Calling all Theater companies and performers!

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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.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Jackrabbit's conference paper on TLP, sort of

A few days ago I posted my initial reaction to presenting something vaguely academic at a scholarly conference; I figured that it was a lot easier to actually post the damn thing to let you see for yourself what I did than to try to reinvent the wheel-- especially when inventing the wheel the first time seems to have consumed a good portion of my sanity.

I have to give this with a caveat or two: first of all, this is not the final draft I presented.  I had to make a lot of handwritten changes to this before presenting, and now I can't find the stupid thing to type them in.  So this is simply a draft-in-progress; as such, it doesn't have any of my citations in it, either.  Besides, that will keep lazy undergrads from plagiarizing this for a research paper.  (For those who were considering it: shame on you, lazy undergrads.  Go to the bibliography page for sources and write your own.)  

So, please treat this for what it is: more of a sketch of my research than anything actually presentable or scholarly in of itself.  You can also view my Powerpoint presentation (oh joy.) to fill in the quotations, evidence and critical background, if you're that masochistic, here.  (hint: right-click the file on that page and click "save," otherwise your browser will try to open a Powerpoint file, with hilarious results...)

So, without further ado, here's a look at Jackrabbit's mediocre first attempt to act like a grown-up and treat The Laramie Project like a scholar after the jump!

NEXUS Interdisciplinary Conference, 2010

“You Must Tell Your Story”:
Feeling Through the Textures of Memory in The Laramie Project

Near the conclusion of The Laramie Project, as the entire town of Laramie ponders the fate of Matthew Shepard’s murderers, a Catholic priest named Roger Schmit makes an important observation:
I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.  They have to be our teachers.  How did you learn?  What did we as a society do to teach you that?  See, I don’t know if many people will let them be their teachers.  I think it would be wonderful if the judge said: “In addition to your sentence, you must tell your story, you must tell your story” (89).
Father Roger’s injunction to the two young men who kidnapped, bound, and bludgeoned Matthew Shepard to death in 1998 speaks to many of the core issues of the play—a plea for understanding, the need for personal reflection, and above all, a need for Laramie, and America as a whole, to look into the stories of two of Laramie, Wyoming’s most notorious failures and see themselves.  If we think of this command from within Father Roger’s perspective, he is essentially asking McKinney and Henderson for a public confession, for penance and an opportunity for absolution, and both the punishment and the price are the same: they have to "tell their story."  The price they must pay is that they must become conscious of their selves, not as unitary, essential beings, but as a product of their society.  And just as they must “tell their story” to the world, Father Roger is asking the Laramie community to respond doing the same.  In a very real sense, this desire reflects Tectonic Theater's desires as well, as they demanded the same of Laramie that Father Schmidt asks of the killers: that it tell its story, give its own confession and give up the illusion of itself as a unitary, essential community and realize that their ability to define themselves, both as individuals and as a community, is largely out of their control.

The play’s central questions about community and identity are meant to tug at the conscience of America as a whole, but to Laramie residents and the witnesses to Matt’s passing, these questions are far more personal.  As one who has moved in many of this play’s narrated communities— as a witness of its events and a college student, a friend to Shepard’s grieving friends and yet a stranger to Matt himself, somewhat familiar with Laramie’s “gay scene” and yet also a familiar of the so-called “Baptist Church”—I have, over the last ten years, had to traverse a strained and sometimes fractious relationship with this play.  In the face of Father Roger’s command to “tell your story,” it often feels that this play is making that same demand of myself, and in so many ways, that demand feels so overwhelmingly unfair.  And it seems that I am not the only one.

The purpose of sharing this paper today is merely to present the earliest findings of what I expect will turn into an impossible task: to understand the profound effect that the play The Laramie Project has had on one community’s attempt to speak its way through the trauma of a shocking murder and its resulting identity crisis.  I would like to suggest that, with its subsequent dissemination and performance across the country, The Laramie Project represents the collected memory of a traumatized community gone rogue, an unruly narrative of that reveals a very contingent and unstable sense of self, forcing people to become self-conscious of their identities in the face of a memory that is no longer in their hands to control.  And, once performed, witnesses who encounter The Laramie Project are often incited to respond back to the play with their own memories—that it provokes us to “tell our [own] story” in response.

Before we can talk about how “the community” responded to the creation of The Laramie Project, we need to have an understanding about what “the community” means. Much of the community holds to the conventional idea of a “community” as a body of common, shared values, ideals and commitments; in addition, that community has a shared sense of collective history, one that is defined and protected by the town’s most prominent members.  But from a postmodern perspective, one could say that there is no “Laramie” as a unified community; the Laramie community consists of whatever an observer, tracing its boundaries, chooses to include to the inside or outside of her self-defined community.  The ethics and the politics of who gets to wield that power—who gets to say who is in the center and the periphery of this community—is one of the fundamental tensions in Laramie.   Before the Shepard murder, it was these members of the community—the old families, the ranchers and Laramie natives—who controlled and protected Laramie’s common identity as a community, and often against one another.  

These guardians of Laramie’s collective memory—the Laramie natives, ranchers, religious leaders—are also the ones who have had the power to define and control the LGBT population in Laramie, and, therefore, to determine their place in the community.   Within the text of The Laramie Project, you can see many of the Laramie mainstream define the boundaries of gay and lesbian behavior with their collective memory of Laramie’s past and its character, as “live and let live,” as rough-and-tumble, masculine, and individualistic.  And in that same message, as you might notice in the quotes running [in the Powerpoint presentation] behind me, is the message that gays and lesbians have a marginal space that they cannot, and dare not, overstep.  This overarching memory of Laramie as a “live and let live” society actually strips them of their subjectivity. 

After Matt’s murder, however, when Tectonic Theater steps into the community to record the “community’s” collected memory of the tragedy and its aftermath, they unintentionally blow the doors off of this community’s traditional sense of identity by refusing to play by the same rules. Tectonic Theater mixes the personal stories of both the conventionally defined community and its marginal voices: not just the traumatized gay and lesbian community, but also religious and ethnic minorites, petty criminals, normally voiceless women and wage laborers.  In doing so, Tectonic does something remarkable: they both give back a kind of subjectivity to the GLBT community by allowing their memories to define what this community is, and it questions the community’s unchallenged assumption that everyone there holds a set of common values and a communal memory.

For instance, the play opens with a theatric “moment” where Tectonic lets Laramie residents define the community and give a sense of their collective identity within it, but the lack of a stable “Laramie” at the heart of their responses subverts whether the sense of community they have treasured actually exists.  The play opens with observations of Seargeant Hing, a police officer and third-generation Laramie resident; the same narrative is then told by ranchers Gil and Eileen Engen, and then Jed Schultz, who is himself a Laramie native and a part of the traditionally defined community.

But what Tectonic does so expertly in these first few voices is weave the collective memory of this old guard and their previously unchallenged view of the community with the memories of those from the margins.  Tectonic first layers in outside members of the community who echo the common values of the community and reinforce is goodness, most notably Rebecca Hilliker, Zackie Salmon, and Doc.  Then Tectonic layers in other voices, like April Silva and, later, Jonas Slonaker, who have different memory of Laramie.  And what Tectonic does not tell the audience up front is that Silva, Slonaker and Salmon are all from Laramie’s previously silent, externally defined gay community, and Doc speaks, not as the universal, sage cowboy as he comes across in the play, but as town pariah.   Tectonic thus deftly moves the boundaries of who gets to speak to Laramie’s character, and they do so without labeling them as “inside” or “outside” the conventional Laramie community.  Those who previously lacked the subjectivity to define their own place within the Laramie community can now both participate in that narrative of “Laramie” and subvert it at the same time. When all these voices come together to rehearse the old collective identity of Laramie as a “town with a strong sense of community,”  in Jed Schultz’ words, there is a realization that what it meant to live in Laramie is gone, and whatever Laramie now is, is largely out of their control. 

I can tell you that this re-inscription of the community’s boundaries and a lack of control over the narrative presented in The Laramie Project has caused just a bit of tension, to put it lightly.  The most common answer I seem to get from other Wyoming residents is that “that person (whoever that might be) doesn’t speak for me.”  There is a lot of genuine resentment among some Laramie residents about what is being said, but also who has the right to say it.  At the same time that Tectonic’s collection of their personal memories gives a new sense of subjectivity to the margins, it takes away the subjectivity of those who previously did all the talking—and as much of the Laramie mainstream figured out, they found themselves in the same shoes as the community they once defined—and they found it an uncomfortable place to be.  

Within the play, these responses get quite interesting.  They range from the Baptist Minister’s wife trying to wish it all away, to angry responses to how the GLBT community sees Laramie, to genuine calls for a different sense of  community.  Hearing the stories of the GLBT community, for instance forces Rob DeBree to completely change his perspective on sexual orientation.  And it leads Father Roger Schmit to label the kind of easy definition of gays and lesbians as marginal to the mainstream as “the seed of violence.”  
That potential for a forced self-awareness and resurfacing of trauma only heightened when The Laramie Project finally went “rogue” in the fall of 2001 and became universally available in the Vintage edition. Those who identified with the Laramie community now had to deal with an interpretation of their collective identity by people with no personal or ethical ties to the community like Tectonic Theater had, and who could interpret them in any way they pleased.  And the response, I’m afraid, wasn’t always positive.  And yet, subsequent production, like any good, positive irritant, led to some unusual reactions among those with a stake in the play.  

For instance, the director of the Plan B company’s 2001 production, Jerry Rapier, noted a strong Laramie presence in their Utah production.  Jed Schultz, a young man interviewed by Tectonic in the first play, auditioned to play himself, and he got the part.  Interestingly, Jed’s mother, who is often held up for criticism in the play for her views on sexuality, sent a jar of Laramie soil with her son down to Salt Lake City.  With this symbolic action, she both participated in the production and enforced a physical, visceral reminder of Laramie as a real place upon the actors.  Jerry Rapier also notes that several Laramie residents came to watch the production, but the one that stood out in his mind was a visitor from the final week of the play.  As he noted, Chastity Paisley, Henderson’s girlfriend and convicted accessory to Matthew Shepard’s murder, attended the last week of the production; she wept uncontrollably.  

Others have felt this same urge to participate in the performance of Laramie’s identity.  Kerry Drake, a Casper resident and AP reporter, witnessed and reported on Fred Phelps’ protest at Matthew Shepard’s funeral; he auditioned to play himself locally, and like Jed, was awarded the part.  And, in the world premiere of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, many of the principal characters read their own parts in the Laramie reading, including Catherine Connoly, Beth Loffreda, Jeffrey Lockwood and Jonas Slonaker.  Jed Schultz and the Shepard family took part, as supporters, from New York.  

And in one of the stranger acts of communal participation in The Laramie Project I’ve found so far, two Sheridan, Wyoming students created an entire traveling theatric troupe to perform the play in Wyoming. Grace Cannon and Scott Gunderson, both 2006 graduates of Sheridan High School in northeastern Wyoming, conspired with five students from Vassar College to stage The Laramie Project in Wyoming after their high school refused to let their drama program stage the play.  They founded a nonprofit, found a director, actors, and equipment all on their own, and they raised all their own funds for the venture.  Their efforts culminated in the creation of No Fog West Theatre Company, whereupon they recruited Wyoming residents to participate in a week-long run of The Laramie Project at a local play house.  They repeated the venture in 2008, with a production of Talking with Terrorists.    

And then there’s me.  Just like all these others, I have felt an overwhelming need to participate in this narrative. Encountering this collective memory in an environment where I was powerless, non-participant was, simply put, traumatic.  Before this last year, I’d only seen The Laramie Project staged twice—the 2001 Tectonic performance in Laramie and a 2006 undergraduate production in the Clarence Brown Lab Theater here in Knoxville. I had such an intense panic attack during that latter performance that I had to lock myself into a bathroom stall during intermission just to stop hyperventilating.  Like many others, I felt a sense of  helplessness at the performance, and when they re-performed the scenes of my own trauma in relation to the story—specifically, the media blitz and Phelps’ protest—that inchoate rage and confusion I swallowed seven years previously came ripping back to the surface.  In 2001-2002, when I started finding my identity challenged by TLP across the country, I swallowed it; and, ironically enough, it was the Knoxville production of this same play that brought it into the open and forced me to deal with it. 

The only response, in my case, seemed to be to dialogue with the play, to talk back to that narrative that had dogged me for half a decade across both ends of the country.  To make a long story short, the major watershed moment for me was when I was very graciously invited to talk with the cast about my connection to The Laramie Project when Knoxville held a reading of the new Epilogue.  I suppose that was my version of Mrs. Schultz’ jar of dirt sitting on the stage.  I also recently started blogging about my experiences as a freshman at the University of Wyoming a few weeks after the reading of 10 Years Later just to clear my head, and it’s turned into a four-month odyssey of blogging on everything from family trauma, collective memory and national myth to my personal hangups with the play and, somewhere in there, some actual theoretical, literary criticism, I swear.  And in return, now that I’ve started looking back on my own posts, I’m starting to discover that my memory of events, and my sense of identity as a Wyoming resident—is much more contingent and in flux than perhaps I’m comfortable with.

So, why do we do we all do it?  I’m afraid that’s the question that, at this stage in my research, I simply cannot answer.  One possibility is that it merely comes from the desire for public exposure, but that makes little sense for those whose participation never got as far as the stage.  Or, perhaps,the individual’s need to reinforce their subjectivity over a narrative and reinforce their own identities.  That would certainly make sense of Jed’s mother and myself, but what about Chastity Paisley?  For her, it seems, sitting through the play was devastating.

A lot of that will depend on much more slippery matters—whose definitions of terms like subjectivity and community I use.  I’m curious about the ways in which James Young’s or Marianne Hirsh’s sense of participation in a “vicarious past” or “postmemory,” but I’m extremely hesitant to import a critical framework into The Laramie Project that was specifically designed for second-generation survivors of the Holocaust.  And I’m thinking about ways in which Judith Butlers’ sense of identity as a performance might make sense of these different memories performed on stage, or Homi Bhaba’s sense of identity and community. 

But most importantly, it means that I can’t go much further in this study without venturing back into Laramie and dialoguing with those people who have been forced to reconcile themselves to this play.  That further research, I hope, will come soon if funding and free time can allow.

Copyright 2010 by the author.  All rights reserved.  

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