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Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Airing of Grievances: A Retrospective

I have thus laid my disappointments in The Laramie Project bare to the world and my personal Festivus has now ended; now, we need to take one step further than the regular Festivus airing.  It's time for me to reflect upon these grievances to determine which disappointments are legitimate and which are just my plaintive whining about how Tectonic did not write the play I would have wanted them to write.

I wanted to get my grievances out in the open with this series, sure, but I also wanted them to turn into something more productive (and less pathetic) than using the Internet to whine like a tragically middle class emo kid with a YouTube channel.  If I am to accomplish that, then I need to step back and look at these criticisms with a little more distance and a lot more insight.  I need to be radically reflexive, which means that I have to rigorously examine my own motives and interior monologue just as rigorously as anybody else's-- and I have to be consciously aware of that process.   If the Scripture calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, then our scholarship should call us to work out our conclusions with fear and loathing.  That means it's once more time to dig deep and think hard about fear, loathing, and The Laramie Project.   

Why?  If there is anything I've learned so far from this experience, it's this:  Understand where your own perspective and prejudices come from, and act in awareness of that knowledge.  Every time.  The most inadequate (and inaccurate) scholarship sometimes comes from a failure to understand one's own personal tilt or experiences informing their scholarship in ways they don't intend.  Some of the best scholarship comes from those who do.  And, since I'm in the precarious position of being personally and emotionally tied to this event and the play it produced, I need to be extra aware of how that changes my perspective.  Know thyself, Jackrabbit, and thou shalt improve thy scholarship.  I think the world would be a better place if everybody followed that advice, and since I kind of turned Tectonic over my knee for it, I had better do it with myself, too.

So, which of these ways in which I feel like Tectonic has disappointed me are perhaps legit, and which are merely a difference of opinion or personal taste?  That's a very important question to ask, so let's see how my summation of the Grievances holds up after the jump!  

Grievance 1: Contributing to the Delinquency of Narrative
When I was in Laramie this past January, I was talking with an acquaintance about TLP when he asked me if I had seen the HBO movie of TLP.  When I answered, he scrunched up his nose at me and protested, "They made us look like Texas."  Considering that my acquaintance is originally from the Northeast and the tenor of our conversation before this point was fairly dispassionate, it interested me that he felt he needed to lodge this particular complaint.  There is a disconnect between Laramie and this representation, he seemed to be saying to me.  

I have heard enough responses from Laramie residents and close family to realize that these unintended consequences do in fact occur.  Naturally, I can't prove that they occurred because of a "kidnapped narrative" or the like, but I do know what the few Laramie people I chatted with have told me.  I have seen evidence of a rift between Laramie and Tectonic which takes extremely individualistic forms, and, while I can't declare the reason, I can only say that this disconnect seems to center on the Tectonic narrative-- the way it frames the Laramie story, or how it has simply made people feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. 

To declare that The Laramie Project has spawned unintentional consequences in the community they interviewed should not be used to heap a lot of unnecessary guilt on Tectonic Theater; socially powerful theater, naturally, causes socially powerful consequences.  They just might not be the consequences one was intending.  My main disappointment with them stems from their (up to now) official stance of not acknowledging that fact.  

This grievance is hereby UPHELD.Tectonic, I am so dissapoint. Sorry, guys, but I still love you.

Grievance 2: Failure to Maintain Self Loathing, part 1 and part 2

The more I think about this Grievance, the more I think of two things: 1) This was the most fun to write because it was gleefuly cathartic, and 2) it's a pretty dumb thing to hold against them. Of course this play focuses on what Tectonic (and, it seems, Kaufman) was really interested in.   Just because I wanted some mention of the larger context, both with the cultural views of homosexuality and with the string of violent crimes within which Shepard was murdered doesn't mean they were obligated to satisfy my narrative palate.  Come on Jackrabbit.  Get your head back in the game and stop whining.

And so, having recognized my failure to be a reasonable critic on this count, is there nevertheless anything useful I can take away from writing through this charge?  Other than reinforcing the fact that I have emotional issues with Tectonic Theater I just have to get over, it did lead to one really useful realization.

When it comes right down to it, my complaints about what did and did not make it into TLP are based on the fact that I don't think that Tectonic's version of events represents how Laramie experienced the tragedy.  Granted.  So, whose perspective does their telling of the story represent?  Everyone else.  The reason that this version of the telling doesn't encompass mine (and a lot of others') memory of the killing is because Tectonic's narrative follows how they experienced the crime.  The national experience of the Shepard murder was simply not the same as it was in Laramie.

For instance, a lot of Laramie citizens learned of Matt's murder in the context of other murders: Kristin Lamb, Daphne Sulk, Cindy Dixon.  That is the narrative that Loffreda's book mentions briefly, and it formed the framing narrative of Dr. Daniel Klein's recollection of the murder, too.  In contrast, on the national level, Matt's  death seemed to come out of nowhere, in a largely idyllic community still trying to live out the American Dream.   The murder of Russell Henderson's mother never made much waves in national coverage and could be easily overlooked, while it was very much important in Laramie. The seeming nightmare wave of bizarre murder just kept on going. 

The same goes with the focus on the religious narrative behind Matt's death. In the national media, everybody was talking about faith and LGBT identity.  Focus on the Family had just debuted their ex-gay commercials which caused a national scuffle between the religious right and gay equality activists; the Defense of Marriage Act, the darling of many conservative religious groups, was making national headlines.  Then, after Matt was found after his brutalization, many high-influence writers such as Kushner and Gore Vidal went on the attack against religious homophobia, and the religious media responded in kind.  The national community first tried to make sense of Shepard's murder from within the framework of religious intolerance, and ultimately, that was the angle which Kaufman and Tectonic Theater decided to promote.  

So the problem is not what did or did not make it into the play; the problem is whose experience of Matt's death the play claims to speak for.  Perhaps that's part of the reason that this play connects with national audiences so well.  For those who remember Matt's murder, it represents their percieved experience of the crime.  For those who don't, it often represents the same forces that have marginalized gays and lesbians in their own experience.

Part of my reason for dismissing this Grievance has been digging into the secondary literature and realizing how much fear and loathing was in fact a part of the playwriting process-- just not the kind I would have expected.  In Kaufman's American Theater writeup (which is fuller version of what became the Introduction to the Vintage edition) and realizing the amount of interpersonal angst and strife that eventually came of it.  (That would have been a nice  thing to keep in the Intro to TLP, IMHO, because it humanizes you all, Tectonic.  I like seeing you as humans.)

This grievance is hereby DISMISSED by reason of complete unreasonability.  All I have actually concluded is that this play is projected through Tectonic's point of view and not Laramie's.  Y'all are off the hook.  

Grievance 3, Laramie Is Not Our Town:  

By the time I got to the end of writing Grievance Three, I had a much better idea of why the realness of the Laramie landscape and the events of 1998-99 were so important for Tectonic, in spite of the fact that using real people and landscapes made everything a hell of a lot more complicated than it needed to be.  If they hadn't placed Matthew's death on the map of America and within the fabric of our concrete, lived experience, this loosely Brechtian play would have lost much of its social bite.  Its message would not have been delivered near so powerfully to the national, political stage.

So, it became more obvious to me that one could not have really anticipated or gotten around much of the negative social impact of this play without ruining its social potential altogether.  And if you make me pick one over the other, I'm pretty sure I'd pick softening LGBT relations and curing social injustice over my personal angst.  I'm mot sure that every Laramie person who was there would make the same choice.  My brother Coyote, for instance, resents being on the losing end of that proposition:  "I can totally see where this play has done a lot of good, but why did we have to be the ones to pay for it?"

However, we still have to deal with the theoretical framework of this play and whether or not it causes problems of its own.  After over a year of puzzling through the criticism, I still agree with Tigner's point about the role of landscape and pastoral in this play, even if I would like to quibble with her over what it means for this story to be "true" just to make sure we're on the same page.  When Tectonic brings this story "perhaps from afar what is already founded," and then, through the lens of their own perspective of the Shepard murder they "give it our own identity," the result isn't "Our Town" so much as it becomes "Their Town." 

This grievance is hereby PARTIALLY UPHELD, but only on the charge of framing Laramie as the pastoral, geographic or ideological Other too much in the play's overall structure.  This should therefore be regarded as simply a lesser charge as a part of Grievance 1. I guess that means I'm just a little bit disappointed. 

Grievance 4, Trying Too Damn Hard:  

As I discovered while thinking through this Grievance, "Trying too damn hard" isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The main issue I have is with Kaufman's relentless pursuit of "the truth" of Matt's death.  This tends to short-circuit, I'd argue, his claim that this is a town speaking through the shock of a nationally televised tragedy.  THAT'S THE IMPORTANT PART.  You can't really have it both ways; if you construct a play through the disparate, discursive voices of an entire community to speak for itself, making an absolute truth claim doesn't really make much sense.  Sorry to show my humanities roots here, but when it comes to narrative study, I am firmly resolved that, since all knowledge comes through sensory experience, there is no clear, definable truth-- only individual stories of truth.  The story and its context is the truth-- not what can be constructed out of them. 

This grievance is therefore a SPLIT DECISION.It's simply my literary palate that is insisting on a more loose, baggy story rather than the heavily manicured one we got in TLP.  However, I really do think that trying to force the disparate voices in The Laramie Project to specifically shore up "the facts" of the Shepard murders puts unnecessary strain on the dramatic form of The Laramie Project and seems to run amok when you get to 10 Years Later.  Some criticisms of the Epilogue run this direction, too, so I might not be the only person to feel this way. 


So, what are my conclusions from this excursion into my personal grudges against Tectonic Theater?
  1. We cannot, and must not, ignore the fact that this is a story told through Tectonic's perspective, no matter how seductive the real voices of Laramie residents and the concept of "documentary" might be with this play.  
  2. Tectonic has to consider the likelihood that their contribution to the national discourse on sexuality has come at a cost to the local identity of Laramie.  Their presentation of their take on Laramie's story to the world will naturally cause some resistance and push-back from Laramie proper. 
  3. Kaufman's model of traveling "out there" to bring a story "back here" is problematic because it has unintended consequences for the town "out there."  It turns Laramie into a pastoral space whose otherness to urban America makes it a foil, rather than merely a compelling story about "all of us."  In this I have to agree with Tigner.  In an ethnographic sense, it also runs the danger of making the researcher's position in the community a hegemonic one, something that Tectonic strove to avoid.  
  4. Geographic/cultural and ideological space don't always overlap nicely, especially when that ideological space doesn't arise just from within the culture.
  5. Kaufman's vision for TLP is a little at cross-purposes with itself because, on the one hand, the play is a multi-vocal attempt to capture the thoughts of an entire community and inspire dialogue, but on the other hand, he seems obsessed with reinforcing "the facts" of the Shepard case with those voices.  The only people who know what really happened to Shepard are McKinney and Henderson-- and, as I have argued before, I think they've lost the ability to tell us.  (This point makes a hell of a lot more sense if you view TLP through the Epilogue from 2009, where Kaufman feels the need to "clarify the facts" through O'Malley's testimony. )  
  6. Lastly, and most importantly (for me at least), none of my upheld grievances have anything to do with Tectonic being horrible people or agenda-driven politicals.  Charges 1 and 3, specifically, deal with the play's after-effects; they don't deal with anything having to do with personal motives or hidden agendas.  They have to do with Tectonic Theater being composed of human beings.  
And so, I hereby bring the Airing of Grievances to an ambivalent closing, just as they had started.  Hooray!

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