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!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Airing of Grievances, Charge 3

Okay, so it's been a while since I've kept up with my Airing of Grievances, and the Festivus season has long since ended. That's what I get for being way too busy with school since January. In any case, let us proceed through the last two installments!

To some degree, Laramie is indeed presented as a latter-day Grover's Corners, a cozy place where everyone appears to know everyone else's business and actually finds comfort in this. But if ''The Laramie Project'' nods conspicuously to Wilder, this play is ''Our Town'' with a question mark, as in ''Could this be our town?'' There are repeated variations by the citizens of Laramie on the statement ''It can't happen here,'' followed immediately by ''And yet it has.'' 
--Ben Brantley, New York Times

Just for fun, and because I was avoiding reading things for my second field exam, I picked up a copy of Thornton Wilder's Our Town while I was staying with Coyote in Laramie.  Although I personally love drama (my only complaint as an Anglo-Saxonist is that there are no plays) I hadn't really read any of Wilder's work before.  My previous survey courses preferred the work of O' Neill and Arthur Miller, and so Wilder was squeezed out.

I found that I enjoyed Our Town more than I thought I would.  Wilder takes a blank stage and fills it with all the imaginary geology, history and even shop fronts of a tiny New Hampshire town; then he populates that specific space with a strange allegory of individual lives.  The Webbs and the Gibbs could be any two families in America, even though we know exactly where (on stage at least) the Stage Manager positions them.  The Stage Manager even gives geographic coordinates for Grover's Corners; but its people are individuals only in how they relate to one another-- cousin, child, neighbor, parent, spouse-- and it is those relationships in the course of their lives that Wilder is interested in. 

Our Town 5But the reason that Our Town worked as an embodiment of the universal human experience was because it had an aura of utopia-- it seemed to be a "good place" [eu-topia in Greek] that reflected all the best parts of the American dream (and some of its problems) at the turn of the previous century.  But, more importantly, for all its specificity and regional connection to New Hampshire, it was a "no-place" [ou-topia] that had no specific cultural coloring other than the ones which Thornton Wilder wanted it to have.  Grover's Corners was a symbol; it was a specific but fictional community existing at coordinates well off the map of America which could hold all of the nation's ideals and faults in the same space and reflect them back on the culture as a whole.  That was Wilder's genius: the landscape is American and it's real, but the specific location is not. 

But Laramie, Wyoming is neither of these things, really; it has too many of its own idiosyncrasies and small town problems to really be a utopia in the sense of a good place (although it is very good.)  And it is a real location.   I know that was part of the appeal for using Laramie as a backdrop for the national dialogue on homosexuality for Kaufman, but I'm interested in the complicated mess it makes of things as I think about TLP.  In what way does the factual location of Laramie, Wyoming complicate the kind of theater that Kaufman's striving for?  In what ways does the town resist any translation into a symbolic space, and is it a good idea at all? 

I would hereby like to submit charge number three in the Airing of Grievances:

3. Laramie is not Our Town. 

We need to understand that this is, in some ways, an unfair question.  Of course Laramie isn't Grover's Corners; it was never supposed to be.  But it's still a natural enough association I want to look at the consequences.  I don't know if this is going to be a real "grievance" by the time I'm done here, but I'm interested in what comes of it nonetheless.  And so, on to the analysis!  

After all, not to create only, or found only,
But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded,
To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free...
--Walt Whitman, "Song of the Exposition"

These lines stand at the beginning of Moisés Kaufman's Introduction to the Vintage edition of The Laramie Project, and I think they make a nice point about the difference between Our Town and The Laramie Project in an interesting way.  Tectonic's model for The Laramie Project proposes to "import" the world of Laramie into the universal world of the theater.  When that act is symbolic, such as when the Stage Manager re-creates a now-lost slice of Americana, no harm is done, really; Grover's Corner can exist wherever one endows the stage with its presence.  And yet, when the place is real, when it finds itself transported to the universal stage under the auspices of a national company, that same action feels like an appropriation.  It feels colonial. 

Our Town (Saline High School, November 21, 2009)For example, in Our Town, Wilder used his experience of life in a variety of rural areas to re-create the life experiences of that society; he used the specificity of a place, New Hampshire, to re-created the feeling of situatedness, of "place"-ness of that old American existence.  Wilder didn't bring from afar; he manifested what was right in front of him, a place with its own identity and secure sense of the way things are.  And if the outsiders disagreed with them, as the tense conversation between Mr. Webb and the audience makes clear, that's fine; at least, he would say that Grover's Corners was doing what it felt was the best it could.   In that way, at least, one can see some nice resonances between Wilder's, and Whitman's prospective visions of America: it has a sense of place and belonging within the map of the United States.

But Whitman's vision in "Song of the Exposition" is extremely Eastern; it's a song for the Union rather than the western territories which lay off its nether borders, for the new world of industry and law than for the lawless outer reaches.  It's about finding the self in the exotic;  it's an experience with the Other, for, as Whitman's poem continues, "these also are the lessons of our New World."  As a colonial enterprise, the New World looks back on the Old World as dead and decayed, and it looks forward to the Frontier for wildness, freedom and inspiration. 

Those who seize onto the New World look to that frontier and project themselves into it.  And this is exactly the experience that I think Kaufman and Tectonic Theater provide, in contrast to Ben Brantley's easy comparison of the two plays in that quote above.  We can never escape two very important things in The Laramie Project when we consider the space where Laramie exists:
1) Laramie's real location in the West with its own history complicates the attempt to transform its space into a universal experience, and
2) the narrative, by necessity, will always be framed by these "outsiders looking in,"  bringing this play, "perhaps from afar" from the Old West to the urban world.  How does that change the way we see Laramie as a "real" space? 
For one, as Amy Tigner as long since pointed out, the specificity of Laramie as "place" has a lot of other valences attached to it because it is located in the heart of the Old West.  The way that Tectonic invokes this space with its limitless, blue sky on the Vintage cover, the crested wheatgrass in a box on their stage, and the rolling projected clouds in Act 2, all reinforce Laramie as both a pastoral place and a piece of the Old West. It also reinforces the idea that Laramie is a by-product of an "old" world which is already passing by and needs to be replaced.

And, as both Amy Tigner and Dr. S, my old Renaissance professor at my university would say, the power of the pastoral is that it's not home.  It's not the city but somewhere else, more of a blank slate than an actual location.  Old West and pastoral imagery, traditionally speaking, are supposed to act a mirror of what the self doesn't want to claim as their own or as a field where they project their own desires.  Moreover, in Western pastoral, Tigner shows that it's often used as a stage to address urban concerns and violence.  They are bringing this story from afar, where it was already founded, but giving it their own identity. 

That recognition, as Tigner explains, means that Laramie isn't "just" Laramie in TLP.  It's Laramie and everything that the urban world wants to disown and inspect at a safe distance from the self.  It's both a symbol and a real place, and I wonder how much dissonance that creates in TLP.  The pastoral space invites us to fill this space up with our own expectations, about cowboys, religion, values, and community, but since it's a real space,  Laramie's physical reality sometimes has to bear the burden of assumptions that don't really fit.  As much as I truly appreciate the Tectonic members' personal reflections about coming to Laramie in the play, that "chicken-fried steak" comment by Kaufman reinforces the idea of Laramie's foreignness:  this location both matches our unconscious assumptions of the Old West and models some audience members' reaction to the "strangeness" of Laramie. In the case of The Laramie Project, the Stage Manager isn't presenting us this play.  It's the Audience members, those who grill Editor Webb about vice and social justice in Grover's Corners.

And, when we look at The Laramie Project in relation to the rest of the nation, is it the Old World or the Frontier?  That's an easy question to answer if you think about one more similarity between the two plays: both Wilder and Tectonic wrote plays about a way of life slowly passing out of existence.  In Wilder, that way of life is already gone; in Laramie, it's slowly ceasing to be.  Is Kaufman and company putting forth Laramie as the dying traditionalism of the Old World which needs, inevitably, to be supplanted by the mores of a more accepting and progressive New World ideology?  I don't know if that's true or not, but that bears a little bit of thinking about. 

In any case, it's hard to be "Our Town" when, after twelve years of TLP and predatory media coverage,  you've become "That Place."  And, it might be a little unfair to force a little community to become "Our Town" at all when it comes at the expense of their local or personal identity.  For Tigner, that situation leads to other tensions, such as whether or not we should call the representations in the play "people" or "characters."  And, that question lays bare the ambivalent conversation about whether this play is "history" or "fiction."  We can't quite call this play a history because of the limited, outside perspective of the "historians" and the crafted, symbolic nature of the narrative. 

And yet, we also need to realize something else:  Our Town can't be the primary model for Kaufman.  Wilder's little community, even though it's located in both New Hampshire and the Mind of God, is socially powerless to change from the inside. Let's look at a way in which Kaufman deliberately breaks away from Wilder's influence to do something much more interesting.

*        *       *

"They don't understand.  Do they?"

       Do any human beings realize life while they live it?-- every, every minute?
             No. (pause) 
             The saints and poets, maybe, they do some.  
             I'm ready to go back.  (109)

As the square row of mourners and their umbrellas at the beginning of Act 2 in TLP tell us, Kaufman and Wilder are operating on the same frequencyBoth of them display a funeral and divide the action of the stage into two parts, roughly reflecting those who "get it" and those who don't.  For Wilder, these are the living and the dead; for Kaufman, they are the survivors and the protesters.  Both use the burial, chairs, rain, and umbrellas to underscore the seriousness of the scene.  The only difference here is that Matthew Shepard's survivors take the place of Thornton Wilder's dead, and that, in my opinion, is what makes all the  difference.

Our Town Red Cast-3-2
Unlike at Grover's Corners, the dead in The Laramie Project can't speak.  Their revelation
is handed over to the living, who are still capable of change if they choose to.
I happen to find the end of Wilder's play rather touching (if not approaching a little cheezy), but it presents a huge problem for the politically minded dramatist: socially speaking, the play is a closed loop.  Emily Gibbs steps out into the graveyard to realize that she never really knew what it meant to be alive, but now that she is detached from life, she can benefit no one with her revelation.  When her husband falls at the foot of her grave, all she can do is turn to Mrs. Gibbs and ask, "They don't understand, do they?"  Since revelation and humanity are severed from each other, nothing ever really changes in Grover's Corners-- except with the saints and the poets, maybe.  

This is exactly what Kaufman's kind of theater tries to avoid; real, human connections and the possibility for change are what drives his work, and Wilder's text suggests that these things are essentially impossible.  Although Wilder can tap into a deep, universal human truth of the human condition in Grover's Corners, that truth cannot change the society.  All that Editor Webb can promise his fickle audience is that Grover's Corners tries to address social justice issues the best it can.  That's not good enough for a theater company that wants to engage and reform those social problems.   Tectonic Theater is fairly fundamentally Brechtian in outlook.  Wilder is not.   

The only way that Kaufman and company can do that is if the play's central revelation is passed onto the living rather than the dead, if social change really can exist in a community.  For Tectonic, if they want to take this conversation beyond the characters of the play and out into the public discourse, they need to have real people and situations to which the audience can connect.  And they also need to make their audiences compare their own communities with a community which is moving through some serious self-doubt.  The name "Matthew Shepard," and the place, "Laramie, Wyoming" are integral for Tectonic's goal of addressing social justice issues surrounding the LGBT community.  The only way to embody the reality of this crime in their audience's minds is to make this community like any other small town, but at the same time show that homophobia and violence have an indisputable place.  Things like this do happen, the play says, and here's one place where they did, right next to this fence.  Homophobia cannot be real until it has "a local habitation and a name,"so to speak, in a culture which has traditionally ignored gay-targeted violence. 

So, in a way, the use of both Wilder and Brecht in their production really is an innovative way to introduce the world to Laramie, Wyoming.  To what point, however, does mixing these two theatric styles breed social tension?  And how much does Tectonic's use of Laramie as a pastoral space complicate Laramie's identity as a real space?  What does it mean to Laramie, Wyoming when Tectonic Theater takes their story, perhaps from afar, and they give it their own identity?  And, how much are the elements of that pastoral identity native to Laramie, Wyoming's sense of itself, and the interviewers merely picked up on what was already here? 

Perhaps this is just one more part of the bigger puzzle about the ambivalent reaction I sometimes get from my students when they watch this play.  Some can sympathize with Laramie because it's just like "home," regardless of whether they're from Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, or California.   Others are appalled that things like that can still happen "out there" without thinking about the homophobia in their own backyards. They can't respond to the play's call for social change at home because "home" is not like Laramie at all. 

In any case, that connection can be quite real; sometimes Laramie quite literally becomes "Our Town" and forces others to reconsider the silent disapproval of and violence against the LGBT community in their midst.  That's the reason I feel like this can't really be a "grievance" in the normal sense.  When this play "clicks" with a community, it's life-changing experience, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. 

And with that, I would like to leave you with the Newark production of The Laramie Project and 10 Years Later.   Both of these clips come from "Not in Our Town":

(Vaguely) Related Posts:

A Sense of Place: Further Thoughts
Some Thoughts on Myth
On Myth and Bull$%!t
The Buck Fence and Place
Specters of Laramie in Tucson, Arizona

Works Cited: 

Brantley, Ben. "A Brutal Act Alters a Town."  Theater Review.  New York Times 19 May 2000.  Web. 

Tigner, Amy. "The Laramie Project: Western Pastoral." Modern Drama 45.1 (2003): 138-86.

Wilder, Thornton.  Our Town.  1939.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.  Print. Picture credit:   The images in the article were taken from various performances of Wilder's Our Town: 
  • From a Washington, DC performance.  Picture taken by JoJoRuf, via Flickr.  
  • From a Saline High School performance.  Picture taken by cseeman, via Flickr. 
  • An Exeter performance.  Picture taken by Wesley Chen, via Flickr.  
  • From a Cathedral Theater performance.  Picture taken by Andy Bowman, via Flickr. 
Both videos were produced by The Working Group, via YouTube.  

    No comments:

    Post a Comment