. I encouraged everyone to “present the material,” not just read it. And although the workshop was primarily dramaturgical in nature, a set designer and a composer were already involved.
The actor/dramaturgs very quickly started using costumes, props and other devices to convey to the rest of the group not only something about the person they had interviewed, but also something about the environment and the experience of the interview. I also noticed during this first workshop that the actor/dramaturgs had become personally invested in the people they had interviewed. This meant that they would argue strenuously for their character’s voices to be in the play.
The workshop culminated in a reading, in front of an invited audience, of about 90 minutes’ worth of loosely structured material. Hearing those texts read in front of an audience was a very powerful experience. It was at this point that I decided that we would continue returning to Laramie until the trial of the last perpetrator had occurred. I wanted to know more, listen more intently, follow these people over time. Thus began a year of trips and workshops.
A smaller group of Tectonic members returned to Laramie in April ’99 for the trial of Russell Henderson. Unlike our first trip, which happened a month after the event, this time we were side by side with the media, experiencing first-hand what a town of 27,000 people feels like with media trucks parked at all of its motels and in the center of town.
When this group returned from Laramie, we did another workshop to look at the material we had gathered. It was then that I decided to form a writers’ group (led by Leigh Fondakowski, with Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh) to assist me in going through the growing volume of material and organizing it. The group and I would engage in rigorous dialogue as to the content and direction of the play.
Having four writers contributing material and a team of dramaturgs strongly advocating for characters and themes made for a very rich process. Although at times this created difficult situations, it allowed me to make the most informed decisions about what would be in the play. It also generated a very exciting energy in the rehearsal room.
It was at this time that two organizations became pivotal to our work: Robert Redford’s Sundance Theater Lab and New York Theater Workshop. Both these organizations housed us as we continued to workshop and develop the piece. Five more trips to Laramie and several other workshops would happen over the course of a year. We returned for the events commemorating the first year anniversary of Matthew’s death. Another two trips would cover the trial of Aaron McKinney, and two more trips would take care of the last of the follow-up interviews. As the process continued, we reached more than 200 interviews in total.
At the end of McKinney’s trial, I felt we were ready to stage a production. This story had taken place in the West, and it was important for us that we premiere our play in the West. This is why we accepted Donovan Marley’s offer to do a production at his theatre in Denver.
Which is where we are now—midway in the show’s premiere run. Because Laramie is only two and a half hours away, we have been able to have the people we portray come to Denver to see the play (in addition to many other people from Laramie). That has been another strange and magnificent part of this journey.
The experience of working on The Laramie Project has been one of great sadness, great beauty and, perhaps most importantly, great revelation—about our nation, about our ideas, about ourselves. Many questions have been answered, and many more will be posed. And that is a good thing.