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!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Scatter Plots: Of Angst and Ethnography

In the beginning of The Laramie Project, one of the company members, Amanda Gronich, expresses a little bit of dismay at the task in front of them:"I've never done anything like this in my life.  How do you get people to talk to you?  What do you ask?" (10).   She's got a valid point.  I suppose that most people think it's a simple matter of just walking up to somebody and asking a few questions, but I'm getting  a better idea of how hard doing that can actually be.  The kind of information you get from an interview depends heavily upon the kind of relationship that the interviewer and interviewee have built between each other, and most subjects are reluctant to volunteer intimate details or make themselves vulnerable to a person whom they don't trust.  In a sense, they were working with the wrong model; they kept talking about themselves as acting like journalists, but some of them (Belber, at the very least) unconsciously start acting more like ethnographers.  Belber, for instance, is painfully aware of his relationship to the people he interviews.  That's part of what pleases me about Tectonic Theater: the kinds of conversations they managed to have with some of these people hints at the creation of a close and trusting relationship between themselves and their interviewees, and they managed to do that in just six visits. 

But how do you get people to talk to you?  I have a very good friend here at the university who is a graduate student in RWL.  Her main emphasis is composition and pedagogy with an ethnographic focus, and she's very interested in academically studying how students from her own cultural background learn how to negotiate in a college environment.  I watched her comb our campus and other colleges in the area trying to find undergraduates who wanted to be interviewed, but after months of fruitless effort, unanswered phone calls and IRB limitations, she had to scrap her original topic for something else.  Now she's drawing her study subjects from among friends and colleagues who fit within the same demographic. 

My friend "Colleen" has been heavily trained in the techniques, ethics and processes of ethnographic inquiry, and even she couldn't break in to the undergraduates' lives enough to convince them to speak to her.  She's even an "insider"; she comes from the same background as these students.  So she had to back up a little and work with people she could count on and who were already comfortable talking with her.  She needed to find people whom she could trust and could also trust her, and that took a prior relationship.

So, what does this have to do with The Laramie Project?  Quite a bit, actually.  "Colleen" discovered how hard it was to break into the lives of a community of people (in her case, college undergraduates) without prior connections; I anticipate that Tectonic had the same problems when they approached a hurting and traumatized community very much aware of how outsiders saw them. 

I must tell you that when I first heard that you were thinking of coming here, when you first called me, I wanted to say, You've just kicked me in the stomach.  Why are you doing this to me?  But then I thought, That's stupid, you're not doing this to me...
--Rebecca Hilliker, in TLP (2000): 11

Don't--don't--don't, um (pause) don't make matters worse...  I would resent it immensely if you use anything I said, uh, you know to-- to somehow cultivate that kind of violence, even in its smallest form.  I would resent it immensely.  You need to know that. 
--Father Roger Schmit, in TLP (2000):66

When I read this play, these are words I always come back to.  To me, this play still feels like a boot to the kidneys.  I also feel that level of angst and resentment at the possibility that this play will "make things worse."  What's interesting to me is who is saying this to Tectonic-- one is a fellow actor, the head of the Theater department to be exact, and the other is a Catholic priest.  If Hilliker has this level of angst speaking to her fellow thespians, and an activist priest has this much hostility in his interview, how are other people going to react to these outsiders wandering the streets of Laramie looking for people to just open up and share their feelings?

In some short articles from TLP's opening, Kaufman* talks candidly about the level of apprehension they felt moving about in the Laramie community when they first started.  They were too afraid at first to go out in anything except in pairs.  Belber admits in a later article that he was verbally accosted and threatened for being a gay sympathizer by an acquaintance of Mckinney's.  From that perspective, there's little wonder that Tectonic stuck fairly close to home and didn't stray too far from their little island of familiarity in the theater department, the college, and the LGBTA.  Starting there allowed them to find interviewees they could connect with and who came with a pre-screened personal relationship.  It probably made things a lot easier, for instance, to develop a personal relationship with, say, Tiffany Edwards or Romaine Patterson when the request came from someone they trusted like Romaine's sister Trish Steger.  Following those threads of relationship through one community would be a much more comfortable and productive way of getting around a community that was, by this time, extremely used to brushing off strangers with New England accents and holding tape recorders. 

That approach will, in fact, get you extremely deeply into a community like Laramie.  Almost everybody in town can be reached through just a couple degrees of separation.  From that one theater party, Tectonic was able to get connected to a Theater professor, a young and extremely conflicted local college student, a longtime member of the LGBT community, Matt Shepard's friend Romaine Patterson and the crime reporter who had to break the Shepard story in the Boomerang.  And that's just starting through one person-- Rebecca Hilliker.  Follow threads through a different person-- Marge Murray, for instance-- and maybe you'll end up with a completely different demographic.       Following the threads of those connected to the crime (especially from the perpetrator's community) got them a good cross-section of the community, which included everyone from Henderson's grandmother, some members of the LDS church and a local waitress. 

I mean, they did miss a few things nonetheless.  If you read The Laramie Project, you get no indication that there's another school in town besides UW, do you?  In fact, there are two: the second is a nationally competitive automotive program called WyoTech.   The school is expensive and grueling-- and its graduates come out extremely proud of themselves and holding a degree that will often fetch them more money as diesel mechanics than most of the Humanities professors at UW make.  And yet, the college community tends to deride these students as "Techers" and "grease monkeys," and they are characterized as rowdy and ignorant.  I would have loved to seen a little outreach to this campus, although I can't blame Tectonic for not doing it.  The Tech students are admittedly a little on the rough-and-ready side and usually very conservative, and that would make it a harder community to break in to when TT was already being associated with the university.  That, and the campus is on the extreme edge of town towards Bosler. 

I'd also have loved to see a little more chatting with the service industry, since they do make up the bulk of normal employment in Laramie.  I will give them credit for at least trying.  

Regardless, this all comes down to basic journalistic practice: start with who you know, and use those relationships to work your way to the inside.  Follow the leads and see where they go.  If Tectonic did that, where is the problem, I have to ask myself?  Besides, I have to remember:  they did over 200 interviews.  Only about a third of those made it into TLP, so maybe I need to back off a little.  For all I know, they did all this, and those interviews just didn't make the cut. So why am I so worried about all this, I wonder?

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple, so I'll address the politics of that question  next before we let this one be.


1) "Welcome to Laramie," from jimmywayne's Flickr Photostream: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2) Yes, it does exist!  The Chuckwagon Restaurant, from elmada's Flickr photostream: 


Belber, Stephen.  "Listening to Laramie."  The Dramatist 3.2 (2000): 18-31. 
Kaufman, Moisés.  "Into the West: An Exploration in Form."  American Theater May/June 2000:17-18. Linked here for reference.

Shewey, Don.  "Town in a Mirror: The Laramie Project Revisits an American Tragedy."  American Theater May/June 2000: 14+.  Linked here for reference.  

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