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 3, 2009

First Thoughts: It's More than Just a "Project"

I guess a good way of explaining why I felt the need to start a weblog about The Laramie Project would be with an anecdote. I was walking with a friend to grab some dinner a few weeks ago when he cheerfully replied to something I said with the quip, "Well, tie me to a fence and pistol-whip me." I felt like he slugged me in the stomach. To my friend, who is an out gay male, that image is little more than a cultural reference used just a little too casually among his like-minded friends. To me, I can't see that image in my head without seeing Matt Shepard's face right in front of me and revisiting everything that happened afterward. My friend had no clue how badly that quip shocked me because at the time, I had never told him that I was there.

You see, I am one of thousands of media casualties left over from the journalistic onslaught in Laramie from 1998 to 1999, when we were caught in the crossfire of journalists, protestors, and pundits who descended on our campus and consumed our lives. I was a freshman in college in Laramie, Wyoming when Matthew Shepard was beaten to death; Matt and I never knew each other-- we merely shared a co-incidence of friends-- but his death, and the media conflagration and protests that followed, defined my early adulthood. Whether I like it or not, Matt Shepard changed my politics, my morals, and my sense of identity in ways I'm still trying to sort out. And every time that event is invoked, it brings up the angst and personal trauma of my freshman year back in my face, and the shock of it paralyzes me.

As you imagine, this makes The Laramie Project nearly impossible to watch. I've only put myself through two performances of the original version, Tectonic Theater's Laramie performance in 2000 and a university production in 2006; both times I swore I'd never do it again because I keep having panic attacks. And yet, I'm obsessed with this play in ways I can't even begin to understand. I can't watch it without bawling, but I've taught it to my freshman for three years running now. And I keep reading all the secondary literature on the play even though I can't bring myself to watch the HBO movie.

I more or less forced myself to go to a local production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later in Appalachia on October 12 after some chatting with the local director and the cast. The performance was beyond amazing; the way that the cast resonated with their characters was electrifying. It has been three weeks now since the revelations of the new addition, and I am still reeling. I really don't know what to do with everything I'm trying to think through. After all the personal growth and self-reflection this play has caused me to undergo, I should think that I would owe Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater my gratitude. So why on earth do I resent it so damn much?

After the performance, I've tried to get these things out of my head and on paper, but I don't really seem to be getting anywhere with it-- and it's eating up all of the time I'm supposed to be using to, you know, be a graduate student. I'm supposed to be studying for my exams. I'm supposed to be learning French. I'm supposed to be working on an article about a fifth-century Spanish priest nobody's heard of. But instead, I just keep thinking about The Laramie Project-- and about memory, and the way we write history, and how the things we use to define ourselves and who we are is so vexed, so full of contingencies. I also think about trauma, and the need to tell our stories in an attempt to make meaning from tragedy, and whether or not that's always a good thing.

So is that the project here? I think maybe that's what I'm doing-- I need to tell my own story in an attempt to make sense of things that can't be grasped. I need to think aloud about the work of art that has, to be blunt, messed with my freaking head for eight years now-- and not always in a good way. And I think that I can't be the only one out there.

Actually, I know I'm not the only one. To all of you out there who might be reading this: what is your relationship to this more-than-just-a-play? What is your own attachment to it that defines (willingly or not) a part of who you are? I've talked to LGBT people, actors, directors, and westerners who all have some kind of unique stake in the play as a part of one of its many communities. Only a few of those people were interviewees for Tectonic or had any kind of attachment to Matt Shepard. And yet, the play connects with them just as strongly, and it makes unfair demands of them just like it does of me. What are your thoughts on how the play portrays, and questions, how Laramie sees itself-- and how does it do the same with how we construct our own communities and identities? How does its nonfictional basis change how we relate to it as audience members? And do you have the same sense of angst, or frustration or ambivalence, about this play that I do?

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