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, May 30, 2010

I'm headed home!

Well, I got the bad/good news just last week-- my ticket is bought and I'm going home to the Rockies in a couple of weeks.  My elderly grandfather in Montana announced to the family about a month ago that he wants to move into one of those senior citizen's communities and sell his house.  He's arranged for a two-bedroom apartment in town where he'll be surrounded by other swinging seniors and have a social life. (Heaven help 'em all.  He's such a grouchy old fussbudget.) 

Judith Gap Turbines, 3 of 4So, I'm going to be the dutiful granddaughter and help my mother and aunt get him packed up and moved in.  This is going to involve a lot of packing of boxes-- and of Grandpa unpacking and repacking them again because he's O.C.D. and has to make sure all the labels on his canned goods are facing the same direction.

I expect this should go smoothly for the most part, until we get to the old brass bed my grandmother inherited many years ago from her parents and Grandpa no longer wants.  I might have to step in and referee the arm-wrestling contest between my mother and aunt to see who gets it.  ;-)

This means that me, my camera, and my audio recorder are headed back to Wyoming-- and I've decided to go back to Laramie for part of that time to do some research.  At first this seemed like the natural thing to do, given my academic inclinations and fascination with TLP, but I'm having a little bit of panic about actually talking to real live people about The Laramie Project.  I'll have to outline that in a little more detail later.

But in the meantime:  Woo-hoo!  I'm headed home, y'all!

Hawk flying

Friday, May 28, 2010

April Showers bring.... Columbine, apparently.

Summer is here, and it has brought me lots of boredom (which is unusual for a graduate student). I've been heading out with my camera taking pictures a lot more than hitting the books recently-- and I don't feel a bit guilty.

So, I thought I'd share another picture for you, from my university's trial gardens at the College of Agriculture.

Columbine, UT Trial garden

This is a variety of columbine I'd never seen before. The flowers are only about as big as a quarter or so, and a lovely maroon color. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Picture of Savage Beauty For You

The Kalamazoo Swan, originally uploaded by Wyoming_Jackrabbit.

I was up in Kalamazoo, Michigan about ten days ago for a long conference on medieval studies. While I was there, I took some pictures of the Western Michigan University campus and some of its more interesting inhabitants, and I wanted to share a few pics with you.

It's nesting season up in WMU, and this is their infamous campus swan, patrolling the banks of the little pond next to the dorms where I stayed. He's a thing of beauty-- and, just as he should be, a little intimidating.  Swans are anything but the serene, peaceable creatures that Disney movies make them out to be. 

He spent most of the conference beating up on the Canada geese who also share this same pond, keeping them away from the end of the pond where his mate was still nesting. He was a sight to behold.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Pro-Wrestling Meets Appalachia

Every once in a while I have these little moments of epiphany where I suddenly look around and realize that I'm not in the Rockies anymore.  Usually it's something subtle, like when I smell lilacs (which are rare down here) and I get desperately homesick, or when I see a Cadillac drive by with a "Git-r-done" bumper sticker, and I get confused.  But recently, the culture of public space has been making my status as resident alien to the South to me much more clearly than anything else.

For instance, take the street-side vendor.  Seeing people hock things on the side of the road isn't all that unusual; you see fruit stands and whatnot occasionally out west.  But I'm still not used to seeing a guy in overalls and a lump of Copenhagen in his lip set up shop on the highway selling "Boled P-Nuts" [sic] or "Shrump" [also sic] off the tailgate of his truck.   The strangest thing, up until last week, were the traveling garage sales that sprout up, like mushrooms, in vacant lots and grassy fields next to the road.  I can understand selling your stuff in a yard sale... but why pack it all in your van and roll it all out on the pavement next to the Kroger on my street? 

But what I saw two weeks ago in my neighborhood absolutely took the cake.  What I ran into was this: 

Bush-League Professional Wrestling

That's right: a bush-league semi-professional wrestling troupe set up a portable ring a block from my house and held a full-out wrestling entertainment extravaganza.  There were five different matches, complete with a tag team event featuring three male wrestlers and one female personality who styled herself as "Miss Las Vegas."  And I, I'm a little surprised to admit, enjoyed it in a weird sort of way, and for a weird reason.  So without further ado, here are some of the highlights:

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Has Anything Changed?" cont.: The Tectonic Uncertainty Principle

In my attempt to think through the relationship of Tectonic Theater to the Laramie community, I've tended to focus on their relationship to the Laramie community as a whole:  are they reporting it like they are from the "inside" of the community in reflection or from the "outside" in judgment?  There's another way to think of the organization, however: as either passive observer, or active participant in, the events they're observing.  When Tectonic came into Laramie this second time, how much had they already changed the situation in Laramie with their first play?  For me, the answer is simple because I don't think that passive observation of a community is possible; you're always changing the environment you're observing.  Therefore, for me the question is not whether Tectonic Theater has had an influence in Laramie; the  question is how much, and whether or not Tectonic recognizes that fact in the second play. 

So, to start, all of you Trekkies out there understand the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, right?  Here it is in a nutshell:  you can't observe an aspect of a particle in space without changing something else about it.  For instance, if you can pin down a particle's momentum, you know nothing about its position because your observation of its momentum precludes knowing its position.  And, since you have to "poke" a particle to know where it's at, you have to sacrifice knowing its momentum just to know its position.  It's the damnable, frustrating fact of life for quantum physicists:  you simply can never be a passive observer; to some extent, just by observing you are always a participant, you always interfere and you can therefore never know everything.    

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Has Anything Changed?" cont.: The Other Side of the Fence

I don't hate this play, I really don't! I swear!  *ahem.*

Okay, so I figured that after the last post I put up on this subject, it wouldn't hurt to make that point a little more clear.  My relationship with Tectonic is admittedly conflicted, but I'm not a "hater."  Actually, you wouldn't find a bigger supporter of reading, teaching or performing this play than me.  M'kay?  Alllright, so let's move on to the good stuff now. 

So, last time I spent an inordinate amount of time picking apart The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later from the perspective of outsiders judging the Laramie community and how that changes the feel of the new play.  That's not the only way to look at this situation, however.  The play gives us a lot of reasons to think that the question "Has anything changed?" isn't so much their question as Laramie's.  In the Epilogue to The Laramie Project, Kaufman and his acting team instead reveal the internal criticism of the community and their drive for change. In these instances, Tectonic acts more as a sort of midwife, bringing Laramie's own questions and ambivalence into the spotlight. Knowing Laramie's reticence to address this topic, this actually makes Tectonic Theater's presence in the community at this moment all the more important because they can bring those voices of frustration, resistance and hope out into the open.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Has Anything Changed?" Thoughts on TT's interaction with Laramie

Has anything changed?   

That's the question that Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater ask repeatedly in the run-up to the Epilogue-- has Laramie, WY changed since Matt Shepard's murder?  Have we as a nation changed?  It's the question they pose in their Newsweek article preceding the play, and it's the impetus that drives the new play forward.  Is that kind of change even measurable, they ask?   If it is measurable, then what does it look like?  It's only natural that a theater company that prides itself on holding its fingers on the pulse of the nation's important social issues would ask a question like that.  But the thing is, what happens when you pose that question?  Does it change the relationship between yourself and your interviewees?  This really comes down to a more basic, more obvious question: does judgment against Laramie in the new play come from within the community, or without?

Tectonic Theater seems, on one level, to recognize that change in their relationship to the Laramie community between the two plays.  I'm wondering right now if that change in relationship also changes the overall structure of the second play.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Shameless Plug for Real Bloggers United

The ladies and gentlemen of Real Bloggers United have started their own blog for monthly, theme-based posts, and this is there second month.  We've had a rather nice bevvy of posts this month so far, too!

Your very own Jackrabbit has a post with them this month about the old maxim about the hedgehog and the fox, and my personal experiences growing up in a family where everyone was a Jack of all trades.  If you'd like to read "Hedgehogs, Foxes and Four-Leaf Clovers," you can simply follow the link at left.


Monday, May 10, 2010

TT writes for Newsweek: "Has Anything Changed?"

Tectonic wrote a short but illuminating online piece for Newsweek talking about the Laramie community-- it's called, naturally, "Has Anything Changed?"  It's also basically the sentiment of the prologue they read before the performance of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later and includes a certain amount of the information they used in the final version of the play.

I found it an interesting view into Tectonic's attitude as they prepared to enter into Laramie one more time, and it was good to see how much they tried to keep an open mind of what "change" might look like in a community.  But it also outlined some things that I'd like to write about over the next few weeks.  Check it out!


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fred Phelps: civil rights activist?! CNN Reports...

Well, well-- if wonders never cease.  It seems that Fred "I'll protest anything" Phelps has a stranger history than even fiction could produce.  According to CNN, the head of the Phelps family was once a full-time civil rights attorney-- although his commitment to African-American equality is still very much in doubt, as conflicting reports are coming from the Phelps children.

The CNN article, linked above, does clear up one question I've never found an answer for-- how the Phelps clan can afford to gallivant over the nation doing protests.  CNN reports that 11 of 13 of the Phelps kids are attorneys, which might be the answer to how they collectively have the cash to pull off so many publicity stunts all over the country.  Not that Phelps is still a practicing attorney himself, however; Phelps was disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas supreme court on account of witness badgering, CNN's John Blake claims.  Phelps' daughter, however, claims that the disbarment was on account of animus against her father for his activism for blacks. 

The article is an interesting read, for lots of reasons-- quotes from Phelps-Roper on her father and from a son who's left the church, as well as anecdotes from people who knew Phelps before he started carrying placards at Shepard's funeral.  You have to read it to believe...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Scatter Plots, cont.: Who's speaking?

So, I've spent the last few posts looking at how Tectonic fudges around a few data points from our survey of Laramie, WY in order to make the pattern more uniform.  For a long time, this really bothered me.  Could that have been a necessary evil, however?  Let's take a look now at how the background politics of who's speaking actually might necessitate covering up some background information for the good of the play-- and a fair representation of the community.

And it was... it was just... I'm fifty-two years old and I'm gay.  I have lived here for many years and I've seen a lot.
-- Harry Woods, in TLP (2000): 63
When I came here I knew it was going to be hard as a gay man... but I kept telling myself: People should live where they want to live... I mean, imagine if more gay people stayed in small towns.  But it's easier said than done of course. 
-- Jonas Slonaker, in TLP (2000): 22-23

These two voices speak to more than the experience of just a semi-retired actor and a university admin specialist.  They're the voices of those who can speak to both their own personal experiences as well as the experience of gay men in the Laramie community at large.  And within that community, they each have a unique story to tell about their life within the community as a whole. That's how I'd like to finish out with this discussion this week-- looking at how these voices speak for more than just one side of Laramie, and with more clarity if we let them be a little less specific...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scatter Plots, cont: Fudging the Data

Okay, so in my previous post I basically pulled the rug out from under a few (vaguely) identified people in the original Laramie Project in order to show one thing: this play represents the university side of the social divide a lot more heavily than it does any other.  I guess that the next question would be this:  does this matter?

In one important way, it does.  And in one important way, it doesn't.  That's what I'd like to go through with you today. Before we go on, though, I'd like to beg your attention to one thing:  you can't read this post alone because you'll get a distorted view of my opinion.  Definitely read the next two posts too, so you can get the full picture.

Now that I'll tell ya, here in Laramie there is a difference and there always has been.  What it is is a class distinction.  It's about the well-educated and the ones that are not.  And the educated don't understand why the ones that are not don't get educated.
--Marge Murray in TLP (2000): 16

Henderson and Pasley live in a rural, windswept trailer park amid weeds, engine parts, fishing tackle, and barking dogs. A neighbor, John Gillham, 21, said the couple generally kept to themselves.
About a thousand people attended a candlelight vigil Sunday night near the University of Wyoming campus to show their support for Shepard.
-- AP Online report, Oct. 12, 1998

Just past First Street in Laramie there is a huge railway switching station that divides the town in two; it's enormous, with the parallel tracks stacked up for at least the width of a city block.  Alison Mears and Marge Murray talk about their own connection to the rail yard in detail.  My own connection to the yard is a little different. I used to spend a lot of time out there when I was a freshman; there's a catwalk that goes over the tracks right next to Coal Creek Coffee Company, and I used to stand on that bridge to watch the trains go by so I could clear my head. Those tracks literally divide the town into two stations, the well-heeled university town and the proverbial "wrong side" of the tracks, West Laramie.

West Laramie used to be the housing block for railroad workers, mechanics and day-laborers, and the houses can be small, gentrified and shabby.   In reality, the distinction is more metaphorical than anything; some of the apartments that the university and Tech students rent on the east side get pretty run-down, too (Laramie has a bit of a college housing problem), but that's not the identity stuck on the other side of town.  For me, the tracks delineate that divide between "town and gown" in Laramie fairly effectively: the university represents wealth, intellectualism and (to the town people) class snobbery and intellectual elitism, and West Laramie represents poverty, conservatism and (to the university) social disorder, intolerance and ignorance. 

So, how bad is that divide between "town and gown" in Laramie?  Well, it's pretty distinct, and the angst on both sides can be bitter.   To be straight with you, this distinction is one I've struggled with for most of my career.  The phrase "oil field trash" might not mean much to you, but it does to me.  My father was a roustabout for an oil company most of my life.  When I got to college, I found out that my lived experience as the daughter of said oil company field hand didn't fit in with most of my white-collar, middle-class classmates and teachers, and I burned with anger every time I heard someone at the college talk about the laboring classes as "those people" or "ignorant" or "trash."  In reality, my father reads more, and reads more closely, than most of the grad students I've met-- and he's also a better poet.   When a beloved and revered professor of mine referred apologetically to my family as "white trash,"  I had to fight not to burst into tears of rage.  This divide hits a little too close to home for me. 

It's also a divide that has split my family.  When I lived in Laramie, both my siblings at some point were living in West Laramie while I lived on the campus, as my brother dropped out of college for personal reasons and my sister was working as a foreman for a traffic control subcontractor.   Our daily lives looked nothing alike, and since I was fulfilling my parents' aspirations for a college grad in the family and they weren't, my parents unfairly preferred me to them.  And, since they felt the bite of that class antagonism that they perceived coming from the campus, they often saw me as part of the same society and bit back.  My sister was convinced for a while that I judged her because she worked construction and her job was "dirty."  My brother constantly got into verbal sparring contests with me to prove that he was smarter than I was (although I've never questioned that).  Although it took several years of hard work on both sides, this rift has healed quite a bit.  In addition, my sister now holds a degree of her own and my brother is back in college; knowing how hard they've both fought to get there, I'm super-proud of them both.

So, that's how I've experienced this divide between "town" and "gown."  This same kind of tension between myself and my own siblings eventually turned into part of the problem after the Shepard beating: Matt was a college kid from a wealthy family, the "gown" side of the debate if you will.  Henderson and McKinney were from the other side of the tracks in the west, part of the "town."  The distinction couldn't have been scripted any better to create class anxiety.  And, since I don't feel like Tectonic was able to break in to the "town" side very effectively, it might actually exacerbate the situation a little bit.  I'm worried that the "town" feels like that the "gown" is judging them for their faults, something that I've outlined a little already in "Failure to Engage."

These non-identified people-- Lockwood, Woods, and Slonaker--  speak at crucial moments in the play, and to important changes in the community.  Lockwood realizes through the media slam that the community's ideals breed violence (46); Woods sees his dream of support for the gay community come true (63-64).  And Slonaker?  Well... he's Slonaker.  He's our voice of reason almost, the universal gay male experience who can stand back and look at the progress of the community critically, exploding its myths. 

Whether or not you see these characters as "inside" or "outside" the university can make a lot of difference.  For example, here's a little trick I like to play on my students: I have them put together a character sketch of Harry Woods based upon the information given in their edition of the play in preparation for acting his part.  I have them map out his position in the community and his acceptance within it, his career, life experience-- some students even go so far as to speculate where he got that broken leg and who they'd recruit to play his part.  The results are pretty stunning.  Every single group except for two (both extremely skeptical) placed him on the extreme edge of the Laramie society with no community where he finds acceptance, and he's in the laboring class, and that broken leg is often a work injury.  (One group even put him in a plaid shirt and jeans, which of course made me giggle.)  When I tell them that he's an actor and staff of the Fine Arts department, the characterization completely changes, mostly because they realize that he has a community in which he feels accepted and can find fulfillment. Then, I'm afraid, their characterizations of Harry become a tad less sympathetic.  

So, naturally, my students come up with a completely different character sketch of that dour-faced fellow I'd see in the Fine Arts building almost every week before my Wind Ensemble rehearsal.  Actors who play Harry run into the same thing, apparently.  I had the privilege to chat with the actor who played both Jed Schultz and Harry Woods from the 2006 production of TLP after the show, and I asked him how he constructed a character for Harry.  (It wasn't too far afield of my students' analysis).  Then I told him who Harry was, and he was really surprised; when I asked him if he would have portrayed Harry differently if he'd known his occupation, this actor said, "Heck yeah.  That really changes things."  He then told me how he believed that knowledge altered Harry's placement in the community and whom he speaks for. 

So is this a problem, I ask again?  I've already outlined how it is a problem in the way it exacerbates the class antagonism in Laramie.  If you're a Laramie resident and you know that these enlightened and more judgmental opinions are coming from the university (like so much of the rest of the play), this play really could feel like just another attack by the intellectuals on the mores of the society at large.  I can only imagine that people like my siblings, who know who Harry Woods is (and didn't like him) would have listened to Harry give his lines back then and reject what he has to say because of whom they think he represents.  In their minds, Harry doesn't represent them.  He represents others.  And covering up that fact in the play to them would just feel like deception. 

So, did Tectonic realize this problem?  Belber says they did, and that's part of why (I think) these people labeled as "residents" aren't identified by occupation like most of the other interviewees are.  I see a need on their part to have more of a universal voice for certain opinions-- like Jeff Lockwood's realization that "we really do grow children like that here"  and Harry Wood's relief and gratitude at seeing the cold war between straight and gay thaw a little at the homecoming parade.  They really needed those opinions to come from the community as a whole and not just from university professors and actors.  So that's what they became-- Laramie residents.  They flattened out the specificity of these people to remove their "gown" association on the "town and gown" conflict to make them, as Laramie residents, speak for the whole community and not just a part.  They effectively hide it.

So there's a really good reason to want to provide that kind of class anonymity for some voices, and that's what I'd like to look at in my final post on this topic.


1)  The footbridge  across the tracks, Laramie WY, courtesy elmada's Flickr photostream:

2)  Looking north from the footbridge, courtesy elmada's Flickr photostream (same license as above.)  

3)  Coal Creek Coffee Company in Laramie, WY, courtesy elmada's Flickr photostream (same license as above.)

4)  The Laramie rail yard, courtesy of ChiaLynn's Flickr Photostream: