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Friday, May 14, 2010

"Has Anything Changed?" Thoughts on TT's interaction with Laramie

Has anything changed?   

That's the question that Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater ask repeatedly in the run-up to the Epilogue-- has Laramie, WY changed since Matt Shepard's murder?  Have we as a nation changed?  It's the question they pose in their Newsweek article preceding the play, and it's the impetus that drives the new play forward.  Is that kind of change even measurable, they ask?   If it is measurable, then what does it look like?  It's only natural that a theater company that prides itself on holding its fingers on the pulse of the nation's important social issues would ask a question like that.  But the thing is, what happens when you pose that question?  Does it change the relationship between yourself and your interviewees?  This really comes down to a more basic, more obvious question: does judgment against Laramie in the new play come from within the community, or without?

Tectonic Theater seems, on one level, to recognize that change in their relationship to the Laramie community between the two plays.  I'm wondering right now if that change in relationship also changes the overall structure of the second play.

Can a simple question change everything?  In this case, I do wonder if it does change the whole dynamic between TT and their target community.  Let me see if I can explain: for the first play, their exigence was clear, as they were documenting the town's reactions and feelings as the community was trying to deal with the tragedy of Matt's death.  This exigence, I think, would have made it easier for them to walk alongside the community and ask their perspective without necessarily judging them from the outside for their opinions.  It also makes the chronological events of the trials, protests and convictions the force that pushes the play forward.

But in this the second play, there's no clear exigence other than a coincidence of date and their primary question: "Has anything changed?"  This puts them in a more evaluative, judgmental role in relationship to the community.  This time, they're not walking alongside this community so much as analyzing their progress.  It's a fair question that needs to be asked: can you even ask that question without putting yourself in an external, judgmental position to the community you're observing?   It's the only reason they're there.  The problem is that your interviewees are now subjects to be evaluated for their level of change rather than just sources, or individual stories as part of a larger pattern.  Every person's experience, rather than collected together for a full accounting of one town's struggle with a momentous occasion, instead gets sorted and thrown in a pan to try and weigh out the result:  is there change, or contrition?  Is it real?  And is it enough?  And by the end of the play, Laramie has been weighed in the scales and largely found wanting. 

One could legitimately argue, "But Laramie is representative of the whole nation.  This is like 'Our Town,' after all.  To evaluate Laramie's change is to understand the nation's change."  I don't even think you can claim that it's a self-evaluation, either.  First of all, there's no hint in the new play that they think the robbery motive is popular anywhere except in Laramie, as it serves as their scapegoat for their personal guilt at Matt's murder.  Actually, thanks to that dumb 20/20 exposé, I've heard that opinion much farther afield than Laramie, Wyoming.  I've heard it in northern Wyoming.  I've also heard it in the deep South, on conservative websites, on The O'Reilley Factor and from Congressmen in the House of Representatives. The robbery motive may have started in Laramie, but don't be fooled: this is a national tragedy of denial, not just the delusions of Laramie, WY. 

For another,  at what point in the play company's journals do you see them evaluating their own growth in the last ten years or considering their own play's influence/damage in the same way they excoriate that indefensibly bad 20/20 piece?  It just doesn't happen in the fabric of the play itself, and I was really hoping for that level of self-referentiality and personal evaluation from Tectonic Theater.  All I've seen was Kaufman's comment that getting real commentary without self-editing this time was different, and that the first play might be the reason.  (That's also mentioned in this Newsweek blog post. I'll write more on that later.) Those moments of discovery when you see the cast members surprised and changed by their interaction with Laramie residents were some of my favorite moments in the first play-- like with Marge and Alison or Father Roger, for instance.  Depending on how one wishes to stage the scenes with Henderson and McKinney, the Epilogue has the potential to tap into that kind of personal discovery.  It's just that it's not hardwired into the second play like it is the first. 

But the new play is so consumed with Laramie's personal growth (or lack of it) and the media's role in exacerbating the situation that they never give us a look at their own process of self- evaluation and growth.  How has Tectonic Theater changed in ten years?  How have they changed their ideas about small town violence or how/where social change needs to occur?  Personally, I needed that kind of introspection from the actors, and I simply didn't get it.  You know, it's funny-- one of the blog posters for Emerson College commended Tectonic for not  inserting this kind of self-reflection in the second play; I, however, feel the opposite.  Why?  The best I can figure out is that I really wanted to see that the painful process of self-revelation of this play is something that Tectonic participates in right along with the rest of us.  As hard as it was for me to sit through and hear Laramie speak in 10 Years Later, I would have liked to know if it was just as hard for Tectonic Theater to bear.

Please try to understand-- it's not that I don't like the Epilogue or feel that it's failed; I just feel like it would have made for a much richer play if they had done this.   And, I'm more interested in answering the question of why this Epilogue feels so different from the first play.  

And now that I've exhausted the possibilities for looking at Tectonic as judging from the outside, I should also look to the opposite side.  There's a lot to suggest that they're working as social insiders for at least part of the Laramie population, and that's what I'll cover in my next post.

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