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Monday, February 1, 2010

Fear, Loathing and "The Laramie Project": the 2000 Production

Now that I have explained my relationship to the Matt Shepard tragedy and the two trials, I need to explain the next phase.  My story doesn't really end with the conviction of Matt's killers; it continues through my experience with The Laramie Project to the reading of Ten Years Later.  A lot of my fear and loathing really comes out in relation to the play than anything else-- so I suppose that is what I'll have to explain next: my first experience riding out the shock waves of that earthquake of a play produced by Tectonic Theater.   

Before the 2000 Tectonic performance in Laramie, I never really considered myself "traumatized" by what had happened after Matt's murder. It was merely a headache, one among many. After all, I never knew Matt; In comparison to other people like "Sascha," who was his friend and was still hurting two years later, what right did I have to bear those kinds of psychological wounds?

Besides, I had bigger problems: screwing up the relationship I was in; trying to deal with seeing what was left of a suicide jumper from the top of my dorm; worrying about my brother dropping out of college and getting into trouble and my sister still trying to deal with the wreckage of a messy divorce; the death of a favorite high school teacher in a car wreck; running into spiritual questions I couldn't answer. The Shepard incident and the media problems seemed to be just one minor problem of a whole host of other issues that hit much closer to home and consumed much more of my attention.

Of course, we all knew about The Laramie Project and I knew that they were interviewing people I knew, but I don't remember thinking anything about it other than I didn't want to get involved.   For one, I was having trouble distinguishing what they were doing from the media.  The reporters came in uninvited, took our stories, and then used them in ways we didn't like in front of a national audience.  As far as I was concerned, these easterners were doing the same thing.  If I had been privy to the relationships they were building with their interviewees, I might have changed my mind about that.  In any case, just as I had trained myself to brush off the reporters, I backed away from anything having to do with the play or the filming.
The only time that was an issue was early into marching band season that year when our graduate student "Lawson" started pressing us into service to re-create the homecoming parade scene for the HBO filming. "Lawson" was a nice guy with an affable, goofy personality, but as much as I liked him personally, a team of wild stallions couldn't have drug me out to that shooting.  A bunch of us were lounging about in the basement of Fine Arts one afternoon when walked briskly up to us.  
"Hey guys," he said, "We're still short bodies for the filming this afternoon.  Any of you willing to grab a uniform and go to the shooting?" A shooting.  That's what it felt like-- rifles instead of cameras.   I remember an awkward pause as we all stared at each other.  None of us moved. 
"Come on," he needled us.  "Are you seriously going to turn down a chance to be a movie extra?"  He turned to me.  "What about you, Jackrabbit?  We really need brass."  I think I actually sneered at him.   I'm ashamed of this now as I look back.   
"Nah," I answered him.  "It's raining and it's miserable out there.  I'm not bicycling downtown in a banana coat [our band rain gear] dragging a horn case."  
"We can get a carpool going..." he offered.  I dug my heels in. 
"Lawson, I ain't doing it." 
I looked around. None of the other band members next to me were stirring either. Most of them had their faces set in hard glares.  "Lawson" glared back at us all, said "forget it," and he stalked off. I don't know what they did to fill out the band-- maybe they asked high school students.  At the time, I didn't even care enough to ask.

And yet, when Tectonic Theater brought the play to town, I couldn't help but go.  There was a little bit of controversy about the terms that student government had to bring them in under because the student activities council literally had to scrape the barrel and take donations to get the money to bring them in, and they still charged for tickets to cover the rest of the cost.  A lot of people felt like they owed it to us to donate a performance.  While this annoyed me immensely (one of my residents was a student rep and griped about it a lot), I still bought a ticket as soon as the box office opened.  For one, it was theater; I couldn't get enough of drama classes in the English department, and the promise of seeing a professional theater company in our little Fine Arts auditorium drew me like honey draws a bear.  Besides, I was extremely curious. I knew a lot of the interviewees-- Romaine, Jed, and a few others, aside from university people-- and I wanted to see what they had to say.  "Sascha," if I remember, was an interviewee but didn't make it into the printed version.  I bought a ticket early to make sure I could get a seat. 

The night of the performance in 2000, I wasn't prepared for the reaction I had to the play. For one, I was fascinated by seeing people I knew from college, from high school and from church on the stage. The guy who played Dr. Peacock did such a perfect job that he was even wearing the same kind of Columbia fleece pullover that he wore almost every day in my Political Science class.   The guy playing Jed even pushed all his hair forward into his face with a tuque (a knitted cap) to simulate that awful haircut Jed had back then.  Their accents and mannerisms were so accurate that I was enthralled.  It was only the second time I had gotten completely sucked into a theatrical performance.  The first one was Angels in America the previous fall, when Jed Schultz had played Prior Walter and Rian Jairell played Roy Cohn.

I had a lot of disease when I watched the performance too, partially because I knew "The Baptist Church" pretty well-- I had just been baptized in that church a few weeks before the performance, and my vestigal connections to that community will inevitably probably color anything I say about it. I was pretty ambivalent about Amanda Gronich's portrayal of the church service; I would have walked out of a sermon like that had the current pastor preached it.  Gronich admits in the play that she and Kaufman were working from memory, so I do have to wonder how much of the cultural shock of the service and her later interaction with the Minister influenced her recollection.  On the other hand, since I had never met "The Baptist Minister," who had gone back to Texas by the time I took up with that church, I can't really speak for him. Maybe he really is that abrasive. 

Everything was fine until the beginning of the second act.  After Dr. Peacock introduced the descent of the media into Laramie, the TT members recreated the feeling of the reporter invasion on stage using live cameras, microphones and drop-down televisions from the lights with a live feed.  In the sea of overlapping voices and re-hearing news reports I remembered from two years ago, everything came back at once-- not just Matt's murder, but all the other problems I was having at the same time-- and the next thing I knew, I had both hands clamped over my ears and my eyes shut, and I was crying. 

You know, I just love the stage directions on this scene:  This moment should feel like an invasion and should be so perceived by the other actors onstage (47).  Gee, no shit.   It took less than forty-five seconds in that "moment" to turn me into a crying, snuffling wreck.  It still does, too.  The person sitting next to me must have thought I was nuts. 

I managed to pull myself together about five minutes later just to do it all again when Phelps came on the stage in Act III during the funeral scene.  The moment they portrayed that man stalking out of my nightmares, hissing his lines from the back of the stage, I couldn't watch any more.  Back came the hands-- this time over my eyes-- and back came the tears.  Thank the Lord he's only on stage for a couple of minutes and the angels cover him up for half of that.

So, after that, it was pretty clear that the last two years of hell had affected me in ways I hadn't anticipated.  I had spent plenty of time thinking about how the protests, the media, and the political turmoil was affecting all of us as a community, and I was concerned about how it was still crippling "Sascha";  but I hadn't stopped to think about how it had done the same to me.  It took a re-rehearsal of those days on the stage to bring back to the surface all the things I had buried so I could function as a normal college student.  If it hadn't been for TLP...  would I have had that moment of realization?  Would I have ever dealt with that trauma at all?  That's much harder to say because, you see, after the 2000 performance and I moved from Laramie, I buried all that trauma again only to have it resurface six years later at a different performance.  The Laramie Project had just as much to do with my burying that trauma as it did bringing it to the surface in the first place.  Why that happened, and how I finally started dealing with it, will have to wait for another post.


1) Close-up of the University of Wyoming marching band, from WyoLibrarian's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(These new uniforms are SO much nicer than the ones I marched in back in the day!)

2) The funeral scene from The Laramie Project, taken from an Albany high school production.  From PilotGirl's Flick photostream: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3)  Operation Angel Action reenactment from a 2008 production of The Laramie Project.  Photograph taken by Anthony Chivetta.  Taken from micdsphotos Flickr photostream:

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