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, July 19, 2013

The UK Conversations, Part II: A Lack of Hope

So, in my last post, a member of a play company in the UK, "Andrew," had asked about the overall feel of the landscape.  This was Andrew's second question to me: 
I'd be interested to know if the public at the time Matthew was in hospital were at all optimistic for his recovery. I think the doctors and family were pretty clear from early on that he would die of his injuries - did other people less closely connected to the case know that?
Dear Andrew:

 In all, I'd say that Matt's death took no one by surprise.  Everyone, naturally, was praying he would pull through, but there never seemed to be a lot of conviction to those prayers; we all seemed to know that he wasn't going to live, or if he somehow did, that he would never be whole.  You can feel that mood throughout the footage from the Newman Center's vigil: there's a flicker of hope he would survive, but like the candles, it was a small raft of light that couldn't burn forever.  If memory serves, Matt died later that same night. 

There were a lot of reasons for that despair: the media footage was dismal, and the news floating around campus was equally bleak.  Tiffany Edwards' first article on the crime from October 9th feels two steps shy of an obituary.  The school newspaper's coverage wasn't any  better.  Both of them talk about "severe head trauma" and his "critical" condition.  Even without the media coverage, basically everybody on campus had a news source somewhere, often within one or two degrees of their own acquaintance.  The faculty advisor for the LGBTA was one of the honors English professors, so there was a stream of gossip running through the freshmen honors students.  His faculty advisor was also a very popular professor in Political Science.  I think that Matt's family was also keeping in touch with his friends, and they too spread the word around.  Off campus was a slightly different story, and one I can't speak to with much conviction.  But my impression is that their mood was the same.  So many people were involved in Matt's care before he was moved to Fort Collins— nurses, EMTs, police, employees at the jail-- and naturally they talked about it.  The arraignment was public, too, and the statements made there were devastating. 

But there was one detail that stood out to those of us who grew up in the Rockies: it was the second week in October.  If you remember, I told you that the weather tends to force itself into every corner of how we live our lives, and one of those areas is our awareness of the cold.  Laramie, Wyoming sits on a sub-arctic desert plain at 7200 feet.  We have over a mile less sky above our heads than most of the United States.  Even in the summer, the nights can be cold enough to cause hypothermia; in the winter, night exposure can be lethal.  The man who killed Russell Henderson's mother, for instance, didn't need any weapon besides than a frozen county road and her stolen coat, but he murdered her just as surely.  When someone goes missing under those circumstances, we tend to keep hope on a pretty short leash. 

I vaguely remember, when I heard that McKinney had stolen Matt's shoes, I thought something like, "Oh, so I guess that's the end of it." He was left under a thin October sky without so much as a pair of shoes to keep out the frost, and for that reason I knew he was going to die.  It's strange to say this, but at the end of the day it was the theft of his shoes that convince me that Matthew's murder was a cold, calculated act.  I can't really explain why.


Friday, July 5, 2013

The UK conversations, Part I

 Sometime last school year while I was working the front desk at our university Writing Center, an email appeared in my Inbox with the following message: 
I'm an actor in [city in SE England]  embarking on rehearsal of The Laramie Project. I've been reading your blog and enjoying your insight into the town. I'd love to chat online with you about the issues around the play, and also about your experience as a Wyoming native!
I had gotten several requests for pictures thus far from different productions of TLP, but this was the first time anybody wanted to have an online exchange so far.  I sent back a reply, and I found the cast member to talked to me (who asked for anonymity and so will be dubbed "Andrew") was a pleasant and curious fellow.  What his production was seeking, he told me, was an attempt to get a sense of the larger backdrop of the play-- things like landscape, religion, and ethnic tensions, chiefly.  We had an interesting time of it.   

Andrew gave me permission to put these conversations online after their performance, and so, several months after the original performance, I'd like to do that now. 

The first conversation focused on my favorite topic-- the landscape.  Here was the first comment:   

A few topics off the top of my head- the detail of everyday life in the town. Sensually- the feel of the air, the landscape, the wildlife, the smells. The interaction between students and Laramie natives. The lay of the land- are there the snowy range mountains to the West? Can you always see them? Or is it flat plains in all directions as far as the eye can see? The hours of life of the town - a rush hour of sorts? What's the public transport situation? Socio-economic problems? And then of course anything you would like to share on the events closer to the play- the media circus, the vigils, the trials...
Dear Andrew, 

Well east of Laramie, into the pink granite mountains. 
I'll start off with your questions about the landscape. 

When I think of the landscape, I'd say that Laramie is characterized by an endless cobalt sky, yellow grassland plains, and a sharp delineation between them.  The Medicine Bow range to the west is, due to elevation differences, usually no more than a dark smudge on a golden horizon.  They really become visible only after a short drive into the open prairie towards Centennial.  These are our snowy-capped mountains— not necessarily snowy for the full year, but they stay very cold.  On the east side of town— where Matthew died— there is a steady rise in elevation up into a pink granite canyon and a slope terminating on the horizon into a pink granite canyon.  This is our main mountain range, the broken boulders of Telephone Canyon sliding up towards Pole Mountain and the Continental divide.  From our perspective, however, it is  a continuous steep slope, cut by erosion, dotted with twisted pines, and still dominated by the prairie grass.  It's beautiful in its own stark way, but quite different from the mountainous terrains most people think of.  By most outside standards, it's a place of stillness, one of quiet. 

The dominant Laramie plain.
Despite outside appearances, it is a landscape that never stays still.  Between the clouds, the wind, and the eternal shift in the weather, there is a dynamism to the environment that forces people to bend to its rules.  The storms roll through Laramie with the momentum of freight trains; you can see them build on the horizon sliding in on their own invisible tracks, just as powerful, and, after they pass with all their noisy might, just as quickly forgotten.  That the change is constant makes it easy to imagine that nothing ever changes; that we so completely accommodate our lives to the landscape that it fools us into thinking that it doesn't bother us at all. 

The town rhythms depend on whether you look at it from the inside or the outside.  I cannot speak to today— I would have to let my brother Coyote do that— but to those who grew up in areas like this, the town felt a little like a city during school sessions and a very empty place during university breaks.  Laramie has two main roads dividing the town, 3rd street and Grand Avenue, and at the conclusion of the work day, the university empties out and still clogs up the intersection every night.   Sometimes my friends and I would go grab pizza at a diner on the corner of 3rd and Grand just to watch all the  chaos when the lights changed. 

To an outsider, the traffic and speed doesn't seem all that strange-- sparse and lazy; but for someone used to small towns, it felt surprisingly "urban" and crowded to me.  In the summers, the town gets quite still, somehow slower and more intimate, more like a close-knit community.  Since I've left, however, summers are taking on a life of their own; much like Fort Collins, the town has cultivated more of an artisan and craft culture, and now the quiet summers have markets and festivals which shut down the old downtown area with booths, music, food, and artwork.  It's pretty neat. 

In my years there, Laramie had no real need for a bus system because I could bicycle anywhere in town in under 20 minutes, even in a blizzard.  The new Wal-Mart and eastward expansion of the town has changed that, and I think there's now a single bus line running down Grand Avenue.  (The Wal-Mart bought another newfangled concept to Laramie, and that was an acceleration lane.  Most of us had never seen one.)  That was one of the real charms to living in Laramie, as a person who grew up in a working-class family deeply tied to the land: I could pick a direction, and, in less than an hour on my bicycle, be the only person for a mile in any direction.  After week after week of crowded dorm life and deadlines, I needed distance from our quasi-urban university life to reacquaint myself to the land.  Laramie could provide me with that. 

In my head, I imagine that is exactly what Aaron Kreifels was doing that morning: he picked a direction and rode on his bike to get away from other people for a little while so he could just focus on a deep blue sky and that that three-inch strip of prairie running between his tires.  And that's where he found Matthew. 

I'll leave off there for today.  Let me know what else you'd like to talk about, and I'll be happy to answer. 



Monday, July 1, 2013

Measuring the time

How does one measure the time?  It has been a strange two years for me, which I am still trying to figure out.  Originally, the things I needed to sort out in my head brought me back to the foot of Telephone Canyon, and so I blogged on Laramie, and TLP, and LGBT acceptance as a way to sort them through.  Then came the shift: I have had other things on my mind, and it has led me away from blogging for awhile-- things like, do I really want to finish this Ph. D.?  Am I willing to bail on this career if it it's the only way I can go home to the Rockies?  How do I balance the dictates of a full-time career and a chronic disease, both of which tend to make ridiculous demands of my time and energy?  These questions have taken me away from the blog and elsewhere, and it was hard to justify continued academic interest in The Laramie Project when, according to my prospectus, I'm an Anglo-Saxonist.  Then I looked up to find that two years were gone. 

Life has a way of going in circles, however, and the last few months are bringing me back here.  For one, Grandpa Wolf, my last surviving grandparent, died in May.  I missed the last week of classes to fly back for his funeral in Montana and the return trip brought me back to the land I miss and the family questions I can't escape.  My nieces, who never knew Grandpa Wolf in the days of teeth and claws, were devastated to lose their great-grandfather.  I envy them a little-- they only knew him in the good times.  I still remember the broken bones, the fur and feathers. 

In a weird way, I almost feel like I understand him better now that he's gone.  I can look beyond the old man I hated in my youth and pitied in my adulthood to see at him more objectively.
Church steeples of the high plains: at Lewistown
From the old stories the locals told and the papers in his cabinet, I learned that Wolf was an "accident" baby, and after a traditional German shotgun wedding his parents hopped the border as far as Ypsilanti, North Dakota to escape the infamy.   I also learned that the US Army took my desperately claustrophobic, tractor-driving farmboy of a grandfather and made him a tank driver in the Philippine campaign in World War II.  How he survived the terror I will never know, but he never drove anything smaller than a Cadillac during my lifetime.  His mother died shortly after he was injured overseas, and so he came back from the Pacific Theater covered in scars from the napalm burns, now the main breadwinner for the two younger siblings which his teenage sister had taken under wing.

As I marked the decades between the grain silos stretching from North Dakota to Montana, the more Grandpa Wolf made sense-- he isn't excused, but at least I can fathom how he came to be the man he was.  Wolf was brought into the world as the "mistake" that led to a hardscrabble, loveless marriage between second-generation German immigrants; they came to Montana in the hopes of starting their own farm, only to discover their land wasn't arable.  During the Depression, they labored on another man's land until Grandpa Wolf lost his father when he was ten and his mother a decade later.  When the draft came calling, the Army stuffed him in the smallest hole they could find and waited for him to go crazy.  I'm fairly sure that Wolf's own father was an abuser.  Without anything else to hold onto, he slipped down the same road: insecure, obsessive-compulsive, and violent.

Grandpa Wolf's hometown,  population 125.
It doesn't end there, however. Something else has happened between those decades stretched out between the grain silos.  My mother Goose wanted to hold the reception at the senior's apartments where Wolf had lived up until last year.  I listened to the stories the old timers had about him, and I was perplexed.  This Wolf was personable, easygoing-- even sociable.  He could laugh at himself.  He actually had friends.  There was no way this man, who was once awarded a medal for "lady chasing" by one of the wags at the seniors home, was my grandfather.  Or was he?

I eventually realized that, in the decade that I swapped snow fences and sagebrush for magnolia trees, things had profoundly changed.  The last four years since he lost my Grandmother had utterly wrecked him.  He was not yet a "good" man, whatever that means; but he was trying to become one.

In the last year my mother took care of him at their home in Wyoming, as he could only eat through a gastric tube.  I would have thought that a year of taking care of the man who terrorized her as a child was my idea of hell;  My Mama Goose, however, confessed to me that she was glad she did it.  The man she buried in Lewistown, Montana was not the same one who wrecked her life, she said.  Spending all that time with him, caring for his feedings and medication, convinced her he was different.   And, while he was still far from perfect, she insisted, he was forgiven.   If it weren't for his illness, she might never have known-- and she never would have had closure.  

*      *     *

With all these things on my mind, I sat in the Casper Events Center next to my sister Sparrowhawk as I waited for my niece Kestrel to cross the stage as a certified high school graduate.  She's now eighteen and raring to fly the coop-- in fact, she reminds me so much of my sister at eighteen it's a little scary.  One of the co-valedictorians gave a fairly bland speech that made me fuzz out in boredom.  Then the second girl delivered her speech: she referenced Harvey Milk's courage and sacrifice, and the Stonewall riots, too, if I remember correctly.  My sister smirked and leaned in confidentially.  

"You see her?"  She said, indicating the orator on the stage.  "She had the worst crush on Kestrel in middle school."  This was said without disgust or discomfort, as it would have been just fifteen years ago.  It was simply a fact, one of many others as she reminisced about the other young men and women who walked over the stage-- who played games in her living room, or had their scraped knees bandaged in her kitchen, or were best friends only to grow apart in their teens. These were wistful memories for her, of happier times before the tension started and Kestrel, as beautiful and strong-willed as her mother, began to slip away. 

My sister has never been one to forget a wrong, but she has turned her powerful memory into something more useful than before: a way to mark change.  Even so, I don't know if she realizes how far she has come in the last fifteen years in her acceptance of gays and lesbians, even if her own daughter thinks she is still "back in the Stone Age."  If I use my own memory to mark the change, I can see it, too: slow, easy to miss, but still significant.   

And maybe the same can be said of a town where an eighteen-year-old lesbian graduating from Matthew Shepard's old high school can speak of Harvey Milk in front of her peers, their parents, and the Superintendent of Schools, and still walk out with both her pride and diploma in hand.  



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