After a long and VERY successful run of the show, I’ve had time to realize what I’ll miss most about running The Laramie Project. This experience for me has been unique. I’ve never had to sit through a full show in the dark, on a headset, listening to actors in one ear and to the stage manager in the other. It’s a strange feeling. In effect, one has to create a funneling system, where the cues come from the actors on stage, but the “GO” comes from the stage manager on the catwalk nearby. On the one hand, you want to listen to the actors and to get engrossed in the story, but on the other is Don telling me to “Stand-by light cues 4 through 15.” There were times when it felt as though Don, Alex, and I had developed a techie hive-mind. Before Don could even fully call “GO,” Alex and I would spring into action, and as soon as the lights came up the actors would activate on stage. One gets a strange feeling of omnipotence in the tech booth above the stage. At times it felt as though my button click was what prompted the actors into action.
The other aspect that’s unique to being in the tech booth is the ability to watch the audience without their knowledge. As the run progressed, Alex and I both stopped focusing on the actors, and turned our attention to the audience instead. Our favorites were moms. Moms, as well as dads, were the ones that really, truly took to heart the responsibility we imparted on them as audience members. They seemed to always be the ones most “actively” witnessing the events of the story. Watching their reactions each night was incredibly inspiring, but also heartbreaking at the same time. Just as the actors on stage were invoking the people that were connected to the crime, the audience members, without knowing it, were invoking all the people affected by the brutal beating. Seeing their reactions immediately brought to mind Judy and Dennis Shepard, Marge Murray, Phil Dubois, Cathy Connolly, Rulon Stacey and all the other parents of Laramie that had to reevaluate their relationships with their children in light of such a heinous crime. For me, the story of Laramie became even more apparent in the faces of the audience members than it did in the hands of the actors. The actors were doing their jobs by including the audience in the witnessing, which made my experience of Laramie that much richer–again, a funneling system.
The strongest reaction came from our friend Jackrabbit, who took the time to drive all the way to Durham to see our production. From her previous posts, it seems that the media cacophony scene usually strikes her the hardest, but during our show she seemed to handle it ok. The really intense moment for her came during the Fred Phelps scene. As the protestors filed in with their “God hates fags” signs, Jackrabbit looked like she had a physical gag reflex and had to turn away for the rest of the scene until the angels walked in. She tried to look, but every time she peeked, I could see her recoil in disgust with a gasp of nausea. It was at this moment, that I realized how incredibly complacent I had gotten about the scene. Having seen it 7 or so times in a row, it lost its power for me. But seeing Jackrabbit’s reaction immediately brought back to mind all the video clips we watched of Fred Phelps and the fact that I had the exact same reaction seeing it for the first time. Thanks to Jackrabbit, I got to experience that piece of theater in its full effect once again, reminding me that the rest of the play was just as new and shocking to most audience members. I am very thankful to Jackrabbit for reminding me that we, at all costs, cannot get complacent about the story this play represents. Even though having heard it again and again it might get trite to us, it really isn’t something that we can drop just yet. It’s something that effects us today and it’s something that we HAVE to keep telling and retelling to people that haven’t heard it. We have to funnel it out.
I tried to starting gathering my thoughts about a week ago. Yet somehow I still find myself unable to verbalize everything I want to say about what these last few months have meant to me. For a while that bugged me and I kept putting it off in the hope that I would somehow discover the right words to say that would inevitably move you, my dear reader, to what I would like to think would be tears of the genuine sort, that stemmed from my well-fashioned realizations. But that’s not what I’ve come here to say.
In all seriousness, I am someone who is terrible with goodbyes. Absolutely dreaded military life but when the day came to turn in my uniform, I found myself scheming about how I could keep them and somehow deceive the armed forces bureau into believing that the articles of clothing had somehow become victim to unprovoked theft. Playing Aaron Kreifels to becoming Aaron Kreifels. Watching an event to discovering every unfolding instance of it. Words cannot do justice to the maturation of this play and to my maturation as a person – and to some extent, as an actor.
This was the first real production I had ever been in and my god if this is what every theater production is like – then god have mercy because I know the stage won’t. Coming to college this was never a class or an activity that I would have ever have imagined involving myself in. This was a complete matter of chance and I don’t think I have been more fortunate in a long time.
You know, when the final performance ended and we walked on stage and there was a standing ovation, I remember thinking, Wow. Not because I was in awe of our success or the response we got but instead, I felt an incredible feeling of ecstatic relief. We had a story to tell. This was a story that had to be told. And it was. Wow. Now what?
Laramie was a noun, a definition a sign. As we were taking down the set (the first time I had ever done that), I remember thinking, man, this is just heartless. I was clinging onto something that was, in a matter of minutes, going to be no more. That was when it hit me – what we had done was not in the stage or in the costumes or even in the performance. It was in us. It is now in the people who came to watch. Ephemeral as the stage was, it served its purpose. Like all things in life, this too came to pass. I had to suck it up and realize that it was what it was. An incredible experience that I appreciated and will always carry with me.
So with the final props taken down and the set completely undone, we proceeded to take our leave. I knew that I would be seeing everyone again that Wednesday. Still, once I made sure no one was looking, I turned around surreptitiously, and in the distance I could see the sparkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming.
Thank you for everything.
I’m honestly not sure what to say in this final post before I bid farewell to Laramie. In a practical sense, my part of Laramie was over and done a while ago, and became final once I had packed everything back into the prop cabinet. The curtain closed. The set was struck. The end.
I suppose I could write a sappy entry about how meaningful the show was to me and how much I’ll miss everybody. And it’s true – I’m gonna miss you guys. I reappeared in kind of late in the game. By virtue of my role, I had something of a disconnect from the performance – working with props, especially building props, causes you to think of things in very utilitarian terms, like how can I make this cost-effectively and what should the size specifications be. I, let’s be honest, didn’t do much during the actual performances. Backstage crew wasn’t too busy a job for this show. And through it all, the cast still treated me like I was a member of the family. I hope you guys realize how much it means to crew to be included like that, and I hope you keep that in mind every time you perform. But I digress. I suppose I could write a tearjerker like that.
But no, you guys deserve better than that from me. You already know that the show was meaningful; it speaks for itself, you don’t need me to tell you that. You already know you touched people on a very deep level. You already know that some of you made me cry every night, even when I was tired and cranky. It speaks for itself, whether I speak for it or not.
So instead, I’m going to talk about funny things that happened during strike that you may or may not have witnessed, because most of them illustrate why you guys are awesome, on and off the stage. I love set strikes, because they bring the entire company together for one last hurrah, and I think they’re an integral part of owning the show. Sometimes they can be a drag, but there are always good memories that come with them. So, here goes:
- Afftene went to war with the canvas. I think we all had a good, hard catharsis when we pulled it up, but listening to Afftene yank on it was priceless.
- Cameron and Jenny broke apart the platform legs to the beat of “Sweet Caroline.” “Sweeeet Caroliiiiine…” *BANG BANG BANG*
- Summer carried about 20 two-by-fours at once on her right shoulder.
- Ben and Dave’s back-and-forth banter
- Ashley and I tore up the WBC signs UNTIL THEY WERE DEAD, IT WAS GREAT.
- Don scared the daylights out of a few people when he knocked out the front wall of one of the platforms. Fortunately, there was no imminent collapse.
- Some folks had fun with the table saw. Lots of fun.
- Manny and Ritza developed a tradition of singing everything they said after a certain point.
- We defeated the snow drum. SO MUCH SNOW.
So that was strike. And that was it. I’m sorry I missed the last class, and I hope that in spite of that I’ll be seeing all of you again. This has been my best experience working tech at Duke thus far, and I owe it to the rest of you. I can complain about or praise the play all I want, but in the end, the play doesn’t matter, it’s the players. And I know you all did your best.
And it has finally come down to this. The shows are all over. The set was destroyed. We cried our last tears and laughed our final laughs. We have said our goodbyes. The Laramie Project Spring 2011 is over for all intents and purposes. But the moments and experiences I shared will all of you is something that I hold very dearly in my heart. I honestly haven’t felt so deeply about a theatrical experience since last summer when I went overseas for the Duke in London Drama Program. Then, I felt overwhelmed, challenged, and incredibly privileged. I feel the same way about Laramie.
I have been wondering what my final thoughts should be to this overwhelming experience. To briefly sum it up: beautifully humbled and fantastically enlightened.
To Jeff: Thank you so much for casting me. You have no idea how much being in this play means to me. As an African American Christian woman raised in the South, it is really hard trying to fight for LGBT rights back at home. Being in Laramie has given me an opportunity to do that through what I love most: Acting.
To Jules: JULES RULES! JULES RULES! I know you are sick of me saying that by now, but I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. You do rule! I feel so blessed that you a) worked with me on Me Too Monologues and b) worked with me on TLP. Your skill as a dramaturg is unparallel. Now that may not mean so much coming from me (considering I have never worked with a dramaturg before), but trust and believe that I really do mean it. I also deeply appreciate how you opened up to all of us personally about your life and struggles as a lesbian in North Carolina. I feel like I found a new friend in you, and I look forward to future conversations with you.
To the cast: I just want to thank everyone for allowing me to share the stage with them. I remember during the first few rehearsals in the classrooms and how intimidated I was. It seemed everyone else was really stepping up to the plate and embodying their multiple characters. There was many times where I felt like I was the 13th most talented person in the room. If I was ever any good, it was because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be half as phenomenal as my cast mates were.
Ultimately, I appreciate this play for how it made me expand my realm of possibilities as an actress. It exposed to me my strengths and my opportunities for growth. Now, if and when I decide to pursue an acting career, I have more insight on what specific things I need to go from being a “good” actress to a “great” actress. I wouldn’t have that insight if it wasn’t for Jeff and Jules challenging me or for the entire cast raising the bar so high.
Be fierce and prosper,
As I was closing down Brody late Saturday night after the final reading of Dead White Men, Jacob’s words from the end of our final class happened to slip into my head: “There’s always a home in theater”. I looked around at the now bare stage and was inundated with memories from my experiences in Brody alone. I remembered the kitchen of a clerk’s house in turn-of-the-century Germany (The Underpants), I remembered the streets of a contested New York in 1800 (Dead White Men), and I remembered a bleak, downtrodden circus in Victorian London (Nevermore). The shows will change. The stage will take new forms. The people will change. But the magic of theater will never die.
And that is why I refuse to say goodbye to this show.
I will hold in my heart exactly how it felt to be on that stage. To own that story. To be a part of an experience far greater than myself. To transport every soul in that theater to Laramie, Wyoming. There’s always some intangible feeling that I keep with me from every show I’ve ever been in – each one unique, each one magical. I see an animated Galloway, I hear Marge and Reggie joyous laughter, I feel the Judy and Dennis’ pain through Rulon’s words, and I remember the feeling at the end of every show- The feeling of taking an audience through such a remarkable and emotional journey, perfectly punctuated by Bart’s crescendo over Andy Paris’ final view of the sparkling lights in the distance.
The show may be over, but the feelings and memories will always remain.
As an epilogue (of sorts) to this blog post, I am proud to say that this play has effectively rekindled my interest in theater in a dramatic (pun!) way. At the start of the semester, I had just given up interest on a senior distinction project and was telling myself that Laramie might be the end of the road for my theatrical endeavors, as I was going to focus more of my time on software development. And then came an angel in the form of Mr. Ben Bergmann and his play, which in combination with the incredible Laramie family and experience had me as excited about theater as I was when I went to London. I now see a future full of theater, and I owe each and every one of you my thanks for making that possible. No matter the show, the place, or the cast, there will always be a home on the stage.
Those last few runs of the show were completely surreal. Sitting there while watching a scene, my mind would often wonder back to the classroom where we first blocked that moment. A time when I couldn’t fathom what the space would look like or how it would all come together. Then, there I sat under blue lights watching the action on a beautiful landscape-painted canvas with incredible costumes, music, and light shifts that made these characters come to life. Jules mentioned in the final rehearsals that these individuals on stage were no longer characters, but people; and I agree with that wholeheartedly. Each character—and there are over 60—has unique gestures, tones, and ideas that make them real. This is the result of impressive research and time, but ultimately of an extraordinary cast and crew. It is rare that you find so many people as dedicated and phenomenal at what they do as I have in this production—all simply to tell a story, to spread a message. I really have learned a lot during this production. I’ve seen what a dramaturge does and how her work can be incorporated into a production. She has shown that I can employ these same techniques and conduct the same research she has done for the show and characters in future productions I’m involved with. I’ve gained so much from Jeff and all the actors in the show. Watching them and listening to Jeff’s coaching has really renewed my interest in acting and has rekindled my passion for the art. I’ve picked up so many great techniques and have made some incredible observations that I can incorporate into my own work. Watching Jeff and Jules has also encouraged me to take a directing course in hopes of directing a show before I graduate. I think it would be such a fulfilling experience! Watching the show numerous times, listening to Julian and Manny talk about their experiences as Unitarians, and hearing Aftene’s struggles reconciling the views of the Baptist minister with those of herself, has challenged me to revisit the concepts and notions of my religion and has encouraged me to actively determine where I stand. This show has had such a profound impact on me, but the most fulfilling component of the show has been the effect we’ve had on others. This show has sparked so much conversation and debate. It really has challenged those in our community to dig deeper and think about their actions and thoughts within the context of the big picture. This show has proven to be so much more than the gay play that people originally expected. As Naomi said, many had the intent of coming to illustrate how aware they were of “the gay issue.” From what I’ve observed, they’ve left empowered. This is probably the greatest act of activism I’ve done—empowering people to reconsider their ideas and think deeply about this topic. We’ve touched so many people, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
So Jedadiah’s back.
A couple weeks ago, Jeff approached me about doing a show at Manbites next fall. Last weekend, we had a read-through at Manbites so Jeff and Ed could hear it aloud and decide whether or not they wanted to include it in the upcoming season. And yesterday, Jeff offered me the role of Kenny in the play “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them.” It’s not 100% certain yet–still waiting on other actors to agree to it and for the rights and so forth–but it looks like it’ll be a go. Which is really really really really great.
Thing is, though, Kenny is gay.
So Jedadiah’s back, full-throttle: a young straight college student who has recently undergone a change of heart about matters of this nature and will need to explain to his Protestant parents that he will be in a play with gay people in it, and that he will be in a play about gay issues, and that he will be playing a person who is gay.
The parallels are staggering. I almost feel that it’s worth trying to get in touch with Jedadiah himself just to let him know that I’ve been over here on the East Coast living his life.
When my parents came to see Laramie, I was nervous. I’m at a point now where I don’t really get nervous on stage, but with them in the audience–and dammit, Jeff, I could see them–I was scared to be Jedadiah. I dreaded putting that oversized flannel shirt on every time that evening. And after the performance, I made sure we kept around other people, talked about other aspects of the show, tried to keep the subject ever from turning to the fact that I may or may not have slightly disowned them on stage, even if it wasn’t really me and even if it wasn’t really them.
But now I can’t ignore it. I’m gonna have to have this conversation with them–terrifying as it still seems–if I want to do this show. I certainly won’t ask their permission; I’ll say, Look, I’m in a professional show, deal with it–but that kind of bravado only works so much. In the end, they’ll know I’m playing gay (which includes lots of kissing, pants-rubbing, and talking about fellatio, anal sex, &c.), and they’ll have to deal with it. And I’ll have to deal with them dealing with it.
But I’m ready. In one corner of my being, I’m still scared as shit, but I’m ready. And I could not have been ready without Laramie.
And if they decide they won’t come see their son do probably one of the most important things he’d done in his life, I’ll deal with that too.
Laramie speaks, OR The conversation I wish we’d had
I wish my roommate came to see Laramie. She’s a wonderful person, funny and sweet; we’ve been friends since freshman year. She’s also a Christian and I am not, which has led to many fascinating conversations this past year, usually with both of us on our respective beds on opposite sides of the room (a lovely theatrical staging device). All the usual assumptions can be made: I am more liberal, am cool with pre-marital sex, think gender roles can be very restrictive. She won’t have sex before marriage, believes we are all naturally sinful, takes the Bible as her moral code. And yet, we get along swimmingly.
Yesterday, however, one of our fascinating conversations quickly turned to frustrating. We discussed paedophilia and bestiality – moral codes, absolute truth, right vs. wrong. Unspoken throughout was the question of homosexuality, something we’ve discussed often in the past. Her thoughts quickly turned to the ‘slippery slope’ argument, in different words but with the same basic idea – if homosexuality is cool, then why not paedophilia? If you have a natural (biological) desire to have sex with animals, isn’t that just as valid as sex with men? Where do we draw the line?
Just typing those sentences out makes me so frustrated and tense. I obviously disagreed with her, but my thoughts got all muddled and my usually articulate voice chose that moment to take a nap. I pulled in consent and Foucault and sexualities as both biological and social, but nothing came out right. I failed.
The reason I’m telling this story as my last blog post is because I wish my roommate had come to see Laramie (the same way she probably wishes I came to her Christian group’s worship sessions) because Laramie says these things so much better than I can. Because watching gay friends and couples cry and hold each other to get through this play is vastly more powerful than any jumble of words I could string together. Because art can say things that regular conversation can’t.
My roommate isn’t crazy, or stupid, or mean. She wakes me up for class in the mornings, picked my parents up from the airport when they visited and doesn’t get mad at me for the dirty dishes and clothes that decorate our room. I like her a lot. She’s a good friend and a good person. We just disagree on many fundamental issues. I think Laramie would have been an excellent conversation for her to witness, one that better addressed my views, and she deserves that kind of conversation.
Three other things Laramie taught me, Or Laramie lessons
1. To resist the “impulse of immediate perfection” (as Jules wrote in her comments on my first blog post) and enjoy the messy process of creating, knowing that it probably will never be perfect and certainly won’t be right away.
2. Theatre is a space in which I feel valued. I cried twice during the Laramie experience. Once, during our first talkback, when someone mentioned what a community we had become. The second time, during Jeff’s comment at our last class meeting. He mentioned seeing me freshman year every Friday afternoon at the Theatre Studies Lunchbox event, afternoons well spent but forgotten by me. He remembered me.
3. How lucky and blessed I am to have the parents I have, not just because they flew to Duke to watch me perform, but also because every night when Jedadiah/Andy (Jandy?) said that his parents didn’t watch him because their belief that homosexuality was wrong overpowered their love and support for him, I could not relate. No matter how hard I tried. Because I know that my parents would never do that to me. And I felt for Jedadiah, but I couldn’t fully understand, emotionally, what that was like.
4. The limits of my empathy. As I watched every night, consistently, Spencer, Jacob and Summer would cry on stage. LGBT audience members cried. I did not cry. The emotional resonance the play had for the LGBT/queer actors and audience members was something I could not replicate. It’s not in me because that’s not my experience. I can understand it but I cannot feel it in the same way. Which is good to learn.
Bye bye Laramie!