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!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fear, Loathing, and "The Laramie Project": Narratives

After the 2006 production of TLP at my college campus, I continued to teach the play; but, but following that traumatic evening, my pedagogy changed.  For one, I adopted instead a much more autobiographical focus in my classroom.  Our department allows us to pick themes for our 101 and 102 English classes, so I picked autobiographical memory for mine.  Actually, "Memory and Atrocity" might have been a better name for my class; in addition to TLP we generally read Maus and study the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (a "semester of depression," one student quipped).  I've taught Jane Taylor's Ubu and the Truth Commission alongside TLP before, which had unpredictable but interesting results.  (Comparing TLP with autobiographical theater in South Africa is a rich, rich field of study I'm trying to research-- but more of that later.)

In my course, we read TLP as a reservoir of a crafted, collected (as opposed to collective) memory of Matt's murder, and we talk about the strengths, pitfalls, and limitations of memory to capture a specific moment in time.  We read TLP to look at the collective understanding of Matt's murder, the whys and hows of how people remember, and why personal memory is such a powerful tool for social change.  This would ultimately be good training for me, psychologically speaking, because I would have to face this play one more time:  the October reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

As we discuss autobiographical memory in class, we talk a lot about memory's limitations; we develop a vocabulary to talk about the cognitive and social distortion of memory and we apply it to what we see in the play.  My students are often frustrated that Matt's friends can't offer a convincing picture of who he was after he dies, and that we can't get to the motives of his killers, either.  But we also talk about narratives and schemas, and how the "happily ever after" ending we so often crave in bad situations has a cognitive basis and can have negative side-effects for social change.  I usually use the work of Saul Friedlander to talk about "redemptive history" and the way in which simply telling a story threatens to give it closure-- and creating that sense of closure is not always a good thing.  We discuss how some characters (most notably Jonas Slonaker) resist giving an easy, narrative-based closure to Matt's death that might shut down the possibility of social change. 

This change in focus in how I teach the play allowed me to use my own personal experience with Matt's death in class and dialogue with my students alongside their own personal experiences as well.  My students then write a paper on a personal experience using personal interviews, and they too get to make their own personal lives engage with an academic topic.  It's also allowed me to hash through my life in a meaningful way and demonstrate a method by which my students can do the same thing.  Sometimes it's just amazing the kinds of connections my students make; other times, it's an utter disaster. 
Anyhow, teaching TLP for eight semesters in a row was not destined to be my final experience with Matthew Shepard.  One afternoon in September I went to Starbuck's to check my e-mail, and I had received an email from a guy I didn't know with this subject header: "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later."  My stomach squirmed. I opened up the email, and that's how I found out that Tectonic Theater was in the middle of producing a new epilogue based on interviews taken around the ten year anniversary of Shepard's death.  I was both extremely curious and intensely nauseated.  How did this guy know about me?  Apparently, what happened was that my minister friend ratted me out to a member of the Theater Department faculty when he found out about the new play.   To his credit, my friend did so because he figured I would want to know; he was right.  I did. 

So, my name was sent along to someone involved in the production, where we exchanged a couple of emails.  At this point, I had a big choice to make: did I want to get involved?  I had spent most of my adult life running from this event, or when I didn't run, getting ripped up by it.  Teaching was a good first start, but it was time to do something more.  After a long, tortuous moment of indecision, I spilled my guts.  I typed up a response to explain to this guy (who'll I'll call "Joe")  that I lived in Laramie when Matt died and had a conflicted relationship with the play as a result.  The next day he asked me if he could chat with me. We set up a time to talk the following week at a coffee kiosk near my department building. 

As it turned out, "Joe" was heavily involved in our local production of 10 Years Later and one of the actors.  He also turned out to be a great listener and extremely non-judgmental.  "Joe" had spent a lot of time on my end of the country and had a fairly sympathetic understanding of the people, too; he was also, I was shocked to learn, just as enthralled and ambivalent about the play as I was, and for a lot of the same reasons.  After I blabbered out an awkward, embarrassed version of the events I witnessed in Laramie and my personal experience with the play, he asked if I might still be interested in talking to the cast before the production that Monday.  I thought it over briefly. 
"I've been thinking about it since you emailed,"  I told him, "and I think I want to do it."  He nodded. 
"If you don't mind me asking, why do you want to do it?"  He asked.  I tried to say something in response, but I tripped on my words and nothing came out.  "I don't know if I can explain it,"  I told him.  "Joe" gave me a knowing look. 
"You want a chance to speak back into this narrative that's defined you-- don't you?"  He asked.  I couldn't deny it; he'd hit the nail on the head.  I nodded, and for some reason I felt rather ashamed.   
"Yes.  Do you think that's selfish?" I remember asking him.  He smiled, and I felt  so relieved. 
"Absolutely not."  
In any case, it was settled.  "Joe" talked to the director, and that's how I found myself facing a table full of graduate acting students and professional stage actors the night before 10 Years Later would premiere locally.  It was pretty close to the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done.  At least when I got married, after all, I had a vague idea what I was getting into. 

I waited outside the Sunday before the performance for the first read-through to get wrapped up, and "Joe" came out to the wings to come and get me.  I was fine until we walked onto the stage, and when I saw how many actors there were sitting around the tables on the stage, I almost froze in my tracks.  "Joe" gave me hug around the shoulders, and that was enough to keep me moving.

We talked for over an hour.  Well, I babbled incoherently for about half that, and then we talked around the table for a little longer.  In a weird way, talking about it felt really, really good-- kind of like getting a bandage ripped off.  The cast was genuinely interested in what I had to say, for one-- one of them coaxed me into talking a bit about what Beth Loffreda was like (I had no idea at this point she was an interviewee in Ten Years Later), and we talked a lot about the original TLP and its influence.  Most of them had personal stories that somehow tied into the play as well-- life-changing moments when they played a certain character or saw the play, for instance, or personal experiences with gay-targeted violence.  One person even uses theater as a kind of community therapy. 

So that's how I finally told my story-- and they told me theirs.   And it made me think hard about how this play creates such interesting relationships between people.  I still had the performance to get through the next day, which I was dreading, but I had better save that for a different post.

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