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!

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...

Although I think my suspicion that Tectonic is "covering up" certain university people in order to make things look a little more even is justified, I don't think it could be avoided without muffling their message.  For one, even though separating out individuals in Laramie by the designation "town" and "gown" is an important political and power construct in Laramie, it's still a construct, and it distorts an important truth: everybody who lives in Laramie, Wyoming is a part of the community.  Every voice in the community represents a part of the community that makes up the whole.  As much as I may not like the limo driver from Bosler personally, for instance, he's still a part of the community who nevertheless speaks its truth in ways I didn't expect.  

In this sense, worrying about "who" some people are speaking for is just playing into the class structure.  If I assume that Harry Woods or Jeffrey Lockwood can only speak as university faculty and administration, it's to say that they aren't "really" a part of the Laramie community.  But their experience is as much a part of the Laramie community as anybody else.  It's no more or less authentic than, say, Murdock Cooper because he's a rancher, or Marge Murray because her mother worked in the railroad roundhouse.  That would be to say that "white collar" or "university" isn't as authentic as "blue collar,"and that's simply perpetuating the same class antagonisms that Laramie has been trying to break down. 

There's a practical reason as well.  As Jonas Slonaker points out in the new play, the university gets treated as a safe haven for the LGBT community in Laramie.  That's probably only going to increase now that the university is going to (eventually) offer same-sex partner benefits for its employees.  If you bracket off Harry and Jonas' stories as "university" and somehow different from the rest of the LGBT community, seriously-- how many gay or lesbian voices will you have left in this play?  You'd lose Harry, Jonas, Zackie, Dr. Connolly, and in the new play, Jim Osborn.  You'd lose one or two others as well.  That would simply be falling right into the same class divide you're trying to avoid.  And, one has to wonder how many working-class residents in Laramie would be willing to self-identify as GLBT to an unknown entity like Tectonic Theater if they didn't have a place where they felt safe enough to open up about their experiences. If that were the case, how many non-straight voices would be left in Laramie? 

Hiding these identifications and allowing these people to speak to their experiences without any qualification, strangely, is also a refusal to participate in the class conflict of Laramie just as much as it is also an irritant.  Sometimes you have to just let people speak-- without pigeonholing their voice into a specific cubbyhole in the class structure of the town.   My own desire for these labels and the need to cram them into these class structures speaks just as much to my own ambivalence in the "town and gown" conflict as anything else.  I want to insist that people stay in their class cubbyholes, and that bothers me a bit. I've tried to break down those class cubbyholes through most of my adult career, so I'm disturbed to discover a place where I apparently want to keep them intact.  I'm being a hypocrite. 

In my case, let's think again about the ultimate result of this anonymity regardless of its cause: are we here to hear real people as people, or as representatives or types?  In TLP, these people get to speak as real people, and as a result we get to see them for who thay are.  For instance, Harry's testimony made me look at that man who would glare at us rowdy band students in a new light.  As a self-centered eighteen year-old, I just thought he was just a dour old man who couldn't appreciate young people having fun.  I had a better appreciation of the frustration, loneliness and angst behind those furrowed eyebrows and stolid frown after I could see things from his view.  Strangely, it's his unique, individual experience that makes him able to speak into the community as a whole.   If denying the audience the information about his background makes them more susceptible to hearing and sympathizing with him in ways I couldn't before...  then maybe it's worth it.

I'm not quite ready to fully admit that yet-- that maybe holding back some information is for the best.  But that might speak more to my own inability to let go of my own class hangups than it says anything about Tectonic Theater...


  1. I want to thank you for your posts, especially the scatter plot ones.

    I (of course) am working on a production of LP. I'm in the cast and also doing the costumes. You address several of the issues that I've been thinking about in relation to the play in general and our production in particular.

    The big question is one of verisimilitude. Do we attempt to be as actual as possible, or do we do what works best to "tell the story"?

    My approach to this question, of course, is going to be radically different from yours. I don't know if it will be interesting or useful to you, but here goes. There isn't the issue of "I know these people", but we not only balance that verisimilitude against the goals of the play, but also the background of the audience. There is a danger of othering the people of Laramie in such a way that allows our community to say, "Well, that's there. We're not like that here." Which is at once true on the surface and bullshit on any deeper level.

    So, that leaves us a continuum of choices on the "distancing" question

    On the far end would be to play up those differences, revel in the specificity, and let the larger truths attempted to be reached in the play hold on as best they can.

    The "middle ground", if you will, would be to strip it of that specificity, make everyone as generic as the text allows. Let the words stand more or less on their own.

    On the other extreme, we could make it as specifically "here" as we can without changing the words. Swap the visuals for our local landscape and University, give everyone local accents, etc, etc.

    If these weren't real people, the ethics of such things would be rather less fraught (and we have a number of people in the company who are research-types, and want to find as much as they can about the real people. Thanks for the info on Trish, by the way, it helps me get at a way to differentiate her in my acting). I'm reminded of Thorton Wilder's "Our Town", which, in theory, finds its universality in its specificity (turn-of-the-century New Hampshire). But, different productions cleave to that specificity to different degrees.

  2. Hey Abi,

    Thank you, you just validated the existence of this blog.

    Seriously though, it’s great to hear about your production coming up, and I’m really interested to see the way you’re thinking through these issues. I have to admit, I really find your line of thought compelling as you’re working through your casting questions! I just finished teaching the play right now again to a summer class of freshman, and these were some of the same questions my students had as we walked through the play.

    But, to be honest, I’m not sure how different your approach would be to mine. Your main concerns about audience reaction/distancing and ethical concerns as you figure out casting are exactly the same as mine. You’re right that this play is at its best, socially speaking, when audiences find people in Laramie whom they can identify with—and that’s not going to look the same for every place this play is acted, and you have to balance that out with being true to the interviewees. So, how does one balance out those needs? I think you're on an interesting track when you compare this to the characters in Wilder's play, though-- maybe keeping their specificity is what will allow for that identification...

    In any case, you are right this play presents some unique ethical questions that you don’t normally consider with a fictional play, and I’m so interested to see that you’re working through those as you participate in this production: what is the responsibility to the real person when you give their testimony? It’s a very knotty question, but as long as the actors are aware of their role in that relationship and find a line of sympathy with their “characters,” I'm really starting to think that maybe that ethical obligation is met.

    In any case, the more I’ve been thinking about this play, the more I wonder if excessive verisimilitude to the speakers would put an undue burden on a cast. For instance, take Romaine Patterson: the 2006 production I watched in Appalachia presented a very compelling and believable Romaine, but it was nothing like the Romaine I knew in high school. For some reason, it didn’t bother me a bit (perhaps because I’m so aware of TLP as being a representation of the event? IDK).

    But would this bother the real Romaine Patterson? Probably not—the only casting advice she gives on her personal website for playing her in The Laramie Project, really, is to have fun and to wear a black leather jacket. I think that the important thing was that the actress really connected with her audience as she played the part of Romaine and endowed her with a believable presence….

    In any case, I just love getting to listen in, so to speak, on the decisions you’re making before the production, and thanks for sharing. If you or anyone else in your production wanted to reflect on your production experience, I’d be more than happy to post them on this blog. Thanks!