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.
My little vial of Laramie earth sits on a bookshelf in my bedroom near family photographs and the place where we recharge our cell and smartphones. I put it there to guarantee I would look at it morning and night. I’m still so touched by Jackrabbit’s gesture to give us all “pieces” of Laramie. Spencer has blogged about how interactions with Jackrabbit allowed him to take Jeff’s admonishment to “own the play” as a license to really consider himself a part of the place of Laramie not just the Tectonic “piece” about/of that place. On her blog, Jackrabbit went into detail about the origins of the matter she/he brought us. I’ll just quote a snippet or two here:
I never got a chance to explain to everybody about the little pieces of Laramie’s collective memory I gave you after the performance. As you know, Matt passed away in the Sherman Hills subdivision** in a barely developed area that, back then, was still full of prairie smells and and wind, the marks of its still-lingering isolation from the community. That area of Laramie’s eastern edge is named for the Sherman Range, a geologic upthrust which pushes out coral-colored mountains out of the living earth. Sherman Hills sits right at the base of their western edge, and the Sherman Granite peeks out of the earth not too far after.
Sherman granite has a remarkable story. This rose-colored stone was first created deep in the geologic furnace 1.4 billion years ago, but about 70 million years ago, the upthrust which created the Laramie range forced the granite back into the sunlight. It is a brilliant pink from its high iron and feldspar content, highly crystalline, full of quartz, and it sparkles. The crushed granite on the shoulders of I-80 glitter in the early morning sunlight.
One would think that an igneous rock made by fire and cooled in the living earth would be impervious, but Sherman granite is more vulnerable than one would think. Over those millions of years, that granite has weathered under the winter’s freezing melt, cracking it into blocks and eating its surface. The oldest and smallest boulders, isolated from the living rock, crack easily; sometimes their surface comes apart under the push of a strong finger.
** In my research about Sherman Hills I found that the development was under construction when Matt was left there for dead. In a 1998 article for The Village Voice, reporter Guy Trebay describes the Sherman Hills and the surrounding area like this:
And, while it is true that the “remote” buck fence where he was strung up stands back from a dirt road, the route itself runs through the enclave of Sherman Hills Estates, whose stone gates give on to some of the costliest real estate (houses from $145,000 to $415,000) in a small city where the median household income is $26,559. Set just a mile from the local Wal Mart are fake adobes and neo-Tudors and outsized bastard ranches clustered on streets with names commemorating the landscape they’ve supplanted. This being snow country, the houses are situated close to each other and also to all kinds of vehicular access. There is, in other words, no part of Snowy Mountain Range Road where one loses sight of pseudo-mansions elevated to capitalize on the high-plains panoramas. There is no pseudo-mansion without its commanding view. Yet it is here that Shepard’s body somehow hung in the cold unnoticed for fully 18 hours until two bicyclists “happened” along. He kept disappearing.
Perhaps it is only fitting that, like Matthew’s body, the fence itself has disappeared. In an op-ed for the San Francisco Gate in 2007, Moises Kaufman claims that mere months after Matthew’s death the property owners “dismantled” the fence dismayed by the amount of reporters and others interested in making pilgrimages to the site. In his words, “This action didn’t make the papers; no television network broadcast it. Just like that, the fence was dismantled, the site was erased.” The upshot of Kaufman’s writing is first to subtly imply that since 2000 The Laramie Project has served as a kind of traveling memorial and secondly to press the Bush administration to make a “lasting” monument to Matthew’s death (one that presumably would survive even if the play fell out of favor) by signing the Hate Crimes Protection Act (something that wasn’t done until 2009 under Obama’s administration).
Jackrabbit has blogged about visiting Sherman Hills in 2009, obeying the “No Trespassing” sign that now hangs on the property where Matthew’s body was found. Considering her description of the granite in the area as vulnerable, seemingly solid (it’s a rock, after all!) but worn down by environmental factors and considering the recent news of Marge Murray’s passing, I’m thinking about the fragility of documentary, bodies, memories, and memorials. Much has been made about the ephemeral nature of performance. Once the production is over, the show is gone. Even if preserved in a recording, the embodied exchanges among performers and between performers and audience is only ever retained second-hand. And yet, this is a second-hand relation that we’ve been confronting ever since the beginning of our rehearsal process. We have always ever been trying to connect to people we have never met, places we have never been. And yet, each time I touch my vial of earth I am, for just a moment, transported back to Sheafer and now connected to the Laramie in ways only possible through the vehicle of theater. The granite is a material metonym for our DukeinLaramie project: firm yet fragile, secure yet vulnerable, an indication of survival while simultaneously carrying the marks of erosion, of fading away.
UPDATE TUESDAY APRIL 12 8:30PM
Less then 12 hours after the news about the alleged hate crime against Quinn Matney on UNC-Chapel Hill campus hit the campus and local news (even receiving national coverage from the Advocate.com) Chancellor Holden Thorp released the following statement:
Subject: FORMAL NOTICE: Message from the Chancellor: Police Determine False Report in Aggravated Assault
Sent: Apr 12, 2011 5:53 PM
Dear Students, Faculty and Staff:
The Department of Public Safety has determined that the alleged aggravated assault reported to campus last night did not occur. That
report, filed with campus police on April 5, was false. The University will not report it as a hate crime.
It is important to recognize that incidents of harassment do occur. When they do, we take them seriously. We strive to foster a welcoming, inclusive and safe environment at Carolina.
We recognize that this has been a difficult time for campus. Members of the community who feel they need to discuss what has happened are encouraged to contact the Dean of Students Office at 919-966-4042; Counseling and Wellness Services at 919-966-3658 or 919-966-2281 after hours; LGBTQ Center at 919-843-5376; Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at 919-962-6962; or Human Resources’ Employee Assistance Program at 919-929-2362.
I don’t know whether the previously announced public forum (hosted by UNC’s GLBTSA) for Thursday will go forward. News reports are now indicating that Quinn might be prosecuted for filing a false report. Certainly this report is devastating in a very different way.
As I type this update, Anatomy of Hate plays on the Documentary Channel on my TV. There has just been a segment on the Phelps family and I watch one of the Reverand’s daughters lead her son in “I’m ashamed to be an American where the fags can freely roam…”
So while I want to acknowledge the news that the report that stabbed my heart and boiled my blood yesterday is false, just because it didn’t happen to Quinn doesn’t mean it isn’t happening somewhere to someone. I cannot fathom what might have caused him to fabricate the incident, and I worry now that the backlash will be intense, personal, and allow others (administrators, legislators, fellow students) to ignore or dismiss homophobia or LGBT student/staff/faculty concerns about equality as exaggerated or imagined (or both). As I mentioned in my original post as I parsed Chancellor Thorp’s first letter in response to the incident, I believe there is reason to argue that there aren’t sufficient protections and rights for LGBT folks who attend/work for the UNC system. That is a situation that is controlled by outside forces like the NC legislature and that is a body whose majority leadership indicate daily how eager they are to further marginalize gay, lesbian and transgender North Carolinians. One of our Friday post-show discussants, blogger Pam Spaulding, agrees with me. Perhaps when she visits she will help us figure out the whys and wherefores of how we respond, to continue pressing on behalf of those who are targeted, hurt, and killed and to combat those who will use this false report to continue to marginalize and discriminate.