Calling all Theater companies and performers!

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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.    

Ethnographers have noticed a similar phenomenon: when you're in the field, you will always have to interact with the community around you in some way.   It's nearly impossible to study a group without changing the group's dynamic.  And if you're a member of that community to begin with, your observations will be colored by your intimacy with the group, and your forensic interest in your own activities is still going to have an influence.  There's no happy medium involved. For instance, when I speak of Laramie, it will always be from the position of an insider, and that's going to bias my thinking and reaction to the community.  That is, I give up momentum for proximity.  When Tectonic Theater speaks of Laramie, they cannot do so without altering its behavior.  They give up proximity for momentum.  We're both sort of stuck. 

I've been wondering about this for a little while because of TLP's journalistic-ethnographic methods for the last two plays, trying to get a feel for Tectonic's understanding of their influence in the Laramie community.  In the Q-and-A session following the play, Kaufman admitted that doing the research for his play was a lot harder this time around, and at least partially because of the influence of the original Laramie Project.  Here's how Carl Sullivan puts it in a recent blog entry for Newsweek
"But when the drama group showed up in town 10 years later for a follow-up, that initial work, The Laramie Project, had become one of the most frequently produced plays in America, and Shepard’s death had come to define the community in ways Laramie could not have imagined in those first raw months after the killing. This time, 'people were editing themselves a lot more,' Kaufman said—if they consented to interviews at all."
Sullivan goes on to explain a little more fully Tectonic's influence in a community as follows:  
"Of course, whether they're journalists or dramatists, interviewers alter the way a story is told just by their mere presence, a dilemma an audience member asked the Tectonic cast about at Monday night's debut. Yes, Kaufman acknowledged, the presence of his troupe no doubt affected how Laramie residents behaved and how they answered questions, doubly so the second time around, 10 years after the murder. In the end, the best any interviewer can hope to do is to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to retell the story as faithfully as possible." (emphasis mine)
So, there's the realization that Tectonic's presence altered, at the very least, the way Laramie interacts with Tectonic Theater. They realize that their portrayal of Laramie on the national stage has trickled back down to Laramie and makes them more resistant to speaking with them the second time around.  But how much more influence has this play had on this community?  And why wasn't Tectonic interested in talking about that? 

It may have to do with the position that they see themselves in: what model do they use for their own interaction with the Laramie community?  Not surprisingly, it seems to be journalism rather than, say, anthropology or literary ethnography-- there's a bit more of Truman Capote than Zora Neale Hurston about their work.  And, at least one of Tectonic's writers has a journalism background.  It's certainly the perspective that Carl Sullivan-- who himself works in the journalism industry-- takes when he tries to describe the relationship that Tectonic has to Laramie as well. 

But that relationship suggests to me a few problems.  Journalists, you see, are encouraged to be passive observers as much as possible-- that is, they're supposed to maintain some semblance of objectivity and they need to just "get out of the way" of the events they're portraying.  That's what Sullivan's getting at when he says that a journalist is "to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to retell the story as faithfully as possible."  That's not really what Tectonic Theater is doing at all; the whole point of the play is to both initiate debate and to initiate change.  They've partially driven the conversation about LGBT issues with this play.  I don't think you can both drive a national dialogue like you drive a car and claim to be a passenger at the same time.

And besides, if  the national media (like ABC) are largely at fault for the negative reaction that Laramie has had to the Shepard beating, The Laramie Project has had at least as much influence (if not more) than national reporting...  how can there not be a major influence in Laramie due to the play?  TLP has had just as much exposure (if not more influence) than the national media's portrayal, and the play is potentially at least as damaging to Laramie's portrayal abroad.

Don't get me wrong: Tectonic Theater's portrayal of Laramie in The Laramie Project was extremely fair-handed, all things considered.  Just because they brought up things we didn't want to hear doesn't mean that TT wasn't being faithful to Laramie's character.  Both productions I've seen in my college town have also been accurate and sympathetic to Laramie as well.  Rather, I would like to ask Tectonic this:  have you ever sat through an extremely bad production of your own play?  There have been over 2,000 performances, and a lot of those have been terrible.  When performed by those with an ax to grind or with no sympathy for the people, The Laramie Project can be just as devastating to Laramie's character as the international journalists who painted Laramie as a primitive, backwoods hotbed of intolerance.  I cannot help but feel that those lousy, negative performances of TLP have just as much to do with Laramie residents plunging into  the " just a robbery" fantasy as much as the media's negative portrayal.  As they have pointed out in publications, in their play Laramie, WY is a "Town in a Mirror"; nobody wants to have a mirror held up to their face, and especially when that mirror distorts, intentionally or otherwise. 

But to point this out is not to argue that all of TLP's influence in Laramie has been bad.  In fact, a lot of it has been terrific for Laramie, even if was a little painful. In both plays, TT has done a fantastic job of representing opinions in the community that maybe the average populace hadn't heard before.  Hearing the voices of people like Jonas Slonaker, Zubaida Ula and (heaven help me) even Sherry Johnson, and treating them like people with a story to tell-- that's been great for Laramie.  Hearing the fears and needs of the LGBT community in particular opened up a whole new world to many Laramie residents to the challenges and discrimination they felt on a daily basis.  When TT comes alongside Slonaker after the Boomerang effectively silences him was a great kind of interference, one that needed to be done to prevent further injustice.  And, as painful, traumatic and disorienting as it has been, this community  needed to be forced to do some serious self-reflection (like the rest of America largely hasn't) about who they are and what their ideals really support.   That particular benefit of Tectonic's attention has been the most disorienting, but one of the longest-lasting, effects.  Whether the people of Laramie have accepted or rejected that portrayal is out of their hands. 

I'd personally like to see TT recognize their inevitable influence in the community they've studied-- both good and bad-- for  fuller accounting of the situation.  I was hoping for a little bit of meta-narrative of that sort in the Epilogue, but I was to be disappointed.  Actually, it makes sense: they're still trying to keep the image of dispassionate observers, and they don't want the play to seem like it's all about them.  That resistance they encountered in the creation of the second play is an interesting phenomenon, and I would have loved to see them talk a little to people about TLP just like they dialogued with them about the influence of the 20/20 special (which was undoubtedly bad) to compare it to TLP (which has had many good but unpredictable consequences.)  Whether they create the illusion of neutrality or not, Tectonic has irrevocably changed that community-- by little more than observing and telling, a kind of Uncertainty Principle unique to their form of theater.

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