The standing ovation was done and the actors for the Guthrie’s reading of “The Laramie Project: Ten Year’s Later – An Epilogue” exited the stage. Director Ben McGovern appeared again to give a nod to the “hundreds of stage managers around the country who are wondering at about this moment whether the live internet Q&A session connecting us with New York will start on time – and how will we know?” They left the house lights up while we waited and milled about in conversation. Those not staying for the discussion departed. About a half an hour later, the internet connection from New York went live again. It was a lot more interactive than I expected.
Tectonic Theater Project Artistic Director Moises Kaufman was heard to say that they’d take a question or two from the New York crowd first, “because I think our actors read a little faster than everyone else.”
“Wrong!” called out a Guthrie audience member.
Someone asked the company members who have been with this story now for over ten years, where has this journey taken them?
Company member Andy Paris responded with a story of meeting complete strangers in a coffee shop. It was Tectonic’s 10 year anniversary trip to Laramie. Paris was in a coffee shop just getting himself ready for some more interviews when a two British men walked up to him and asked “Are you Andy Paris?” It turned out that one of the British men was a former actor named Adam Zane. After picking up and reading a copy of the script for the original Laramie Project, he quit acting and decided to go into directing, feeling he had to direct “The Laramie Project.” Zane and his partner were doing a cross-country jaunt around America, and naturally felt they needed to make a pilgrimage to Laramie. They had just come into town, and decided to stop in a coffee shop to get their bearings – and happened upon Andy Paris. Tectonic has since been over to Manchester, England to do workshops, and Zane’s Hope Theatre Company, launched with a production of “The Laramie Project” in 2004, is the one theater in England participating in the Epilogue reading event.
A Tweet asked how “The Laramie Project” has translated across different cultures?
The film version was shown during the Berlin Film Festival and an audience member told them, “I’ve lived in Berlin all my life. Laramie is just like this town.” Towns with two sides, towns that finds themselves at war with their two different sides, towns continuing to try and write their own history, these are things all towns understand, across the U.S., or across the globe.
Tectonic does a lot of residencies in communities around the country, in high schools and colleges, with casts of various productions of “The Laramie Project,” and the thing which continues to move the company members are the young people. As Romaine Patterson commented in the Epilogue about her interactions with youth, that’s where the hope is. High school students starting Gay/Straight Alliances in their schools. These young people are “passionate, unguarded in their astonishment and outrage” that what happened to Matthew Shepard could be allowed to take place in our society. The kind of change the adults have been working for all these years, these students feel it is their right. They feel they deserve it, that they shouldn’t even have to ask for it. They’re bewildered that change is not happening fast enough, and are working to make it happen themselves.
A tweet from another theater – Were your actors teary-eyed at curtain call, too?
Yes. “But,” Moises Kaufman clarified, “these actors get teary-eyed very easily.”
A tweet from Oregon asked how has the Tectonic Theater Company changed over the last ten years?
Kaufman was anxious to pass off the microphone to someone else for that question, and the audience in New York laughed. The female company member who answered (Leigh Fondakowski, I believe) said their collaboration had “grown incredibly.” They share a lot of common experience now, and while collaboration still “isn’t always graceful, it’s still very meaningful.”
The next tweet made it clear just how much the company, including the moderator, had been living in a bubble during the final days of preparation for the big event. The tweeter asked how they felt about the fact that hate crimes legislation in Congress had passed in the House.
“This can’t be right,” said the moderator, thinking she read her screen wrong.
Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, up on stage with the company, corrected the moderator, giving the good news that the bill had indeed passed in the House, and looked clear to pass the Senate and go on to the President’s desk for him to sign into law. “After eight dark years in the White House,” once it reached this new President, “it’s a done deal.” The audience, both in New York and at the Guthrie, applauded so long that Judy Shepard started to cry. When the applause died down a little, she said, “You’re all acting like I did this by myself.” Someone behind me in the Guthrie audience said, “You damn near did.”
Someone asked why is theater the best medium to tell this story?
One of the Tectonic company members said, only half-kidding, “Because that’s what we do.”
Moises Kaufman followed up by saying that the reason they got into the story of Matthew Shepard in the first place was because they asked themselves “What is it that theater can do?” The answer, they realized, was that theater “can go more deeply than media ever has time to do. We can take the time. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily better. But we’re all in this room, collectively hearing the story together. I don’t think you can replace that. In this case, the actor is both the recorder and the person sharing it. There is only one degree of separation between you and the people of Laramie. Theater artists are well suited to this because actors are trained in empathy.” He went on to say that when other groups of actors in other communities perform “The Laramie Project,” it isn’t limited to the theater. When a teenager in Kansas is in rehearsal for the play, and one of the many roles he plays is a 53 year old gay man, that makes for some interesting dinner conversation with the parents. Six weeks of rehearsing, then performing it, that teenager needs to learn how to articulate this other person’s experiences so his community can understand it. “That’s uniquely theatrical.”
How hard was it emotionally to return to Laramie? – someone tweeted.
It wasn’t hard at first, one company member responded. They found it “thrilling” to reestablish the theater company’s connection to the community. As they learned more about the rumors and the revision of history, it became more difficult. To see the people still working for change, and “witnessing their sadness and frustration,” that was hard.
Someone cheekily asked “how the act of observing changes the thing observed?”
Giving as good as they got, they started by saying there were “physicists who can answer that better.” But tackling the question more seriously, they admitted that things were very different this time around. The first time, “we were theater people from New York. We were invisible. The idea of a play was just an abstract notion.” People were more reluctant ten years later. They were editing themselves a lot more. There was an innocence ten years ago. Now they knew their “words would be part of an object to be widely seen.” It took a while to “get past people’s construction of the story” and really get them talking again.
Taking it further, another company member mentioned, “We’re asked all the time why we put ourselves into the play as characters.” This question is part of the answer. Having the company members in the cast of characters is a way to “keep reminding the audience that even though these are the words of the people of Laramie, they’re still being heard through our ears.” Though they strive for strict documentary-style reporting, their own personal experiences are bound to color the final product in some fashion. They work hard to do what Father Roger requested, “You must do them justice.” It was harder in the film version of “The Laramie Project” to keep that “reporter as part of the reporting” aspect present, because there was one actor for every character. In the performance of the play, where each person plays multiple roles, it is easier to be reminded that the person reciting the words isn’t actually the person in real life, and thus they are an interpretation, not literal truth.
Judy Shepard fielded the question about this night in relation to “what happened in Washington, D.C. this weekend.”
Clarifying, but “you must have been in a cave if you don’t know,” the questioner was referring to the National Equality March in D.C. for gay civil rights. Shepard repeated what was said there, that “the work starts when you go home.” It was good for her to see “how far we’ve come. We’re gaining ground.” Judy Shepard credited “The Laramie Project” and Tectonic Theater with being “vital in changing people’s hearts and minds.” When Tectonic originally came to Matthew’s parents about the first “Laramie Project,” the company assured them that it was about the town, not about Matthew or his family. Judy thought to herself at the time, “Oh good. We don’t have to do anything with them.” She never imagined where they’d all end up ten years later.
A Tweet asked if the project could continue, would there be a return to Laramie at the 20 year mark?
“Can we finish tonight first?” asked Moises Kaufman. He couldn’t speak to the future, but Kaufman did say that they were considering finding a way now of putting the two plays together as a single work, taking the ten year perspective and “recontextualizing what came before.”
Someone in the New York audience asked, echoing Father Roger in the play, “What does Aaron McKinney (Matthew’s killer) teach us?”
Kaufman said, “I don’t want to answer that question. Aaron McKinney and his words are in the play. Let every person in the audience decide for themselves.”
Someone else in the crowd in New York asked if everyone whose words were used in the play had signed a release giving the theater permission.
Were there some people who Tectonic interviewed who then wouldn’t sign the release?
The Tectonic company members were then asked how they self-censored, or perhaps didn’t censor themselves, in the context of these talks with the people of Laramie.
They admitted some censored themselves more than others. They had to find a way to strike a balance, to do justice to Laramie and let the people speak without too much of the writer/performers’ filtering getting in the way. Ten years ago when they talked to people, it was more of a conversation. It was more difficult this time around, because they kept running into people who were trying to change the story of what happened. “It was hard to stop myself from confronting them sometimes,” one company member said.
A number of Tweets were concerned about Judy Shepard and how she was holding up, given the potential emotion of the evening and the anniversary of her son’s death.
Judy Shepard said she was “relieved that someone is addressing the revisionist history.” This new robbery/drug deal explanation puzzles her. “It’s so easily disproved. I don’t know how it continues to grow.”
Someone else asked if the play was being performed in Laramie that night. Applause greeted the answer of “Yes.”
A New York audience member asked, since the TV show “20/20” was portrayed as the villain of the piece, if they’d tried to interview any of the people involved in broadcasting that story.
A high school doing a production of “The Laramie Project” is getting a visit from Fred Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for picketing funerals (including Matthew Shepard’s) with signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “Your Son Is In Hell.” A questioner asked for advice in how to deal with Phelps and his picketers.
“Ignore them,” a Tectonic company member quickly responded.
Judy Shepard chimed in saying that there were “two sides to the coin. Ignoring them defeats publicity for them, which is why they do it. But engaging them also gives us publicity. We love Fred. Every time he goes on TV, people see him and think, ‘He’s such a kook. Let’s give some money to that nice gay organization down the street.’ If they knew how much good they do for GLBT causes, they might stay home.”
Another Tectonic member added, “If it’s a slow week for Fred, he’ll just find a production of ‘The Laramie Project’ he can go picket.” But they also see things like Angel Action repeated in response to the protests. Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew Shepard’s friends quoted in both versions of the Laramie Project, knew Phelps would picket Matthew’s funeral, and the trials of the two killers. Rather than shout them down with a counter-protest, Romaine and her friends put together angel costumes. They silently lined the streets, lifted their wings, and blocked all the hateful signs from view. Creative, positive responses like that to Fred Phelps also crop up where “The Laramie Project” appears.
They were going to take one last question from the New York audience, but when the question was “How did you prep for your interview with Aaron McKinney?” – the actor/writer responded,
“I’ll answer that, but then we have to take another question because I don’t want the last question of the night to be about Aaron McKinney.” He admitted it was “intense.” He felt “relatively safe. Aaron was in prison and there was a guard nearby the whole time.” The challenge was to remain open to what McKinney had to say and genuinely listen. What ends up in the play is only a fraction of their time together. He spoke with McKinney for a total of ten hours (to which there was an audible gasp from New York and Guthrie audiences). To be able to recreate Aaron McKinney honestly, there needed to be a human connection developed between interviewer and subject. It was “a complex experience.”
The final question was more of a statement of support. A member of the New York crowd made mention of a man who just a couple of days before had been brutally beaten in Queens because he was gay. The man was still in the hospital, now in a medically induced coma. The fact that things like that “still happen, in Manhattan, in 2009” gave the speaker pause. She thanked the people on stage for the work they do. “It helps make the world safer for all of us.”