Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
I would like to hear other voices besides my own on this blog. If you'd like to write about your TLP experiences here, e-mail them to me and I'll put them up.
Topics can include dramaturgy to staging to personal responses to the play. Anything goes!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Jackrabbit's Story, Part 1

So, part of what I've been trying to do as I think through The Laramie Project is to reflect back on how much I can actually remember of Matt's murder and the events before Tectonic Theater showed TLP in Larmie in 2000. To be honest, for a long time it was something I didn't like to think about; as a result, many memories are gone, and others are now colored by later events or Tectonic Theater's portrayal. Besides, it's hard to put myself in the shoes of an eighteen-year-old again. I have resisted actually telling this to anybody up to this point because it just felt too narcissistic and self-indulgent, but it's going to be hard to talk about the creation of memory and the constructed nature of identity in a play like TLP if I'm not willing to explain my own.

And part of it is the fact that I'm nervous.  I've had my fingers clamped around this story in a vise grip since 1998.  That grip didn't loosen up until 2006, and this year was the first time I tried setting it loose.  It's time to let this one go.  

Okay, so bear with me-- I've only ever explained all this clear through twice. I blundered through telling the whole thing to a very patient and understanding member of the TLP: Ten Years Later cast locally, and then I chatted with some other members of the cast a few days later. Now, I feel like I need share it to a larger audience.  I still don't feel totally ready to do this, but I have decided that personal blogs are supposed to be a little bit self-indulgent anyhow so what the heck. Here goes...
So what can I actually remember of those eighteen months? This is a harder question to answer—and as I dive down this rabbit-hole to see where it leads, I find that it has a lot of twists and turns. As it turns out, I can’t really separate Matt’s death out from a lot of the other, pivotal things that were going on in my life during that exact same time. Both of my older siblings lived in Laramie, and both of them were going through some devastatingly bad personal problems. I had just gotten into a serious relationship with the man whom I thought I was going to marry, and I had just met the man whom I would actually marry three years later, in the basement of the Fine Arts building. Finally, I had just started reading, through the prodding of my Honors English teacher, my first “dangerous” novel—Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita-- and it was seriously challenging my view on the world in ways I wasn't really ready for. I can’t really think about those weeks when I first learned Matt’s name without also thinking about all these other things as well.

The night that Matt was beaten, I’m pretty sure I was hanging out with my boyfriend; that’s all I really did back then. I didn’t learn of Matt's beating until everyone else, on Wednesday evening when I was in the Pokeskellar (a small convenience store beneath the dining hall) with some friends from White Hall. A guy who I think was from the Branding Iron walked in carrying a stack of lime green paper. He handed one to each of us.
“Have you heard?” He said, handing a sheet to me and my friends.
“Heard what?” One of us asked him. I don’t remember who.
“A college kid was beaten up last night.”
The guy left a stack of his advance story fliers in the Poke, and then he dashed out. We immediately started asking each other what small-town people always ask in times like that:
"Do you know him?"
"I don't think so. Do you?"
I looked down at the sheet with its grainy picture of his face in lime green, and that was the first time I had ever heard the name Matthew Shepard.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of it then; I was shocked, of course, but I was eighteen, solipsistic, and I was simply too used to blowing off other people's tragedy to let it all sink in. I know this is funny, but I remember naively thinking that what had happened to him was "urban" violence. (I came from a town of 4,000. To me, Laramie was enormous.) On Thursday or Friday—I can’t really remember when—as I biked back into campus after staying over at my boyfriend's place on Garfield, I noticed two things were different: one was the mass of satellite trucks parked on the corner of 15th and Grand. The other was that all the RA dorm windows down the side of White Hall were covered in yellow paper and green circles, the symbol that the LGBTA had adopted in support of Shepard. The atmosphere of the campus had completely changed overnight, and I wasn’t there to witness the transformation. I needed to know what was happening.

I went back to my dorm long enough to figure out that there was a rally planned that afternoon in Prexy’s Pasture. I snagged something to eat and went there, mostly just to figure out what the heck was going on. I must have passed several dozen students all wearing those yellow armbands when I cut through the Student Union to get to the meeting, and people were whispering words like “gay bashing” that didn’t quite make any sense to me yet. I don’t really remember much of the rally—just a dim recollection of a woman on a bullhorn, and the impression that the weather was so beautiful that it made everything feel surreal. As I stood off to one side, I heard somebody call my name, and I turned around to see a friend of mine from upstate standing right behind me.

I knew "Sascha" (not her real name) from high school speech and debate. She and I had met at the Cody speech meet my junior year, and she and I tended to hang out a lot with each other. I had only seen her once since I had gotten to campus, however— just the previous week, standing on the exact same spot when she was cavorting around Prexy’s Pasture decked out in red lipstick for a “Freak show” themed LGBTA booth at the campus club fair. This time, however, she walked up to me, grabbed me in a bear hug. She said, "my friend was murdered," or something like that, I'm not sure what but it shocked me nonetheless.  She was in total shock, and I don't think she had slept since Tuesday.  Then it sort of hit me: this wasn't just about the horror of what happened to her friend.  "Sascha" was a lesbian, and I think she was terrified. 

I walked back through campus, this time with my eyes and ears open.  And as I talked to my other friends, some of whom were also in the LGBTA, I started realizing how many people I knew who knew him, how scared and confused they were, too. "Sascha," for instance, was a walking wreck for weeks. And that’s when it finally started sinking in through the isolated little shell of my own worries exactly how serious life had just suddenly become—when I saw my friends’ lives destroyed. Now when I listened to the details of the attack, I couldn't see Matt's face without also seeing their grief, and the reports of his injuries started to make me sick. It suddenly brought the seriousness of the situation to light in a way that a grainy picture on a piece of green paper couldn't.

As a reflect back on this, the one thing that really strikes me is that what finally made me understand the situation was the realization there was only one degree of separation between Matt and myself. And I don't think that makes me unique-- actually, I bet that a third of the campus was only one degree removed from him in one way or another, and I don't know how much different things would have been off-campus. That's part of what made this crime so unbelievably horrific-- the shock waves literally rippled through everyone in the community, connected as we all were through Matt, or the perpetrators, or the police who responded to the scene... It sort of makes me wonder now: is there really such a thing as a "stranger" in any community? In a sense, that connection is always there; the only difference is how thinly it gets stretched between one person and another and whether that connection is tenuous enough to ignore.

Matt and I never knew each other. But now I don't really think we were strangers.

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