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!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Sense of Place: Further Thoughts

So, the reason I've been wondering about place recently is because I'm trying to figure out how The Laramie Project understands the way that the landscape and the space informs our reading of Matt's murder. Is this a really a universal landscape, or a particular one tied to the contingencies of a specific place, one that has a special significance to it?

I had a fascinating conversation shortly before the October 12 performance with a group of actors about this very issue. We were chatting about Matt's murder and the first play, and the conversation eventually turned to why Matt's murder happened to capture the national imagination and start a national dialogue on hate crimes. One group of people thought that it was how Matt died that was the major factor. This one guy in particular was emphatic that place wasn't a relevant factor: "it wouldn't matter where Matt died," he kept asserting. "We'd still be having this debate right now." This fellow was adamant about his point, and I sincerely respect his opinion; he has a good argument that I can't refute.

I and about three others, however, thought where Matt died had a lot to do with it, too. I firmly believe that, if Matt were murdered in, say, Boston, Massachusetts instead of Laramie, Wyoming, his death wouldn't have resonated with the nation in quite the same way. And I don't think we would be reading "The Boston Project."

So, my one friend is unquestionably right: the details of Matt's murder has its own grisly, particular draw. The whole scene is just rife with sick, visual symbolism, which is part of what makes the whole thing so nauseating for me to think about-- that they bound him in an almost cruciform position, the pistol-whipping, the senseless theft of Matt's his shoes. And yet, now that I've lived somewhere besides the Rockies and in larger communities, I'm finally beginning to understand how terribly common Matt's story is, how common gay-targeted violence like this is. What made Matt stand out?
There are two other things that always comes up: that he was tied to a buck fence, and that he was left out on the prairie. People cannot picture the horror of Matt's murder until they put him in the most desolate landscape they can conjure up and tied to a fence that almost defines the American West-- they have to put him in a pastoral.

This is exactly the point that Amy Tigner makes in her article about "Western Pastoral" in TLP. She starts out the article with sixteen other names of people murdered because of sexual orientation in 1998, none of whom received the notoriety of Shepard's murder, and she proposes that a significant deciding factor in why his story created such national interest may be the location. The vast majority of the victims she points out are from urban centers, and none of them are from the traditional "Old West" like Matt was. As she points out,
as much as Laramie represents innocence impossible in a metropolis, Laramie also represents mythological or historical violence-- the violence of the Western. The story illustrates the sublimated fear fear inherent in typical Western homo-social relationships and the potential violence associated with such fear... the American public is shocked, yet titillated: Western crimes still occur in the West.
Tigner's hypothesis intrigues me for a number of reasons, but most especially for how she sees TLP actively engaging in and creating that sense of pastoralism. Since a Western pastoral is defined as a negative space (that is, it "isn't" the East, it "isn't" urban, etc.) it is always a place of elsewhere; the West is attractive because it isn't where you're from. As Tigner concludes, "The Western... becomes a place from which to talk about politics from a removed distance"-- that is, you talk about the problems of here by projecting them onto a there. And whether or not Laramie is a here vs. a there, I would also assert, makes a big difference on how TLP constructs Laramie as a space in order to give it meaning.
Tigner argues that TT crafts the interviews they took to reinforce and enhance the idea of Laramie as a pastoral landscape, and I wholeheartedly agree. Even the staging reflected this. When TT came to Laramie in 2000, they performed on a bare stage for Act I-- well, bare except for a large box of crested wheatgrass sitting in the background. They revisited Matt's murder, not in a universal, empty stage, but on the prairie.

Nevertheless, Tectonic Theater has always stressed that Laramie is more of a universal space that represents America as a whole, a microcosm that reflects America's larger debate on the issues of tolerance, acceptance, and sexual orientation. It's like the blurb on the back of the Vintage edition:
This play is Our Town with a question mark, as in "Could this be our town?"
But how much is it really? How much does the nature of this space-- Western, rural-- shape our relationship to the events?

My friend who disregards the influence of space has one really good point: thousands of people who see or read this play see their own hometowns reflected in it. My friend is a rural native himself and, in his words, he "grew up with dozens of McKinneys and Hendersons." His point is well taken; I did, too. When I talk to my students, many of those who really identify with Laramie and its people come from small towns themselves, and they see the faces of people they know in some of the characters. For them, at least, Laramie really is a universal space, and that space challenges the way they see themselves.

But what if you're from the city? Is it easier to judge and dismiss Laramie as different from yourself? I'm not sure, and I don't have much data. I don't teach a lot of urban students, but my general impression is that those who judge Laramie more harshly and can't really identify with the characters tend to come from urban centers. It could be far too easy for someone to place him or herself into the position of Tectonic in the play: the Eastern observer, observing the problems of a Western "elsewhere" without having to apply their criticism of "over there" to "over here." Russell Frank's article suggests that this is quite possible: his analysis of big-city newspaper coverage suggests that urban newspapers tend to characterize small town violence differently, and that they consistently invoke those towns as more of a symbolic landscape. That is, small town spaces are different; they're abstractions, not like real places. This is a tough thing to consider because that means that there's a large group of the play's audience where the message has a harder time getting through-- and an audience that might find itself rejecting Laramie as a place where they can readily identify.

It's a strange spate of things to consider. Laramie really is, in Pierotti's quip in TLP, "Like No Place on Earth." That means it could either represent every place, or it represents a place entirely Other to the self where one can project the problems of society on someone else's shoulders. And that means that the play's use of space may have an ambivalent effect on its audiences when it comes to identifying with Laramie and its residents.


Frank, Russell. "When Bad Things Happen in Good Places: Pastoralism in Big-City Newspaper Coverage of Small-Town Violence." Rural Psychology 68.2 (2003) 207-230.

Tigner, Amy. "The Laramie Project: Western Pastoral." Modern Drama 45.1 (2003): 138-86. (Tigner's article is really interesting; I highly recommend it if you haven't ever read it.)

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