Today marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the world premiere staging of the Tectonic Theater Project‘s The Laramie Project at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 26, 2000. Head writer and assistant director Leigh Fondakowski believes the enduring legacy of The Laramie Project is represented by those who continue to perform the play each year. “I’m grateful to young people everywhere who still believe in the power of theatre to change hearts and minds,” she said in this recent interview looking back at the play’s creation with Denver Center senior arts journalist and regular American Theatre contributor John Moore.
JOHN MOORE: What shape was the script in when rehearsals for the Denver premiere began in January 2000?
LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: When we arrived in Denver, the play was not yet finished. It had only two acts then. [Director] Moisés Kaufman wasn’t sure the audience could sit through a three-act play with such challenging subject matter. It was through the rehearsal process that we discovered that the third act should revolve around the trials of the two perpetrators, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Once the third act was written, the play was very long, so cuts had to be made. Moments were shifting, and the order of scenes kept changing all through previews. On opening night, the play was still new, even to the performers. I don’t remember the play ever being “locked” in Denver, even after opening.
But you had eight actors playing 60 characters. How did they chart the changes?Stage management at the Denver Center made these very large poster boards with the present order of the show on them and posted them in the wings. The actors would be running offstage doing their costume quick-changes and looking at the poster boards to know which scene came next. It was harrowing, but also exciting in its own way. The play was truly a work-in-progress that was constructed collaboratively. We were all weighing in on the content, but the final editor or auditor was the audience. The audience in Denver became our final collaborator: How they responded to the play directly impacted how we ultimately finished it.
What are your thoughts on how this very hastily arranged partnership with the Denver Center worked out?
One of the things that is essential to talk about on this anniversary is [then-Denver Center artistic director] Donovan Marley’s artistic and ethical clarity to invite us to premiere the play in Denver before it was even finished! He had read an early draft and said, “We must premiere this because we have an obligation to do so, given that we are the closest regional theatre to where this happened.” He displayed a quality of leadership that was quite remarkable. He didn’t think about the commercial viability of the play or the size of the cast or the risk in an untried work—or maybe he did, and did it anyway. I was forever changed as an artist because of his commitment to us. He said to us, “I trust you to tell this story, even though you haven’t proven it yet all the way.” It was a remarkable show of trust in us. That was an empowering moment that compelled us to make our highest and best work. Every artist wants their work to matter in the world. Donovan said, “It already does matter.” Artists need institutions to believe in them and support them to make the big social plays that matter.
Did you know then that you were involved in something that was going to have such a huge impact?
We had no idea the play would have a life beyond the original company who made it. In fact, the run in New York that followed our time in Denver was not commercially successful. We thought only the actors who did the interviews would ever perform the play. Amateur productions started popping up, but it was a slow burn. Then more and more colleges did the play, then high schools. There was a groundswell. This play was needed. This play became a way for theatre companies and students everywhere to talk about homophobia in the places that they lived. The play gave young people an opportunity to be brave and to put art in the world that went against the status quo, to stand up to the status quo and say, “This is wrong.”
How did those first Denver audiences respond to the play?
They responded respectfully and positively. There wasn’t a backlash for making an empathetic play about a queer young person. Remember, this was not the world we live in now in terms of gay representation onstage, in the media, and in the world as a whole. We weren’t sure the audiences in the West wouldn’t be homophobic and reject the play on the basis of their morality or religion. The audiences responded with the kind of dignity that elevated the story and uplifted the narrative to an almost iconic status: This was the story of an American town. Denver audiences were, in some ways, like the town of Laramie, so their response was important to us. I remember feeling relieved and very moved that they listened, that they cared, that they were engaged. Matthew’s story was legitimized.
What did you learn from those Denver audiences?
We had workshopped the show before Denver, but Denver was the first audience that applauded Romaine Patterson, whose “angel” activism at Matthew’s funeral shielded the families from the Fred Phelps protesters. She was portrayed by Kelli Simpkins, who got applause for saying, “This 21-year-old little lesbian is ready to walk the line with him!” Having worked pretty rigorously to convince Moisés and the team that Romaine was an important voice in the play, this was particularly thrilling for me.
The Laramie Project did not invent interview-based theatre, but it certainly kick-started a new generation of it. How does it feel knowing you all have had such a profound influence on the next generation of theatremakers?
We were all very inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Joint Stock; we knew we were not inventing a form. But we also knew that we were expanding upon it in a way by having the actor who interviewed the person in real life play the characters they had personally met. So the audience was just one degree of separation from the actual person, and the connective tissue was the empathy of the actor. As theatre artists, we are compelled to grow the form, to push at the boundaries of what can happen onstage, so that the theatre remains vital and exciting.
My body of work after The Laramie Project has been large ensemble pieces based on interviews. I hope I have continued to expand and grow the form with those works. My projects have all been about tragedies, and I think the theatre is uniquely positioned to bring beauty into the mix, so that an alchemy of healing can be found between the audience and the actors and the real life people and events upon which the work is based. You can’t undo the tragedy, but you can bring the audience into a positive engagement with the underlying issues that led to it. The Civilians have done amazing work in this area also, and Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen and KJ Sanchez, among others. Marc Wolf’s Another American: Asking and Telling came out around the same time as The Laramie Project. We were all a part of a growing genre of work. But while we were interested in socially engaged theatre, we were not its founders.
What are your memories of opening night in Denver on Feb. 26, 2000?
My strongest recollection is one of nervous excitement.
The murder has been rightfully called a turning point for gay rights in the United States. But what does the statistical reality that hate crimes are on the rise tell you about how far we still have to go?
It’s been incredibly moving to see how vital the play has been in the life of so many communities. The downside of this of course, is that the play remains vital, when in fact it should feel historical or outdated by now. The fact that it’s not, and that this could still happen anywhere, at any time—and does, just without the same media attention—is a call for us to not grow complacent. Yes, there have been big, monumental social changes. And yet, in the day-to-day lives of gay, queer, trans, and non-binary people, there are still so many ways that we have no legal protection, still remain vulnerable in our own towns and cities, and are still the tip of the spear of the moral judgments of religionists.
Visibility in the media is a wonderful advancement, but it can also lead to a false sense that our rights and protections are in place. Women have the same issues. Trans women and trans women of color have prejudice coming at them from every angle. I’m studying the women’s movement right now for another project, and I read a quote from a woman in the 1970s who said she thought that once sex discrimination was named and then legislated, it would only take a few years to disappear. Then she changed it to 10 years, then 20, then conceded that it wouldn’t be in her lifetime. I feel similarly with gay rights and the true equality of LGBTQ and non-binary communities. We have language to name the discrimination, and we have some legislation and some protection in place. But it may not be in my lifetime that we are free of violence and discrimination.
What do you think is the ultimate legacy of The Laramie Project?
The ultimate legacy of the play is represented in the young people who continue to perform the play each year. They do so with respect for the people who lived the story, with respect for Matthew, and with an idea that they can use this art form as a means of expressing themselves and making changes in their communities. The fact that people still believe in the power of art to solve problems is an amazing thing. The legacy of The Laramie Project is the fundamental belief that art matters in the health and vitality and humanity of society.
I was at a production in Washington, D.C., once where a boy came out as gay during the talkback. The audience applauded him, and his life changed forever from that moment. This play created a space for that. I’m grateful to the theatre as a form that has so much potential, and for the young people everywhere who still believe in the power of theatre to change hearts and minds. Theatre does have an important role to play in the important conversations of our time!
Any final thoughts?
Our dear collaborator, John McAdams, played Dennis Shepard [Matthew Shepard’s father]. His performance in one of our final rehearsals convinced us all that Dennis had to be a part of the play. We weren’t sure because the play was long and asked a lot of the audience emotionally. Dennis says in his remarks to the court that ended up in the play: “Good is winning over evil. People have said enough is enough.” John’s performance made it abundantly clear that Dennis’s words needed to be in this play. John died last year of a sudden heart attack. Another Tectonic company member, Barbara Pitts McAdams, lost her husband, and we all lost a dear friend and colleague. Matthew reminds us—and John reminds us, too—that life is precious. We don’t know what difference we will make in the lives of others, or in the life of the theatre, or in the life of the society. My prayer is that Dennis’s words turn out to be true in 2020.
John Moore, cited in this American Theatre round-up of influential U.S. theatre critics when he worked at the Denver Post, has since taken the groundbreaking position of Denver Center’s senior arts journalist.