This is Don’s blog — just being uploaded by Jules.
Someone once told me that every show is like a puzzle, and that it’s a Stage Manager’s job to try and put that puzzle together. The Laramie Project being my 6th attempt at stage managing a show at Duke, I feel qualified to say that that is absolutely true.
The Laramie Project itself is shaping up to be one heck of a puzzle. We have a wonderful, but really large, cast. We have what’s shaping up to be a gorgeous, yet intricate set that requires almost-constant re-arranging. And finally, we have a costume plot that might end up inflicting serious emotional trauma on those of us tasked with keeping track of it. With Laramie, I feel like I’ve walked into a toy store, picked out the biggest, most complicated jigsaw puzzle I could find, dumped all of the pieces out on the floor and thrown away the box. But you know what? I couldn’t be more excited.
Thanks to our extensive table work, I feel like that with this show, more than any other I’ve worked on, everyone involved has a general idea of how the final product should look, which I’ve found can be a rare luxury. We all feel invested in the show, and we all want to produce the absolute best show we can. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a cast and crew come together with so much shared passion for the show they’re putting on.
There have already been a few stumbles. Namely, a couple of insanely complicated scene changes that have had me scrambling like a madman to try and record every shift in the furniture, but for the most part things have gone smoothly. That’s not to say there won’t be more stumbles later, there always are, but for the moment I feel like every piece is falling smoothly into place.
As we move on, the puzzle is bound to get more complicated. There are bound to be lost pieces here and there, or a section that we just can’t seem to get in to fit properly with everything else. But no matter what happens along the way, and no matter which way the puzzle ends up coming together, I know it’s going to make an absolutely beautiful picture, and we’re going to have a great time solving it.
Last week, Kimi sent an link to the International Dialects of English Archive site, which has a sound file of a Laramie native telling a story to give a sense of tone, timbre, and general accent colors of a Wyoming speaker. I thought I’d do a little more digging to see what else might be helpful to developing your characters’ voices.
To be frank, I didn’t find a great deal. Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho get lumped together in a general “Western” region without a lot of distinctions. In one way, such a lack of detail proves what we’d already suspected, that the Wyoming “accent” is pretty close to “Standard American” than anything with a lot of regional color or variation. Such an assertion seems to be supported by this 2005 article from the online magazine New West. The article references the work of linguist William Labov, particularly his 2005 publication The Atlas of North American English, which Duke library has in electronic and hard copy form if you are terribly interested in how pronunciation patterns across the US have shifted since the mid-1990s.
I found this story from a 2006 SMITH magazine interview with Joy Ellison, the dialect coach on Brokeback Mountain, which starred the late Australian actor Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhal both playing love-struck ranchers. Here’s a page from Ellison’s notes about vowel sounds/construction:
Speaking of Brokeback Mountain, the short stories from which the movie is derived were written by Annie Proulx, a Connecticut native who has lived in Wyoming since 1994. I found an interview with her on The Sycamore Review from 2001 which is composed of audio clips to give you another idea of a Wyoming transplant voice. Remember folks like Phil DuBois, Stephen Mead Johnson, Rebecca Hilliker are transplants to Laramie.
A linguistic hobbyist (I think I just coined a new word!) named Rick Aschmann has this wonderfully detailed site called American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns. This site looks like it might be a gold mine considering it is something he’s collected out of personal (vs. scholarly) interest. He has only three examples of Wyoming speech, but two are from speakers native to two cities relevant to the play (Cody–where April Silva is from and Rawlins–where the Wyoming State Penitentiary is located, it will be Russell and Aarons eventual home):
- US Representative Cynthia Lummis (R) (native of Cheyenne) YouTube video (2009)
- Former US Senator Alan Simpson (R) (native of Cody) YouTube video (1997)
- Actor Jesse Garcia (native of Rawlins) YouTube video (2007?)
Harvard Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux founded DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English) and constructed the English Dialect Survey in the early 2000s to “explore words and sounds in the English language” and get a sense, via statistical analysis, of what kinds of sounds are made by individuals in various areas of the US. He is interested in how we “really” speak versus how we think we are supposed to speak. Click here to read his results for Wyoming speakers. PBS used Vaux’s work as part of its 2005 program Do You Speak American?
And since Laramie is so close to Colorado, I thought this article by Carlyn Ray Mitchell from the June 21, 2009 edition of The Gazette [Colorado Spring, CO] gave some insight into possible variance of pronunciation south of the (Wyoming) border:
DO COLORADANS – HAVE AN ACCENT?
In the time he’s spent outside of the mountains west of Colorado Springs, Robert Denison’s cowboy drawl has marked him as an outsider in his own state.
But as a third-generation Colorado native, the 45-year-old and his manner of speaking are more insider than most found in the state’s major cities or along the Front Range.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m from the South. I spent a month, month and a half in Texas building fence. But they were making fun of my speech long before I went to Texas,” said Denison, who grew up on a ranch between Fairplay and Jefferson.
By and large, linguists paint Coloradans with the broad brush stroke of speaking with a neutral, or unmarked, accent, widely known as Standard American English. The Front Range, with its mingling of people from across the country, is especially neutral, experts say.
But speak with natives, particularly of older generations, and those on the plains or remote parts of the mountains such as Denison, and a certain something becomes apparent.
And certain words and pronunciations can be linked, if not directly to the state, to the Rocky Mountain Region or parts of Colorado.
Much of Colorado’s speech identity rests on the pronunciation of the state’s name itself.
” Coloradans who strongly identify with the state use the vowel in ‘rat’ for the third syllable, while non- Coloradans or those whose state connection is tepid, such as the millions from California, use the ‘ah’ sound,” said Thomas E. Nunnally, associate professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama.
Though linguists and dialectologists cringe at the request to judge which pronunciation is correct, solutions would be to study the regional pronunciation of “Colorado,” or how natives of Wyoming and New Mexico say the word, and to analyze the Spanish roots of the word, said Lamont Antieau, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“It is hard to argue with whose state it is. They’re from there, so it is kind of like arguing the pronunciation of your last name. You’re the expert on that.” he said.
In a similar vein, Coloradans are known for pronouncing “coyote” with two syllables rather than the three syllables heard in much of the rest of the country, Antieau said.
Other linguists account for Denison’s cowboy drawl in Coloradans ‘ speech. “Northern with a little Southern flavoring,” is how Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois, characterizes the accent of the Mountain West in his book “How We Talk: American Regional English Today,” published in 2000.
Ask someone out of state to imitate a Colorado accent , and “some people would probably respond with a mild Midlands accent , something like John Denver,” said Jack Chambers, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto. “But other people would say they never heard a Coloradan who sounded like that,” he said.
The Standard American English spoken by many Coloradans resulted from a two-step dialect change in those who won the West.
Places like Boston and New York City have distinct accents in part because of the first settlers from England, which to this day has a wide range of English accents .
“So certain people went to Boston and certain people went to New York, and then certain people went to Charleston and they carried all those differences with them. Then they didn’t really talk to each other that much,” Antieau said.
Then people started moving west, first to places such as Michigan and western Pennsylvania, where dialects were mixed and muted. By the time those people got to Colorado, they had already shed their coastal accents and went through another, less-pronounced dialect mixture, Antieau said.
“When people got to Colorado, even if they did carry with them marked features from Boston or the South, they would tend to lose them over time in the greater speech community,” Antieau said. “Because that is what you do, when you find yourself being different, you just kind of weed that stuff out. Especially if it is stigmatized, as a lot of those features would be.”
Today, any marked speech features in Colorado are likely to be found in rural areas, which Antieau researched for his doctorate degree in the 1990s. He said he would like to further study speakers in the San Luis Valley, with its heavy Spanish influence and isolated Mormon communities.
“The other is Pueblo, or as they say it, “Pea-eb-low,” Antieau said.
One widespread modern syntax phenomenon Coloradans are participating in is what linguists call the “positive anymore,” in which a speaker says things akin to, “Kids all have iPods anymore,” Antieau said.
Western speakers have also weeded out a difference between the words “cot” and “caught,” a merging of vowel sounds linguists call the low-back vowel.
A problem with studying younger speakers is media’s influence on language.
Television has historically been dismissed as having an impact on speech, since viewers don’t interact with it, Antieau said. But with our culture’s media overdrive, “people are exposed to many different variations and can kind of pick and choose,” he said, citing children picking up words and pronunciations associated with rap music to which they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed.
“We speak how we speak to say who we are, talking like those whose acceptance is important and not talking like those whom we ourselves do not accept,” Nunnally said.
If anyone finds other resources or if we have blog readers out there from Wyoming (or places nearby) who wish to chime in about accent/dialects of the region, please do!
As interesting as it was to grow up in a city as culturally diverse and entertaining as Singapore, I always felt that I was missing out on so many other things that were out there in this world. Coming to college in America has been eye opening in so many senses and working on the Laramie project has been an amazing opportunity to further my scope of experience both for life and my interest in acting. While my education grounded me in a solid understanding of math, science and other quantitative methods of study I feel like it was always at the expense of other things like cultivating a passion for the arts and even cultivating a sense of understanding towards people who had different cultural and even sexual dispositions.
The Laramie project in itself has been an awesome play to read and even imagine being a part of. Having sort of dealt with the play in an earlier semester I found that I hadn’t truly come to realize and appreciate the nuances of the play until much later. I took for granted the research that had probably gone into putting the piece together. Even though it was the first piece of documentary theatre I had dealt with, I didn’t truly appreciate it’s form and what that same form would enable it to convey. Meeting with Maude Mitchell was an incredibly moving experience for me – not because she had been involved with the project in its inception, but because that was the point when I transited from viewing Laramie project as a play, to viewing it as a project about this perceived intrinsically real place at an intrinsically real time. It was at that point that the magnanimity of what I was dealing with hit me. I wasn’t just involved in a play – I was involved in re-interpreting a significant event in history.
Watching Maude flip the pages of book – her emotions were palpable and I almost felt like she was somehow bringing us back with her to the time when all this was taking place. Observing someone else being so vulnerable in front of a group of random students was moving – but more importantly it highlighted the stakes that were at hand. I could have thought and thought intellectually about the stakes that I was supposed to consider but without that epiphany, I would have been no closer to realizing it than I would have been to starting as a power forward in the NBA.
One-on-one sessions were something I’d never experienced before and they were helpful in more ways than I can begin to describe. An unfortunate by-product is that I now think of myself discovering a dead body an unhealthy amount. It’s been an incredible opportunity to truly focus on understanding the character nuances and the need to figure out what it is that each character wants. I suppose that’s the struggle in switching between so many characters in such an intricate play.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I auditioned for Laramie. I guess this is just one of those things in life that happens – and then blows your mind in the best possible way. What can you do?
My Duke in Laramie t-shirt’s first day of service drew a rich variety of responses, from fellow Marketplace brunchers, Trinity Café barristas, and whoever else was on that characteristically late-night C2 ride. Some read it as a joke, spotting the discrepancy between the literal meaning of the sentence and the grammatical error in “correct”. Others simply stared confusedly until I shuffled my backpack off to show them the “Laramie Project” tag on the back. In any case, it generated even more discussion than my colorful shirt with the happy otter on a tricycle next to an astronaut bird and a friendly fire spirit, which is my usual go-to conversation starter shirt.
Insofar as documentary theater as a genre dedicates itself to saying it correct, I believe that goal deserves some strict scrutiny. The claim of representing the truth through theater sets a high standard for the playwright and actors to meet. Fictional theater thrives on conveying emotional truth through fabricated dialogue and characters; documentary theater communicates emotional and factual truth through the words of real human beings. This imposes a certain burden of authenticity on the playwright. How do you record, transcribe, edit, restructure, and ultimately publish the words of other people while maintaining strict loyalty to the content and meaning of their words?
The honest answer is that you can’t. Every step of the production process, from the moment the words leave an interviewee’s lips to when an actor delivers a theatrical interpretation of those words, distances the script further and further from the truth of the original statement. As an actor, I cannot claim to reproduce the exact utterance from the bygone conversation of someone I never met, nor should I. Pure mimicry has limited artistic potential.
Our production of Laramie must face the challenge of authenticity: we have to portray the script in a manner that appropriately bears witness to the tragic events described in the play—we must say it correct. Yet, in order to maintain our ethos with the audience we must simultaneously acknowledge that no matter how “correct” we say it, this play will never be, strictly speaking, true. We will perform a work of theater, not of reality. It just so happens that this particular work of theater draws its inspiration and text from a past reality, and that gives it a great deal of power.
It’s Monday, and Dave’s expecting me. I get the key from him and go up to the prop cabinet to look around for things that might be useful. I’ve been prop master for a healthy number of shows now, and this is still my favorite part. I love seeing the stuff theaters just have lying around. It’s like being in a toy store.
We’ve got some fun things here at Duke. There’s an entire cabinet devoted to an inflatable doll of Gumby. There are phones and TVs from every period you could ever want, old furniture, books, toys, and what feels like thousands of pieces of dishware. As tempting as it is to just play, though, I have a job to do, and Dave needs to leave in an hour and a half.
So I pull out my list and I get to work. I want two phones, a black and a white. I want some small boxes that the actors can use until I get some real tape recorders. I think about taking some umbrellas from a bin by the electronics, thinking they might be a nice touch for the funeral scene, but decide that would be a little contrived (besides, where will they put them when they’re carrying their picket signs and wings?). I fail, disappointingly, to find anything that can be used as a replacement camera right now.
It’s weird, working on a show like this in what seems like such an impersonal role. Jeff has a need, I provide. Jeff or Torry asks for a picket sign that says “Fags Doom Nations,” I ask what color and how big. But even up here in the cabinet, I don’t feel emotionless. I hold this ’90s-style black telephone and imagine that it’s the Baptist minister’s phone, and I feel my blood pressure rise a little as I think about that scene where he’s preaching his dogma. It’s amazing what holding a telephone receiver can do to you, and what it becomes when you put it onstage.
My list isn’t even close to done. There are things to buy, and things to build. I take my box of props downstairs and lock it up where Jeff can find it. I’ll be back again when I know more of what we need. On the way out, I have a fleeting moment where I wonder if we’re going to stick those picket signs up there when we’re done with them. No matter. It’s not the time for that yet.
Warning: This blog is going to seem a little all over the place, but that is because it is coming from a real place. My heart does not express itself linearly. It skips around, trying to find where my mind is. For those of you who are confused after reading this, I apologize in advance.
The Laramie Project has challenged my acting in so many ways – the complex blocking, the active stillness, and the multiple characters – especially the multiple characters. Did I mention the multiple characters? It seems everyone else have gotten a grasp on exhibiting distinct personalities for each character. Some have even managed to get the Laramie twang down. While it should be encouraging for me, I can’t help but feel intimidated and unsettled. But like a freshman running from a dorm to the bus stop to grab a passing C-1, I feel left behind. My “southerness” is so much of who I am, and it is hard to get rid of it. It is not intentionally like that, but when people continuously call me out for my regionalism, I can’t help but be hyper aware. And for a perfectionist/control freak like me, being hyper aware becomes addictive and unavoidable. It turns into self-afflicted pressure. I feed off of it as much as it feeds off of me. However, when it feeds off of me, it takes much bigger chunks. Where I nibble, it devours. Where I chew, it gnaws.
In terms of The Laramie Project, I feel if I don’t master overcoming my natural accent, I do a disservice to all the characters that Jeff has bestowed upon me. However, in terms of life, I will feel like that I will be unable to call myself an actress. Or at least I will fall into the “one-note” category. I don’t want to be that kind of an actress. I want to be chameleonic in the most artistic way possible. I keep telling myself that I am not a one-trick pony, but come April, we will indeed see if I am.
One of the things about my performance that has plagued me from Area Boy is how I did not adopt a Nigerian accent. As good as my performance may have been, I still feel like it wasn’t enough. So not only am I carrying the insecurity of now, but also the diffidence of last semester. It’s frustrating for me because I enjoy The Laramie Project so much (especially in comparison to Area Boy). I want to make the audience feel the same way I felt when I read this for the first time back in September. When I was notified that I had landed a spot in both projects, I felt that I would struggle more in Area Boy than in Laramie. However, now that Area Boy is over and I am in the middle of Laramie, I am noticing that the element of playing multiple characters in short bits of time is not allowing me to deliver the way I would desire.
I don’t want to be good. I want to be great. Every time I grace a stage, I want to be better than the previous time. If I am not giving 100% every single time, then I will feel like I am damaging the text of the Laramie Project and to my cast mates who are working their asses off right now. I know everyone is going to give a remarkable performance in April, and I just want to rise to the occasion that the entire Laramie cast has set. I have never had to juggle so many characters in one piece, and it is getting to me. As we go through the blocking, I feel like that I am no longer an actress anymore. I am simply a factory of characters, spitting out the same product only to just move through the plot. I can’t get into my groove.
For someone who has only recently kinda-sorta-yet-wholeheartedly-but-not-really embraced my talent as an actress, sometimes I feel like I cannot/will not measure up – that this task is too big for what I am capable right now. I don’t want to be the weak link of the group. I don’t want to be the actress who gives the same damn performance each and every time for each and every character. I hate those actresses. They are one-trick ponies. They are boring and predictable. If those adjectives don’t describe me as a person, then why do I feel like they could potentially describe me as an actress? Damn you Laramie for making me think introspectively about my life!
Now I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve heard it before.
(This is not to sound cocky)
Afftene, get over yourself. You’re great! You’re fantastic.
Jeff loves you. Everyone loves you.
Don’t worry about it.
But the compliments of others cannot drown out the insecurities in my mind. My mind always wins. Always. And that bothers me, and it scares me.
Moment: Play The Function
My favorite performance from last night’s Angels in America (which I was not enthralled by, BTW, but that’s another blog) was from Julie Fishell. The way she embodied each character so easily was magnificent. I did not even realize it was the same performer until it was pointed out in the talkback during lunch. I watched her more closely in Perestroika and was honestly mesmerized. Since then, I’ve been thinking how I can incorporate the same levels of dynamics into my own performance.
During the talkback, she mentioned that the way she was able to do it was to just “play the function” of the character in that moment. Those three words have reverberated in my mind since they were spoken.
Play the function.
It seems easy, but like other affirming three-word-phrases like “just do it”, “believe in yourself”, “try something new”, and “I love you”, it’s really not all that easy.
It usually takes me about five minutes of playing a character onstage before I feel settled into that person. However, none of the scenes I am in last longer than three or four minutes maximum, hence, my problem.
So where does that leave me? I guess I’m going to have to quit whining, adopt a Wyoming accent, and find a quicker warm-up time. I’m gonna do all of what I know how to do: the best that I can in the moments that I do have and tell the voices in my head to shut up and shove it.
- Afftene Taylor
P.S.: If I seemed overdramatic at times, it can partly be blamed on the fact that I am listening to old-school slow R &B love songs right now, and it is making me feel really sentimental at the moment.
I have a special connection to the Laramie Project. When I was younger and question my own sexuality, a came across the film version in HBO. This was my first interaction with the LGBT world. In fact, this was when I first learned that there was a word for what I was: homosexual… gay… or as some in Laramie would say, a “fag”.
Needless to say, the story of Matthew Shepard’s beating scared the crap out of me. I knew right then and there that there was absolutely no way I could come out. Yet, in spite of this newly instill fear, I did feel a sense of relief that I had finally figured out what I was.
Now, nearly 9 years later, I find myself again relying on the Laramie Project for self-discovery. See, I was once very into the arts; drawing, clay-making, a little painting, writing, and yes, even acting. Following my lead, my younger sister took up residence within the arts as well, and yes, she had a great talent for it. On a regular basis, I was told how great my sister was… why couldn’t I live up to her work? The sad thing is that I believed these critics. I let it discourage me. A play in 6th grade would mark my last foray in the theater.
I harbored a grudge against my sister, and, more importantly, the arts that last up until even a couple of months ago. That was when I heard about the Laramie Project being produced at Duke, and once again, that special connection to the play called out to me. Without even a thought at my bitterness, I rushed to sign up to be a part of the production. And it has been the best decision I have ever made.
I soon realized that my grudge was completely unfounded. I discover that I was in my head. That it was I who was letting my critics’ words get to me. That it is was I who abdicated such an essential part of my being. I am an assistant stage manager in this production, and in this capacity, I have had access to many parts of the show. I have sat in on individual rehearsals. I even have cameos on the stage with the actors. I leave rehearsals feeling… inspired. I feel like once again the Laramie Project is helping me discover who I truly am. I share the same sense of awe that Jedidiah Schultz has when audition for Angels in America.
After the whole Laramie cast saw part one of Angels in America this past week, we got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with the cast of the show and ask them a little bit about the process that they went through to produce it. I asked a question that went a little something like this:
“Obviously, both Laramie and Angels in America are plays that are grounded in real-world crises, one in hate-crimes and the other in AIDS. They’re intensely emotional in a very concrete, very un-abstract sort of way. And this is definitely the first time that I have ever done theatre like this. So my question is, as actors, how much do you let it get to you? How much do you let it get to you not as a character, but as a person?”
To be quite frank, what I really should have asked them, were I being perfectly honest, would have been something more like this:
“This show is getting to me way too much. I’m too invested in this. Help me?”
I came to the realization that this was the case when I was doing my dramaturgical research (for those who don’t know, that means research pertaining to the play, characters, etc.) for the individual meetings that we had with Jeff, our director.
Probably the most important role that I play in the show is the role of Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. In the show, his only monologue is his in-court statement acquitting Aaron McKinney from the death penalty, but it is a powerful monologue that really knocks the wind out of you as an actor.
So I was in Perkins library (for the non-Dukies reading this, that’s our main library on campus) researching Dennis Shepard—who it turns out was an oil executive who worked in Saudi Arabia, not a country man who lived in Laramie—and I came across a video of the speech that he made along with his wife Judy at the 2009 HRC National Dinner (whose other notable guests were Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.) At any rate, he and Judy were honored with the first inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Leadership Award for their work in forwarding legislation that prevents hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and they made a speech. The video starts with Judy and Dennis walking on stage and receiving the plaque in front of a standing ovation, tears sparkling in not only their eyes, but the eyes of seemingly every member of the audience. Judy says a few words, and then Dennis takes the microphone, seemingly unable to speak through his emotion:
“Nine years ago I spoke at the dinner, and I said, Matthew is not our gay son, he is our son. Judy has been a martyr doing this, she has basically done this by herself, but with President Obama’s support, the bill will be signed, and then my statement will only be, ‘Matthew was our son.’ Thank you.”
You should really watch the video for yourself, because a transcription doesn’t fully embrace the weight of Dennis’ words.
So I’m watching this video in Perkins, and I realize pretty quickly that I must look rather odd, seeing as it’s not everyday that you see someone sobbing in the library, especially not for an hour. For whatever reason, I couldn’t let that speech go, I can’t let Dennis go. I can’t. And to be honest, I’m terrified of playing the part of Dennis Shepard, because I don’t know how I can possibly do it justice. I just can’t help but see my own father in him, wishing that all fathers could be more like Dennis, wondering whether Matthew got to feel his father’s affirmation and love while he was alive, wondering how many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people never hear that sort of affirmation from their fathers, even in death. I can’t help but get goose bumps every time I think about it.
Laramie—this town, these people, this story, this play—it’s getting to me.
Growing up, I was not exposed to much theater. I saw plays and musicals as merely entertainment, an escapism where an audience could put its own feelings on hold for a few hours and delve into the life of someone they would not normally be exposed to. Chalk it up to present-day Hollywood, perhaps. Theater seemed to be simply a live version of a summer blockbuster I would rent. It was not until I attended the Duke in London summer program that I finally went to a piece of theater that really existed to make its audience think. It tackled euthanasia, death, and rape in a very head on kind of way. It really took me off guard, and at first I was sure that I did not like the play, that the director had created a show purely to be controversial. A few hours later though, I was still thinking about it. A day passed, and I could still not get this play out of my head. Without warning, I realized I enjoyed the experience. It was not the same experience that I was used to and comfortable with, but through the play the director was able to speak to me and raise controversial and thought provoking questions in my mind.
Jump forward several years, and I am in a production of The Laramie Project. During table work, we talked a lot about Brecht. Like Cameron, I have always learned about acting from a more Stanislavsky point of view. I thought I understood the concept of Brechtian theater, but wasn’t really comfortable incorporating it into my own acting. It wasn’t until a visit by Maude Mitchell, who was part of the original group who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, that “doubting” the piece and acting as a vessel really started to make sense for me.
Maude made me think more about the motivations and opinions of the people in the play. Laramie is an easy piece to think about in this manner, simply because the people are real. They are Tectonic Theatre Project Company members, Laramie residents, and students. They all went into the interviews with not only a story, but a mentality, an approach. Some of them went in with open minds and plenty of stories to tell, sure. But others were more wary of the theater troop, others probably didn’t want to share their stories. Maybe they had things to hide, or they were just unsure of what the Tectonics members wanted to do with the stories. Perhaps they wanted to spin the theater piece to their own ends; make the crime seem based more on hate, class, or drugs than it actually was.
This especially helped me think about the character and person of Rebecca Hilliker, the theater director at the university. Casting doubt on her motivations helped me work through her monologue. I am merely presenting the words of a real person portraying a version of the Matthew Shepard story. But in order to make her character seem real, I had to analyze how she might have felt working with the theater company. Was she happy that they were interested in Laramie? Was she a little wary giving them contacts? I came to realize that she is a very important player in the show. Rebecca is the link to Laramie, she is the one who allows the Tectonic group in and tells them people of interest to interview. It was only through doubting the text, doubting that the words on the page were the whole and exact truth, that I was able to really think about who Rebecca might have been and get more of a grasp on the character that I will portray on stage.
During week one of rehearsals, my most influential teacher and mentor
from my youth came out to me as having AIDS. The exchange I had with him
shaped the way I read Laramie and the way I was able to engage in class.
I could feel myself becoming more withdrawn—hearing about hate crimes
and the affects of AIDS first hand and from someone you love is not
something that many students at Duke deal with, or at least not something
that is discussed.
Last weekend I had the wonderful privilege of
attending a conference for queer students in the Ivy League (I got
special permission to attend) and I heard wonderful talks and attended
workshops from folks who have been fighting what I like to call “the
good fight” since the Civil Rights Movement. Once again, I heard
stories of great loss, and it was heartbreaking to accept that we can
never listen to the tales of our predecessors, who have been killed by
AIDS and hate.
I feel fortunate that while it may be a long time before
we learn the stories of the trans people of color, or the queer sex
workers, or the voiceless youth in something as popular as The Laramie
Project, that we at least have this as a starting point. The
accessibility of Laramie is something that we’ve discussed amongst
ourselves. It is a wonderful tool to bring serious issues into high
schools, to generate discussion and make people of all ages think.
But if I can be brutally honest, underneath all the quietness in class and
lack of self-confidence, I am a politically charged and very angry queer
woman. As Naomi mentioned in her blog post, I often find myself with my
mind blown. Not just after the wonderful opportunity to hear Maude
Mitchell speak and perform, and not just after Angels in America and
speaking with their cast, but also after each and every rehearsal. Acting
is most certainly a growth edge for me and I am awed by the cast and
crew. It is immensely satisfying to drive my anger into my characters.
While I am still learning how to shape and craft my emotions into
characters who aren’t just furious or boring, I leave each night
feeling the great privilege as first a Laramie cast member and second as
a Duke student.
Perhaps this is the morbid way I see the world, but we
must remember that it is through a death that we are meeting one another,
the death of a queer youth with AIDS. Historically, this person’s story
never should have been told but through this loss, we are bound closer
Laramie makes me think. The process, the script, the individuals I am privileged to be working with. It all makes me think. I left our session with Maude Mitchell last week and couldn’t get over how much my mind was blown. My brain was moving so fast, interpreting our questions, her answers, doubting her, and doubting myself for doubting her. I simply couldn’t keep up with all of my thoughts.
The more time I spend on this piece and the more time I spend with my cast mates and design team, the more I come to appreciate this fast paced artistic brain movement. I haven’t been in a play in two and a half years, haven’t been truly artistic and theatrical and expressive at all in my time at Duke and it is so exciting to add this kind of intellectual stimulation to my Duke experience. Jeff’s emphasis on making this production of Laramie inherently “ours” has caused the process to be about more than an incident or a play. It has also become an opportunity for me to challenge what I think about this school, its culture, and my growth and learning at this institution.
There are a couple of stand out experiences and interactions that I want to highlight and reflect on because I think they are testaments to the high level of creative thinking and discovery that is going on during this process. The first is an “aha” moment that I was unfortunately not witness to but have heard quite a lot about. Julian, in his individual rehearsal with Jeff and Jules, made a tremendous breakthrough with the first character he plays in the show, Sergeant Hing. Instead of allowing Sergeant Hing to be a passive character, reflecting on his town, Jeff encouraged Julian to up the stakes and choose to answer the heated question “How could you possibly live in a place like this?” instead of a passive question “What’s it like living in Laramie?” This breakthrough has become the prototype that we are all striving for with each and every one of our characters. Asking the right question seems to be the key to unlocking these people that we so desperately want to get to know and represent and eventually share with an audience.
The second is Spencer’s question from our session with Maude. He asked her if she would mind taking the copy of the script and looking through it, reacting honestly to the experience of holding it in her hands and reading the words after so many years away from the project. His question, or request rather, was different and imaginative and added a wonderful sense of theatricality to our session. Maude had said that she hated “table work” and much preferred to figure out her characters by actively doing. Spencer’s question allowed her to share with us in that active avenue that she artistically prefers, by showing us instead of just telling us how she feels about her involvement with Moises and The Laramie Project.
Our trip to Angels in America yesterday was particularly exciting to me because it provided the cast with an opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level. Since one of the characters that we take on in this play is going to be a version of ourselves, a Duke student of some sort, I took the marathon show, car-rides, intermissions, and dinner breaks as opportunities for a special kind of character work and cast bonding. I discussed Duke-Durham relations with Summer and talked about learning Chinese with Andy. Jacob and I whispered throughout Perestroika about how much we wanted to own each and every piece of Belize’s wardrobe. And Kimi, Spencer, Jeremy and I rocked out to top 40 songs on the ride back to campus, critiquing the use of auto-tune and the need for more uplifting songs like “Just the Way You Are” on the radio. I appreciate each and every one of these interactions and growing friendships and am looking forward to getting to know The Laramie Project characters and team members further as the process continues.
I’d like to start this post with a question that I had meant to ask during our discussion of Brechtian theater. We had discussed that one of the ways that Brechtian theater acknowledges Stanislavskian theater is by doubting it (or perhaps vise-versa)? In any case, I find myself slightly confused as an actor. I’ve always worked using the Stanislavskian method. The idea of finding truth behind your actions makes the most sense for me, as well as deriving actions from characters. Our Brechtian reading mentions the opposite- characters should be derived from their actions. I know that one of our goals with The Laramie Project is to approach it with a Brechtian style, but I feel that we are approaching the acting with a Stanislavskian approach. Am I wrong in thinking this? Is there something to be gained in this contradictory approach?
My next reflection is on the spectacular production of Angels in America. The entire event was a truly wonderful experience, and I’m grateful for our department for allowing this opportunity to occur. It was very cool to meet with the actors in between shows. I remember Prior mentioning how important is it to “forget” the lines and listen more, creating a more realistic and better scene. I appreciated his honesty in mentioning that it is certainly a risk, but one worth taking. I think this advice will be tremendously important in the Rob Debree vs. Aaron McKinney scene. It still blows my mind how many lines these performers had to memorize, especially if working under this philosophy- I have a tremendous admiration for their stamina.
Another thing that I gleaned from the production is how important and yet how subtle character shifts can be. The woman who played Hannah Pitt was extraordinarily convincing in all of her numerous roles. While costumes, props, and make-up play a big part in these transformations, she made subtle tweaks in her physicality and voice that did most of the work. I remember her saying in the talk back a very simple piece of advice: “I know where the doctor holds his head”. One of the biggest challenges for me in Laramie has been developing physical and vocal differences between my three major characters, all of whom are middle-aged white men in positions of power. I hope that in the next month, I will be able to reflect back on this performance and the advice that I’ve been given in order to uniquely distinguish these characters.
This week’s bit of Brecht comes from a poem titled “Speech to Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation” written between 1934 and 1936 around the time of the writer’s exile to Denmark in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. (Brecht’s German citizenship was revoked in 1935.) I believe this piece could be classified as something in the vein of Brecht’s “Lehrstuck” or “learning plays,” which are imagined, and conducted, as quite literally political theater. Audiences are encouraged to engage the stories directly, suggesting actions or commenting upon events (like a Greek chorus), even asked to prepare their “roles” before a production as co-actors, co-producers of the “on-stage” scenes. Augusto Boal‘s forum theater would be considered as another step in the evolution of this kind of theater.
In their introduction to Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956 John Willett and Robert Manheim note that Brecht’s exile poetry was based on “politically-grounded private experience” (xviii) with a strict adherence to dealing with “precise tangible facts” (xx).
Such a use of the imagination to explain and expand bald reality is one of Brecht’s genuinely scientific gifts. (xxi)
I thought this assessment to be particularly apt considering the documentary theater form and the particular paradoxical mixing of imagination and reality evident in Laramie. Because Brecht sees himself as educating worker/actors (even if it is education with a liberatory purpose), this piece smacks a bit of paternalism and is threaded through with Brecht’s Marxist idealism. That said, I think his description of observation is a fruitful and his image of the actor as a worker is one that I hold as valuable even if he’s addressing a very different kind of worker-actor in 1930s Denmark.
This poem is 7 pages long. I’m beginning about 1/3 of the way in and will make cuts (referenced by the [...] markings) intermittently. If anyone wants the full text, just let me know.
Must master the art of observation
Before all other arts.
For what matters is not how you look but
What you have seen and can show us. What’s worth knowing
Is what you know.
People will observe you to see
How well you have observed.
The man who only observes himself however never gains
Knowledge of men. He is too anxious
To hide himself from himself. And nobody is
Cleverer than he himself is.
So your schooling must begin among
Living people. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the underground, the shops. You should
All the people there, strangers as if they were acquaintances,
Acquaintances as if they were strangers to you.
Nor should you forget the pictures on screen and newspaper
See how they walk and speak, those rules
Who hold the threads of your fate in their white and brutal
You should inspect such people exactly. And now
Imagine all that is going on around you, all those struggles
Picturing them just like historical incidents
For this is how you should go on to portray them on the
The fight for a job, sweet and bitter conversations
Between the man and his woman, arguments about books
Resignation and revolt, attempt and failure
All these you will go on to portray as historical incidents.
In order to observe
One much learn how to compare. In order to compare
One must have observed. By means of observation
Knowledge is generated; on the other hand knowledge is
For observation. And
He observes badly who does not know
How to use what he has observed. The fruitgrower
Inspects the appletree with a keener eye than does the walker
But no one can see man exactly unless he knows it is
Man who is the fate of man.
The art of observation
Applied to man is but a branch of the
Art of dealing with men. Your task, actors, is to be
Explorers and teachers of the art of dealing with people.
Knowing their nature and demonstrating it you teach them
To deal with themselves. You teach them the great art
Of living together.
Many of you are studying the laws of men’s life together,
Your class is determined to master its problems and thereby
The problems of
All mankind. And that is where you
The workers’ actors, as you learn and teach
Can play your part creatively in all the struggles
Of men of your time, thereby
Helping, with the seriousness of study and the cheerfulness
To turn the struggle into common experience and
Justice into a passion.
Act One: Rehearsal
Uncomfortable. That’s the best word to describe my individual rehearsal. I had done my homework. I had looked up info on my characters and studied their words and I felt ready. Then, I went into the room.
It probably was a perfectly normal rehearsal. I performed my monologue; Jeff gave me tips. Simple, right?
It wasn’t. It was incredibly and surprisingly vulnerable. I had forgotten how hard it can be to have people I don’t know very well watch and critique me.
“Don’t memorize and give the result,” Jeff said. “That’s not interesting.”
The process is interesting. Discovering what the words mean, how to perform them. The play is a moving, breathing, living thing. The process is open and expansive. It is also vulnerable, difficult and uncomfortable.
I haven’t acted that much in the past. Most of my creative work has been writing. Writing is great because it offers multiple opportunities to hide the process. I can write rubbish, delete it, replace it with brilliance and no-one knows that rubbish ever preceded the brilliance.
The process is interesting but it’s messy. I don’t like people watching me in the midst of my messiness. I like to be able to clean it all up before anyone sees it. This will not be possible while preparing for Laramie.
Hemingway said that the first draft of everything is shit. He was right. It’s just nice that in writing, I can delete my first, second and third draft. In acting, I’m performing them for my director and my cast to see. I predict many more uncomfortable moments in the future and I hope that I will grow to appreciate them and the messy process as sites of learning.
Act Two: Explosion
The Laramie Project is a play, a book, a rectangular object stuffed with 112 pages, 60+ characters and a pretty picture of a blue sky on the cover. That’s all it is. We have to make it more than that. We have to, as one of Laramie’s original dramaturges, Maude Mitchell, told us: “explode it!”
Explode Laramie out of its pages and onto the stage – that is our task. Explode it for an audience that will probably only know Laramie as a town defined by Matthew Shepard’s murder. Jedadiah Schultz says in the play, “Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime…We’re a noun, a definition, a sign” (Laramie 9). And now, Laramie is a town defined by a play. How do we work against that definition to produce something nuanced and real? How do we do that, when, as Maude helped us see, the play doesn’t always explode Laramie, but sometimes limits it? Maude made me think about that – how the issue of class is hardly discussed, how the culture of violence (especially towards women) contributed to the event, how much of what Laramie tells us is smaller than the actual place.
I think about this a lot when I write – how to put a place or a person on a page. Maude’s comment about feeling as though, after interviewing all these people, she “didn’t really return them their stories” really resonated with me. She “felt like some weird, voyeur spy” while interviewing people. I’ve felt this often: can I really claim ownership over this story?
The new challenge that Laramie brings to me is how to claim ownership over my characters onstage, when I only know them through their limited representations on a page.
Can we attempt to return to Laramie some of the “personality” Jedadiah says has been lost in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder? Can we explode the play?
Moises Kaufman (who, thanks to Maude, we now know has a cool Venezuelan accent) used a Walt Whitman quote from Leaves of Grass in the Introduction to Laramie, so I thought it’d be fitting to add another from Whitman that also feels relevant to the play.
The quote Moises used:
“After all, not to create only, or found only,
But to bring, perhaps from afar, what is already founded,
To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free.”
“You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, not look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, not take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.”
Today’s bite is a poem that I think captures the way Jeff has been encouraging you all, in these past 2 weeks of individual meetings, to both doubt what’s on the page and what the character is saying and to be active in your choices every moment. It also touches on our continuing discussions as a company about how to manage or account for all the things we now know about the events at the center of the play as well as consider the resonances these details have here and now.
Portrayal of Past and Present in One**
Whatever you portray you should always portray
As if it were happening now. Engrossed
The silent crowd sits in the darkness, lured
Away from its routine affairs. Now
The fisherman’s wife is being brought her son whom
The generals have killed. Even what has happened
In her room is wiped out. What is happening here is
Happening now and just the once. To act in this way
Is habitual with you, and now I am advising you
To ally this habit with yet another: that is, your acting
At the same time express the fact that this instant
On your stage is often repeated; only yesterday
You were acting it, and tomorrow too
Given spectators, there will be a further performance.
Nor should you let the Now blot out the
Previously and Afterwards, nor for that matter whatever
Is even now happening outside the theatre and is similar in
Nor even things that have nothing to do with it all – none of
Should you allow to be entirely forgotten.
So you should simply make the instant
Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from. Give your acting
That progression of one-thing-after-another, that attitude of
Working up what you have taken on. In this way
You will show the flow of events and also the course
Of your work, permitting the spectator
To experience this Now on many levels, coming from
Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now
Alongside it. He is sitting not only
In your theatre but also
In the world.
**John Willett, translator. Attributed to poems Brecht wrote between 1947-1953. I’ve added a couple of sets of bold typeface because I think these are ideas particularly important as you all continue work on constructing your characters.
In the wake of what I think was an eye-opening session with Maude Mitchell this week, I wanted to start this post with a quote that seemed to sum-up my feelings about our conversation and what to do with this immense bank of knowledge about the events chronicled in Laramie, the text’s creation process, and its legacy that we’ve built over the past five weeks.
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
–Francis Bacon from The Advancement of Learning (1605) Book 1, Chapter 5.
Bacon might seem an obscure choice, but I think his quote resonates with the question that Jacob posed and Maude so expertly rephrased — How do you play a character you doubt?
This is a question that has hung heavy in the air in the rehearsal room this week. I think many of you heard Jeff encourage you to make doubt an active force, a provocation for you to make choices/have opinions about your characters. It will be those choices, those opinions that will move (emotionally and rhythmically) the play forward. It may not be the final certainty about Laramie that we offer our audience, but it will be our certainty.
As a way to honor the generosity of her time with us, it seemed appropriate to cast some of the information Maude gave as questions we might consider as we move forward with the production. If you all recall other ideas that might provoke productive questions, please send them along in the comments sections.
- What kind of useful connections might be made between other acts of deadly violence (and their tacit approval or facilitation) that happened in Wyoming during the months/year before Matthew’s death and the specific attitudes about gay men and lesbians held by the Laramie citizens?
- Does a widening of the lens to include knowledge of other deaths, other crimes motivated by misogyny and racism, dilute the specificity of how homophobia circulates through the community?
- Is there a way to acknowledge the class and drug culture details without reinforcing the 20/20 narrative that uses those features to excuse or mitigate violence rather than contextualize it?
- What kind of “moment work” — described by Maude as pulling out of research and into rehearsal those details about characters, circumstances, history to unlock options for staging — might be useful for a 2011 Duke Laramie?
- How can we make sure that the reading/testimony quality of the piece doesn’t bog down the performer or performance?
- We’re already tackling this question by considering that the monologues are answers to questions that we don’t hear asked (at least not on stage).
- There’s also been Jeff’s insistence during this week’s individual meetings that you use your “doubt” about what’s on the page, what’s being presented to you as the testimony/interview of your character as a way to inspire active choices for speaking, for telling your story even as it may be a story that is tempered with half-truths, agendas, and missing details.
- Are there ways to make the interview process (and all its attendant ethical concerns and features) more transparent?
- With the givens of the script, this question might be moot; however, it is an issue that those of you drawn to documentary form want to consider for future projects.
- With the idea of future documentary projects in mind, what kind of training might interested actors need as they solicit, record, and ethically construct documentary material?
- How do we deal with what is not said … by Tectonic participants, interviewees, the public record?
- In what ways can we continue to advocate for these characters and honor (even as we may doubt) their stories?
Due to rehearsals I have been missing one of my favorite primetime shows, Community (Thursday nights, 8pm on NBC). In catching up with past episodes, I found this one that premiered Feb. 17, 2011, which skewers documentary format media in telling and funny ways. Certainly, there are all kinds of complexities of documentary form that the show glosses over, and I think healthy skepticism should be placed onto a television network comedy that critiques other media for their constructed nature (though what I love about Community is that it emulates a number of different television narratives in (mostly) smart and respectful ways). All that being said, I thought you all might like a little break from the rather heady discussions we’ve been having about truth, doubt, and reality and enjoy what I hope are some hearty laughs of recognition that might accompany your viewing of this episode. FYI, you’ll have to watch some commercials throughout since the episode is linked from Hulu and the link might not last for more than the next couple of weeks (if someone notices that it’s become a broken link, would you please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org)
I mentioned in our last official class”meeting that I would be posting some poems and material from Brecht for the next few days to correspond to rehearsal meetings that are one-on-one with individual actors as they develop their “roll call” of characters. I think these snippets or “bites” (I just had to make it a “y” spelling since this is all coming to you digitally) offer a window onto the kind of theatrical world Brecht envisioned and which we might consider creating in our production of Laramie. This is a theatrical world where “realism” means something distinct from any kind of photographic reproduction of reality (scenographically or emotionally). Instead, Brecht advocated making a “true realism …one [which] make[s] reality recognizable in theatre … [by offering the audience a way] to see through reality.” In order for an audience to experience this “true realism” the production must make it possible for spectators “to see the laws that decide how the processes of life develop. These laws can’t be spotted by the camera. Nor can they be spotted if the audience only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved” (Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, 1964, pg. 27).
I love that phrase “only borrows its heart from one of the characters involved.” I think Laramie poses particular challenges for us to make sure all “hearts” are equal, are allowed to affect the “reality” the play presents/deconstructs. I think our conversation with the amazing Maude Mitchell, last night, made those challenges all the more apparent and real.
So, byte #1 (or 2 if you consider my quote above to be our starting point) is the poem that Jeff’s been referencing in class for the past couple of weeks. It was written about Helene Weigel’s performance in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The play premiered in 1941 in Zurich (the mid-point of WWII). The poem does not contain the phrase “workman-like props” but I think such a sentiment is reflected in the title and the theme of the piece. I’m also including an image of Weigel as Mother Courage to give you a sense of the preparation Brecht describes.
Just as the millet farmer picks out for his trial plot
The heaviest seeds and the poet
The exact words for his verse so
She selects the objects to accompany
Her characters across the stage. The pewter spoon
Which Courage sticks
In the lapel of her Mongolian jacket, the party card
For warm-hearted Vlassova and the fishing net
For the other, Spanish mother or the bronze bowl
For dust-gathering Antigone. Impossible to confuse
The split bag which the working woman carries
For her son’s leaflets, with the moneybag
Of the keen tradeswoman. Each item
In her stock is hand picked: straps and belts
Pewter boxes and ammunition pouches; hand picked too
The children and the stick which at the end
The old woman twists through the draw-rope
The Basque woman’s board on which she bakes her bread
And the Greek woman’s board of shame, strapped to her back
With holes for her hands to stick through, the Russian’s
Jar of lard, so small in the policeman’s hand; all
Selected for age, function and beauty
By the eyes of the knowing
The hands of the bread-baking, net weaving
**Translated by the late Brecht scholar John Willett, this poem appears in his edited volume Bertolt Brecth Poems: 1913-1956 (1979). I’ve not found a specific year for the original text; Willett attributes it to poems written by Brecht between 1947-1953.
And just to incite your interest further in reading and seeing (if you’ve not already) Mother Courage, here are two clips of recent productions. The first is from a 2006 production at The Public Theater starring Meryl Streep as Mother Courage and the second from a 2010 production at Britain’s National Theater starring Fiona Shaw and directed by the amazing Deborah Warner. Interesting to note, both productions used the Tony Kushner translation of the Brecht text. Different musical styles for the songs/soundtrack, but the same translator.
“When we are touched by pain, we develop compassion and connect with others. When we stay comfortable and keep suffering at a distance, it is easy to become complacent, apathetic and disinterested.”
~Greg Pierotti, member of The Laramie Project writing team
This quote has stuck with me since reading it in the audience guide for The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. An Epilogue. I find that as humans, we try to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable; instead of tackling the root of the problem, we pick at the leaves—focusing on surface issues to blame. And who can blame us? It’s a hell of a lot easier to shield ourselves of the blame, turning the attention to something external—someone or something we can point and wag our fingers at. I especially have a hard time with this. I have had to work hard to really internalize the results of my actions and analyze where it all stems from. I—an outsider looking in with only the play, a few other course readings, and some of the videos we watched in class—think that Laramie residents and our society as a whole must also dig beneath the surface into the gritty soil to look at the root of the problem. We can blame Matthew Shepard’s death on external factors, things out of our control—drugs, his behavior, or on two bad eggs. When it comes down to it, this community, this nation, our society produced these two boys and breeds hatred for many groups of people. Typically, people don’t express their hatred or discontent in such drastic manners, which is why no one says anything. In this country, you can call someone a “fag” and barely receive any repercussions if any at all. This is what shocked and sickened me the most about Fred Phelps’s remarks and actions. I have no problem with people who disagree with homosexuality—those are your own views and you are entitled to them. However, people like him legitimately HATE others, and these are the people that breed the Aaron McKinneys, your neighbor that yells “fag,” the school children who harass their classmates. Instead of spreading hate it times like these, we should be “touched by pain…develop compassion and connect with others.” You don’t have to agree, but find empathy as a fellow human being. Be there in a time of need. I hope that through this process, we all learn to do this with the person that we “hate” or with a group that we don’t agree with…even the Aaron McKinneys, your relative that calls someone a “fag,” or a student who harasses someone on campus. Hopefully with this production, we can reach those people, but we must remember that we all can learn something from this show and in reflecting on our own behaviors.
I love making theater. The process guarantees that no matter how many times I’ve read, heard, or watched a play I will always be struck by a character, a scene, or a single line in a wholly new way. It’s a feeling similar to what Naomi expressed Tuesday night — even though she’s been a performer in a previous production of Laramie, this time she’s noticing different things, wanting to emphasize different ideas to the audience of this production of that same play.
Tuesday, watching the clips from our various media sources I was struck by a line that appears very early in the 95 minute movie version of Laramie that Kaufman made for HBO. (FYI, the play’s running time clocks in at about 2 hours and 30 minutes; in that time difference between play and film we can see the power of editing, condensing, rearranging a “true” story.) The line that stopped me in my tracks appears in the film’s opening “chapter,” which draws most of its material from Moments #1-12 of the play script. It is uttered by the Baptist Minister, played by Michael Emerson, who is best known to devotees of LOST as the duplicitous Ben Linus. Before that series, though, he made a particular name for himself playing Oscar Wilde in what I would argue is Moises Kaufman’s first “moment” organized play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1996).
The minister stands before his congregation, a similar performance as suggested by the script, and extols what he knows to be true because the Bible tells him so. Scientific experts say the earth 5-6 billion years old. The Bible says it is 6 thousand years old. What to believe? His response: The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Now I’m working outside my theological comfort zone, so you’ll have to bear with me. I think the minister might assert that it should be spelled Word, as not just any “word” but the Word, from God’s lips. I remember with piercing clarity a reading from the book of John that I read for my college’s Christmas candlelight services. I was given this passage particularly because as an actor I knew where to put the emphasis so that the complex idea might be better understood. I’ll only quote a part of it, here, for brevity’s sake:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
I stray into the Bible because I think belief in the word motivates those who make theater in a similar way that it motivates devoutly religious people. The biggest difference is the word’s origin. For the congregants of the minister’s church it is God’s Word, for the members of Tectonic it is Laramie’s word(s), stories of/from a multi-faceted community. The idea of taking issue with God’s Word would be unfathomable for the minister’s flock. There is only one way to see, one path to follow. For Tectonic, collecting and presenting many (contradictory?) voices offers the audience multiple perspectives, many paths to follow. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
Within the context of an evangelical religious community, that phrase asserts there is no word save God’s Word (conveyed through the Bible). Within the context of a theater making community like Tectonic, the words that are important are those spoken by everyday individuals. In that context, the phrase is actually a provocation. Tectonic’s mission, articulated by Moises Kaufman, is to explore “times when the ideas, beliefs, and ideologies that are the pillars of a certain culture at a certain time … surface around a specific event [because] when that happens the event itself operates as a lightening rod that allows us to see clearly, for a brief time, what ideas that society is made of.” For Tectonic, ideas, beliefs and ideologies emerge in conversation, our words illuminate the very structures upon which our communities are built. It is only by collecting, organizing, performing those words do we begin to see where the ideas are rooted and, possibly, how they might be changed. The word is either sufficient or it is not. Laramie presents citizens’ in conversation with each other and with outsiders, trying to come to grips with what has happened. It also argues (subtly) that the intervention of the theater company in this event/moment as a positive catalyst for change if not within Laramie proper, then certainly within the communities that stage the play and recognize themselves in the stories told.
I have mentioned in another post about how differently Laramie treats the courtroom as compared to Execution of Justice. In Execution, because the jury verdict was so disproportionate to the crime and the mitigation (the “Twinkie defense”) seemed a blatant smokescreen to avoid the larger conversation about the role homophobia played in the crime, the play argues that the legal ruling flies in the face of our commonly held notions of justice. The play’s trial of the trial cannot change the legal outcome of the case; however, it provides a space in which grievances can be addressed and asks that its audience scrutinize any further trials to make sure justice is served inside the courtroom the next time. The word is either sufficient or it is not. If it isn’t, as in the Dan White trial, then we find other words that are sufficient.
In Laramie the courtroom verdict seems appropriate. While the media coverage talks about the case as a “hate crime,” it is important to remember that it was the federal kidnapping charge that prompted prosecutors to seek the death penalty. There was no state or federal hate crime statute at the time that would have produced a capital charge. Even now, Wyoming does not have a state hate crimes law; the federal law (named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. both who died within 4 months of each other in crimes motivated by bias) was not passed and signed into law until October 28, 2009. Nevertheless, for Tectonic, the courtroom produces a verdict that answers (for whatever legal reason) the nature of the crime and it is Dennis Shepard who is given the space to pronounce mercy on the convicted killers of his son.
What we can see from the 20/20 episode is the flip side of Laramie‘s engagement with the Matthew Shepard case. It’s a question that motivates the Ten Years After epilogue to Laramie: has the play unfairly represented not only the events but the people of the town it chronicles? In Act 1 of Laramie, Jedadiah says that Laramie has become a place defined by a crime, like “Waco. Or Jasper.” (Jasper, TX is where James Byrd Jr. was killed.) In Ten Years Later we hear citizens complain that Laramie is now a place defined by a play, The Laramie Project. The desire to introduce another perspective on the “story” pulses through the 20/20 episode, fully facilitated by informants like Cal Rerucha, Kristin Davis, Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson. Ironically, whereas Tectonic originally cast itself as an outside force that could, along with the citizens, examine the community that produced the events of October 6/7, 1998 in positive ways it is now presented as promoting a monolithic voice of that same community, one that overrides the “real” voices of dissent. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
In their 20/20 interviews, Russell and Aaron offer themselves as victims acting under (bad) advice of legal counsel, which forced them to present the circumstances of the crime as tainted by homophobia when that was not true. Their punishments, cast in this light, are presented as overly harsh and other witnesses seem to have been denied their chance to speak, to tell about other circumstances which might have changed the outcome of the case. In this scenario, Laramie appears the dominant narrative against which other victims of the crime must work in order to be heard.
So we’re back to the paradox of documentary performance: how can a company challenge the dominant narrative surrounding an event without reasserting that its version of the truth is now unassailable? While Peter Weiss argues that politically active documentary theater has no obligation to tell the side of a story that represents the status quo, the conflict over The Laramie Project‘s version of the story, one that supports such a status quo force as a trial with a “right” verdict, illustrates the fine line between challenge and conformity.
It is difficult in the case of Laramie, a town in a state where there is still no hate crime legislation, in a country where individual states have passed discriminatory constitutional amendments that deny LGBTQ citizens equal rights (here is a link to one in the works for North Carolina described by its promoters) and a federal government whose own legislation (the Defense of Marriage Act) supports this discrimination. While it is impossible to discount the desire to see greater nuances in this case, there is still a dominant narrative about silence, fear, homophobia and violence that must be challenged. In Laramie. At Duke. In the US. Even if we see our historical time as one where there is some movement towards safety and equality for LGBTQ citizens, The Laramie Project is still one of the most successful set of stories to provoke self-reflection, social action, and greater tolerance if not actual acceptance. The word is either sufficient or it is not.
So what’s to be done? And I’m really interested in hearing ideas here because I’ve been struggling with this conundrum for the past 10+ years of studying, making, and writing about documentary media and performance. One idea I’ve advocated is to make multiple documentary pieces about the same event instead of just one. In my documentary courses, students explore one event chronicled by a documentary play and by a documentary film to notice the power of perspective and the divergence (and convergence) of source material as well as the distinction of medium that influences the way a story is told. Another idea would be for documentary companies/filmmakers to revisit the site(s) of previous work with a fresh group of collaborators and a willingness to make a wholly new piece of theater that can challenge, in productive ways, new, dissenting voices that now make up a community. I’m not sure Ten Years Later does this although it seems motivated by such an impulse. Other suggestions? Does our particular awareness about the paradox at the heart of documentary theater change or influence the choices we make as we rehearse this play?
In preparation for the production, we’re meeting for two and a half hours each week to discuss all of Jules’s findings. She’s put so much quality work into this project. If the script weren’t enough (which it is) the labor, the passion, the creativity and the funding that have gone into this definitely impress upon me how important this play is to so many people. These weekly meetings are not enough to delve deeply into this. We’ve only had a few classes so far, so I know there’s much more to do and discuss. But I’m so excited to get to work on this! This type of theater and this subject material present a challenge. The Laramie Project has been done before, plenty of times, so how we’ll present it anew intrigues me. I think it can be done. I just hope we can reach enough people with it. It means so much to me that we reach people with this. They need to hear what Laramie has to say, and they need to hear what Laramie has to say. And they need to hear what our Laramie has to say.
I’ve witnessed and experienced hate before. Homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, classist and ableist hate have been a part of my entire life. Society has provided them for me my entire life. They were never really taught to me by people I respected, and if they were I don’t respect them now. So it’s safe to say I don’t retain any of those hateful lessons I may have been taught. Still, as reassuring as it may be to know that I don’t harbor those feelings, I cannot forget that there are others who do. Laramie/Laramie has reminded me of this. I was talking to a friend recently about how difficult it is to understand thoughts and opinions different from one’s own. I used the example of food. “It is actually difficult for me to understand how someone can dislike the taste of a cheeseburger! I have to really step outside of myself to understand that.” Think about it. Can you yield your own mindset well enough to take on another? Possibly one with which you disagree? It’s tough. I commented on one of Jules’s posts with a quote from the feature she embedded from ABC Nightly News with Charlie Gibson. They interviewed a man who said, “If you’ve ever called anyone a fag or a dyke…it’s in you – whatever killed Matthew.” That’s stayed with me. How can that be in other people? There’s a killing spirit in people I have met before because they feel the same way Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson did (…do?). Those are the people we have to reach. They’re the ones this production wants. At least for me.
This week we turn our attention to a slightly different chronology of texts relevant to The Laramie Project: those offered by the mass media and film.
We will begin with the Matthew Shepard footage (1996) from Tim Kirkland’s Dear Jesse (1998) documentary that I embedded in a previous post.
Then we’ll move to an October 12, 1998 edition of ABC Nightly News with Charlie Gibson anchoring the report about Matthew Shepard’s death. ABC News is the only one of the big-four networks to still have publicly accessible footage of its original reporting on the Shepard case. FYI, you have to sit through a 30-second commercial before the full clip is shown.
After ABC News, we’ll see more footage from 1998, this time captured by the camera of documentary filmmaker Beverly Seckinger and her film Laramie: Inside Out. While the film was not released until 2004, I believe its chronologically accurate to place it nearer to the event itself since the footage was collected during a similar block of time in 1998 and 1999.
Clips from the 2002 Moises Kaufman adapted and directed The Laramie Project HBO movie is next on our list of screenings. I’ve focused my selections on moments that allow us to see another versions of the Laramie physical landscape, a slightly different kind of media cacophony (revised because Kaufman is now working within a filmic vs. theatrical medium), and characters that we have/will see in “real life”. The following is a rather grainy trailer one can find on YouTube that gives a sense of the HBO film:
From Kaufman’s filmic retelling to what Kaufman describes as revisionist history, we’ll watch most of the 2004 ABC News “documentary” produced for their 20/20 program, “The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets from a Murder.” Host Elizabeth Vargas offers evidence “uncovered by an ABC News investigation,” evidence conveniently corroborated on camera by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men convicted of consecutive life sentences for Shepard’s murder. The convicted killers and some new (and old) informants from Laramie assert that the crime was the result of their participation in the town’s pervasive but heretofore unspoken methamphetamine “drug culture.” While Vargas is careful not to denigrate the profound and positive impact stories about Shepard’s death, particularly The Laramie Project, have had on dialogue regarding homophobia and hate crimes in the US, she insists that ABC’s “new information” about Shepard’s possible drug use, depression over his HIV+ status, and the rumored bisexuality of one of his killers, should be included in the narrative as it adds “fact” to the “legend” of what happened that night in October 1998.
The final program on the evening’s slate will be a segment from the June 2005 “Setting the Record Straight” episode of the LGBT program In The Life, which debunks the claims of 20/20. From this re-revision of the case, we’ll jump into discussing the 49-page audience guide for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Company’s own return to Laramie and the company’s stake in confirming and reasserting that they actually did follow Father Roger’s admonition to “say it correct.”
For this post, I thought I’d leave you with a chance to see their trailer for the Ten Years Later script. It features new video footage from interviews with Jedadiah Schultz, Dave O’Malley, Rebecca Hilliker, and Reggie Fluty.
This past Tuesday, three groups of students made class presentations on the three “supporting” plays we are reading in preparation for The Laramie Project. The plays — Our Town (1938), Execution of Justice (1986), Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991) — represent a through-line of performance form and content that have direct connections to The Laramie Project. Students were asked to offer a short performance history and to tell the “story” of the play as well as trace its connection to Laramie in a way that reflected the storytelling approach of their scripts. We also asked them to read two supporting pieces of text: Brecht’s “Street Scene” (1938/1940) and Oskar Eustis’ introduction to Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, written to accompany the play’s inclusion in the Political Stages anthology (2002).
Groups moved through their presentations in chronological fashion. Each of the Our Town students “narrated” their presentation a la the play’s Stage Manager. They described Wilder’s development of the text, the inspiration for Grover’s Corners emerging from time he spent in Peterborough, NH as an artist working at The MacDowell Colony. They talked about his Switzerland trysts with writer/academic Samuel Steward (who eulogized Wilder in a May 1980 issue of The Advocate) around the time he was composing the play and the writer’s block that was swept away when Wilder completed the whole of Act III in one night.
Their condensed version of play’s story highlighted Wilder’s decision to reveal the theatrical frame that surrounds the play both through the character of the Stage Manager and the removal of “realistic” representations of the town’s settings (home, business, cemetery). Both plays display and deconstruct our notions regarding American small towns, but in Our Town there is greater emphasis on the town’s daily routine, the life-span of its families (youth-marriage-death), and the domestic world versus the attention the land/landscape receives in Laramie. Each play deals with a trauma, the death of a central character, but Laramie focuses on the response of the living to this death. Our Town turns its eye to the dead, their inexorable abandonment of earthly concerns, with a final admonishment to the living to savor the world around them before it is too late.
As we noted in our discussion after the presentations, it is interesting to see Wilder’s use of devices (narration, breaking the 4th wall, representational vs. naturalistic setting, juxtaposition) mentioned or alluded to in Brecht’s “Street Scene,” written around the same historical time. Our director, Jeff Storer, also mentioned the radically different choices made by director David Cromer for a 2009 production of the play at the Barrow Street Theater. While Wilder’s choice to pantomime and suggest settings was a departure from the theater of his time, these conventions have actually become staid and dated in contemporary performances. Cromer shook up tradition by having his company play their scenes in and around the audience (doing away from the rather typical proscenium divide of stage and seating) and by staging the scene the dead Emily wishes to relive in Act III in painstaking, naturalistic detail. The kitchen was a precise replica and the audience was engulfed in multi-sensory experiences as audience members see, hear, and smell Mrs. Webb making breakfast for the family and Emily tries desperately to regain the feeling of being there only to realize that the dead can never go home again. Cromer’s choice brought us face-to-face with a question that we will debate, experiment with, and struggle over throughout this rehearsal process: how do we make the familiar strange in a new and productive way?
“All Rise!” The Execution of Justice team staged a trial, charging that Emily Mann’s script had “unduly” influenced Laramie in both content and form. The majority of the “witnesses” reenacted scenes/moments from Mann’s script, particularly the dueling visions of Dan White presented by his defense attorney, Schmidt, and Norton, the San Fransisco District Attorney.
In the class presentation, as in the Execution script, things boiled down to “closing arguments.” On one side, students argued that Execution‘s greatest influence on Laramie was in the area of content/subject matter. Like Laramie, the crime at the center of Execution‘s plot was very fresh when the play was being written. The facts of both crimes in both plays are not in question. It’s not what happened on that fateful day in November 1978 that is up for debate, it is the why, the motivation, the mitigation offered for Dan White’s actions and the injustice of the verdict that comprise the bulk of trial. Both play’s have absent but central victims and though both plays are about communities in mourning the immediate families of the victims are largely removed from that mourning process. Both play’s construct a collective protagonist — the city of San Fransisco, the town of Laramie — and offer a platform for citizens to tell their version of events and, in the case of Execution, to examine how such a “clear cut” case of murder could return a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Execution puts the trial on trial. It helps us see how one might admit guilt and be found not guilty. In this way it diverges from Laramie because in that play, although homophobia (in the form of a “gay panic” defense) is present, the guilty parties receive “appropriate” punishment for their crime, saved only by the compassion of the victim’s family.
Students argued Execution also exerts notable formal influences on Laramie. Both texts dramatize the influence of outside “media” (exempting the theater itself, of course) on the course and presentation of events. The idea of trying a case in the press versus what evidence is allowed in court provides a significant strand of argument in Execution‘s Act II. Both plays present split-scenes and cross-cut dialogue among characters to juxtapose ideas. They also use an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles to frustrate any clear connection between performer and character. And both texts feature the staging of a trial, throwing the notion of “truth,” “reality,” and “perspective” on events into sharp relief, allowing both to comment upon the theatricality of our legal system as well as the very difficulty (impossibility) of ever knowing the truth of a case even as that case is officially adjudicated and a verdict rendered. To throw Carol Martin’s observation about “true” and “real” back into the mix here, it is interesting to note in Execution Mann is much more skeptical of American jurisprudence than Kaufman and the Tectonic company members. So while one play criticizes the “theater” of a jury trial, the other seems to find little problem with said theatricality, especially when it renders an “appropriate” verdict.
The group working with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches had perhaps the most specific textual connection with Laramie. Angels is Laramie‘s theatrical touchstone. The play is referenced directly within the first 10 pages of the Laramie script as Jedidiah Schultz describes his parents’ refusal to watch him present a scene from Angels in a scholarship competition because he would be playing a gay man. Even reviewers mention Laramie and Angels in the same breath as both examine of gay life in America at the end of the millennium. Angels also provides Laramie a way to discuss AIDS in a profoundly different context in 1998 compared to the mid-1980s when Angel‘s action is set. The audience for Laramie learns about Matthew Shepard’s HIV+ status indirectly, through Reggie Fluty’s preventative treatment for possible infection after being exposed to his blood as she cut him down from the fence. And while Reggie describes the physical pain that comes with the AIDS drug regime, she ultimately proves to be HIV-. There is no discussion of how Shepard might have contracted HIV, nor is his sexual life explored in any detail, a key point of divergence between Laramie and Angels, which has been censored frequently because of its explicit depiction of sexual activity and the physical ravages of AIDS.
The students presenters also mentioned that, like Moises Kaufman’s HBO film of the play, some high school productions have included the final scene from Part Two: Perestroika at the end of Laramie to reflect the fact that the University of Wyoming produced the two-part epic in the year following Matthew Shepard’s death. (An additional serendipity to note, in Kaufman’s film of Laramie he adds a scene with Rebecca Hilliker holding a dress/tech for a production of Our Town. We see her setting cues for the funeral scene, a scene that Tectonic visually cited in their original production of Laramie.)
This quartet of presenters sat at the four corners of a slightly off-center and asymmetrical square and intertwined the required elements of their research in ways that reflected the split scenes and juxtaposed dialogue dominant in Part One. They narrated character details in third person, in a move that both harkened back to Our Town and gave a sense of disorientation that marks Prior and Harper’s shared hallucinations. And they pointed out the distinction Kushner makes between including historical figures within his play (e.g. Roy Cohn) and heightening and imagining their private lives for dramatic purposes. Laramie presents the citizens of the western town with greater presumed felicity even as it explodes realistic conventions with choices such as narration, multi-role casting, representational vs. naturalistic staging, and a non-chronological plot ordered by thematic juxtaposition vs. strict cause-to-effect action.
What struck me as particularly profound, after listening to the three presentations were questions articulated in Chapter 3,”Ethics: The Story of the Other,” of Deirdre Heddon’s 2008 book Autobiography and Performance. In an extended discussion in the ethical issues surrounding the making and presentation of verbatim/documentary theater, Heddon cites Father Roger’s demand of the Tectonic company members:
And I will speak with you, I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct. (Laramie 101)
Such a simple request but given the variety of voices that make up “Laramie” and the contrasting opinions they present about life there and the specific events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death Heddon asks:
what would constitute saying it correctly or saying it right? To whom is one responsible or accountable? To the people interviewed? To the murdered Matthew Shepard? To his parents, who repeatedly throughout the play/in real life, make a plea to the media to respect their privacy? To the bare facts (as if these could be known)? To the past (as if this could be fixed)? To the people involved in the event? Must one behave with equal responsibility to all the people of this story, including the two young men who murdered Shepard? Or is the company responsible to a wider community — of gay men and lesbians? Or to the wider historical moment in the USA — in which case Laramie and its inhabitants might matter less than this greater objective? Is is possible to be responsible to all these different needs? (Heddon 136-7)
Add to these the fundamental dramaturgical concern of “Why are we doing this play now for this audience?” and the question of what it means to “saying it right … correct” as Father Roger demands widens exponentially. And, as we’ll see this week when we look at what more we know about Matthew Shepard, Laramie, the case and its representation/meaning in the 12 years since the event happened, there are no easy answers.
For tonight’s class meeting, students have been asked to read and discuss the intersections between three scripts and two pieces of theater theory/analysis alongside The Laramie Project. In advance, I’ve sketched out a chronology of these texts so we might identify an emerging historiography of documentary performance in relation to when (and by whom) these pieces were written/produced.
- Our Town (1938) by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975).
There are multiple connections between Our Town and Laramie, despite the obvious (though perhaps less widely known) link regarding the author’s homosexuality. The piece had a pre-Broadway performance at the McCarter Theatre in NJ (the theater where Emily Mann is now Artistic Director). It was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in that year making Wilder the only American to win that award for both fiction and drama. Wilder played the Stage Manager for two weeks during the Broadway run of the play. Both its 1998 and 2003 Broadway revivals won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play. In November 2009 the Barrow Street Theatre created quite a stir with its new “vision” of the play, directed by David Cromer (who also played the Stage Manager).
I offer two glimpses of the 1998 and 2003 productions from YouTube. The first starring Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager and the second starring Paul Newman in that same role.
- “Street Scene: A Basic Model for the Epic Theatre” (1938) by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).
In this rather early theater essay, Brecht begins to articulate the central conceits of Epic Theater performance versus the standard (at the time) “Dramatic Theatre” performance. He elaborates on these ideas in “A Short Organum for the Theatre” (1948). There are many subtlties and contradictions in Brecht’s writing, but there are some central contrasts he’s drawing between Dramatic and Epid performances, such as:
|cause to effect action, unalterability||each scene stands alone, possibility of change|
|identity as a fixed point, taken for granted||identity as a process, under interrogation|
|spectator projects herself into the on-stage action as an emotional participant||
spectator is as always aware of observer status, removed so as to be critical of what is being shown
A clip of Helene Weigel discussing epic theatre from the 1989 BBC documentary Brecht on Stage.
Oskar Eustis commissioned Execution in 1980 and directed its 1984 world premiere at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. (Here is a review — louisvillereviewofExecution of that production by William Kleb from Theatre 16.1 (1984): 55-61.) The show played at Berkeley Rep in 1985 before shifting to Broadway in 1986. Both productions starred Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) as the Cop and Wesley Snipes (Blade) as Sister Boom Boom. In 2004, Berkeley Rep also premiered a documentary play, The People’s Temple, about the Jonestown tragedy. The primary author on The People’s Temple was Leigh Fondakowski with help from Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh, all from the original Tectonic Theatre company/dramaturgy crew/cast. A teleplay was adapted from Mann’s script for a Showtime movie of the same name which premiered in 1999, starring Timothy Daly (Private Practice) as Dan White and Peter Coyote (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) as Harvey Milk.
- Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches (1991) by Tony Kushner.
Another new play commission that originated with Oskar Eustis. Millennium Approaches had a 1990 workshop production of Part One at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Its world premiere was in San Francisco in 1991 and it won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In May 1993 it moved to Broadway under the direction of then Public Theater Artistic Director, George Wolfe, with Part Two: Perestroika joining Part One in repertory performances by November of that year. Part One won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1993 and Part Two won that same award in 1994. In 2003, Kushner adapted both parts for an HBO movie directed by Mike Nichols starring Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, Emma Thompson as the Angel, and Jeffrey Wright reprising his Tony award winning turn as Belize. The movie won a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Best Miniseries.
Signature Theatre Company opened its 2010-2011 “Kushner” season with a repertory staging of both parts of the play. Kushner has been involved in the revival. The run has been extended until March 2011 and a 20th anniversary edition of both parts in one volume will be published by Theater Communications Group for shipping in April 2011. We will be attending Playmakers Repertory Company’s production of both parts of Angels on February 26, 2011.
- The Laramie Project (2000) by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project.
Just quick reminders about Laramie‘s premiere: February 2000 at the Denver Theatre Center. It transferred to the Union Square Theatre NYC in May 2000 and finally played in Laramie in 2002 the same year that the Kaufman-adapted screenplay provided the basis for an HBO movie of the same name.
- Introduction to Execution of Justice by Oskar Eustis. Published in Political Stages: Plays that Shaped a Century. Mann and Roessel, Eds. (Applause, 2002).
I believe Eustis, who is now the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, wrote this introductory piece specifically for Political Stages; however, it is informed by his commission and experience with Execution from its premiere in Louisville and showings at Berkeley Rep and in San Francisco in the early-1980s.