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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Scatter Plots

One of my students particularly enamored with The Laramie Project and endowed with a more mathematical imagination once described TLP as a "scatter plot" of Laramie, a broad and random cross-section of the entire community that gives a good idea of the total population.    That's one of the real beauties of TLP, honestly: we hear from ranchers, professors, police officers, Mormon home teachers, and college students, just to name a few. The way these voices all come together to show their different experiences of the exact same event creates an incredible picture of a "collected memory," to use James E. Young's term. All these voices are focused on the m emory of the same, life-changing moment; but very few of them share the same experience. 

And yet, when I think back to this student's comment, I'm a little conflicted.  I completely agree with the metaphor he picked-- the play is incredibly rich in its portrayals of the Laramie community.  The thing that bothers me a little is that I know that the scatter isn't entirely random.   It's a scatter plot, sure, but where did they take the points from?  If you understand a little bit about the background and connections between some of the key players in their drama, the plot looks a lot less random than perhaps Tectonic tries to make us believe.  That's the labyrinth I'd like to plunge us into over the next few weeks.  

But before I get started, please, please understand-- I don't intend to "out" anybody who doesn't want to be found (for instance, I'm not telling you who The Baptist Minister is).  After all, I'm coveting my own anonymity at the moment, so I insist on maintaining that for others.  I'm just going to give you the information that any regular person walking around the UW campus can find out-- no dirty laundry.  I'm not going to tell you the name of anybody who asked for anonymity, and I'm not going to give out anything that isn't revealed elsewhere or isn't common knowledge.   

Okay, so here's some information about a few interviewees that aren't volunteered by Tectonic in The Laramie Project:

  • Harry Woods isn't "just" a Laramie resident.  He was the Fine Arts coordinator and publicist when I was there and a member of the theater department.  When I was an undergraduate playing in the Wind Ensemble, his office was less than fifteen feet from my locker.  He'd give us all a good scowl from his door if we were being too rowdy.  Harry's an actor as well.  If memory serves, that broken leg he mentions in the play kept him from acting the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman that same fall.  A guy who was dating a friend of mine at the time ended up being the understudy for that production and had to take over the part at the last minute.   
  • Assuming that the Jeff Lockwood of the Epilogue is the same one interviewed in The Laramie Project, he too is a member of the University.  According to the university press release regarding 10 Years Later, he splits his time between Creative Writing and Philosophy.  I don't really remember him from the English Department when I was there, however. 
  • Zackie Salmon is identified as a university administrator in the character sketches in the front of the Vintage edition, but she isn't mentioned as such in the text of the play.  (She's the director of the McNair Scholars Program. I met her in that capacity once in high school.)  That means that in the performance she just seems to be another nondescript part of the Laramie community.  
  • Whether he was then or not I can't say-- but, as mentioned in 10 Years Later, Jonas Slonaker works for the university, too, in Admissions.  He refers to the campus in the Epilogue as a kind of safe haven for LGBT people. 
  • Trish Steger used to own an alternative shop called The Jaded Lair (really fun place.)  Her husband, Rod Steger, was in the Theater department when I was in college.  I can only assume that's how Tectonic was introduced to her.  (Tiffany Edwards was introduced to Tectonic Theater through the Stegers, too.) 
When you take this list in combination with the other, specifically named people with connections to the university, it's starting to look pretty lop-sided.  Actually,  most of the contacts for these interviews could have been made through a single meeting: the party hosted by the Theater department when Tectonic first got to Laramie.  That's specifically what the party was for, after all.  Through that party, they had connections to Harry Woods, Dr. Hilliker probably suggested Jed for interviews, and they made contact with Rod Steger's wife Trish, who then (eventually, at least) got them in contact with Romaine and Tiffany Edwards.  When Andy Paris mentions that he first meets someone who knew Matt and it's Trish Steger, in my head I imagine that he met her at the party (although I have absolutely no way of knowing).  From there, it would be relatively easy for them from that point to make contact with other University employees and faculty by suggestion from the Theater staff or the English department, assuming that they had made contact with Beth Loffreda back then.  They were talking to Lockwood, so it's fairly likely they talked to other English department members as well, and Dr. Loffreda was working with the LGBTA.  

Oh-- and the Baptist Minister?  They might have picked The Baptist Church and The Baptist Minister randomly, or maybe they ended up there at Jed's suggestion.  I don't think that's "outing" anybody at all.  There were only like two Baptist churches in town back then, and Jed (and myself) had connections to one.  Just flip a coin.  

I can do this same kind of interconnection with the LGBTA, too, but I'm going to deliberately refrain from that for privacy concerns of the people involved.  I took classes with their faculty advisor, I worked for the club president when I was a sophomore, and I was good friends with at least a couple members of the club.  You can find other connections when you know who worked together and in what department. 

Basically, what it comes down to is this: If you understand that even the most basic connections among people in the Laramie community, you begin to understand that Tectonic stuck pretty close to home for bulk of their work.  They could have gotten the lion's share of their major interviewees they kept in the play from the Theater department, the LGBTA, connections through the police department and a few others tied to the Shepard murder.  A lot of it never leaves the college campus.  That scatter plot starts to look a lot more like core drilling.  While that will get you a lot of layers, you don't know how much those layers are going to change just a quarter mile down the road.

Does Tectonic know that this is a problem with their interviews?  Yes.  Stephen Belber openly admits that fact after the first production (see reference below), so I kind of have to imagine that that's why so few of these people mentioned above are so identified.  After all, why never mention that Harry Woods is an actor when they identify Hilliker and Jed?  Why never mention the same thing for Slonaker and Jeffrey Lockwood?  When occupation seems to play such a big part of how the earliest interviewees are identified-- rancher, policeman, theater department, limousine driver-- why not call Zackie Salmon a UW administrator within the performance text?  It starts to feel like they've nudged the dots on their scatter a plot a little bit in order to make them seem a little diverse than they really are.  But why need to do something like that in the first place?  That's what I'd like to explore in next week's post. 


1) totally random scatter plot, by my husband!

2) another totally random scatter plot, adapted from an original in jinho.jung's Flickr photostream:


Belber, Stephen.  "Listening to 'Laramie.'" The Dramatist 3.2 (2000): 18-31.
This might be the single most insightful piece of writing about Tectonic Theater's relationship to the community I've ever read, and it single-handedly made me sympathize with them a lot for what they did in (and for) Laramie.  If you can only read one thing by a company member about the creation of the play, get this one

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