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.
There is not a lot of information given about the photographer on her Flickr profile. I believe she might be a first-year student at Illinois Wesleyan University who is the events commissioner for IWU’s Student Senate. But from what I can tell IWU is not producing The Laramie Project this spring. So I’m not sure under what context she’s made these images sub-titled “Photographic response to The Laramie Project.” They were just uploaded in the last couple of days, so maybe more detail is forthcoming. But I thought they were worth calling to your attention.
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.
We moved into the theater this week and spent rehearsals getting a feel for our stage space and adding the 100+ costume pieces and small props that will allow a cast of 13 to transform into and out of 60+ characters. Needless to say, much of our time has been consumed with what piece of costume goes where, how an actor moves from one point on or off stage to another, what tweaks and changes are required in established blocking.
However, as we near the end of this chaos, we approach a time when moving in gives way to settling in. Taking time to give voice and body to these characters and their stories will become our priority enhanced ten-fold by the well-selected and engaged costume, props, and scenery. In the spirit of making that shift from learning a theater space to transforming that space and ourselves into the mise-en-scene of Laramie, I thought it might be useful to have a post that reminds us of the Laramie landscape, the landmarks that ground and sustain the characters we meet.
These images below come courtesy of the “Laramie & Surrounding” Flickr feed (photos taken over 2009-2010) maintained by our friend at Jackrabbit Goes Down the Rabbit Hole: Fear, Loathing, and “The Laramie Project.” FYI, Jackrabbit had some nice things to say when he/she gave our blog a shout out last week. Considering the extensive effort she/he has taken to explore her own complicated relationship with the play, it’s a real honor that he/she thinks we’re being particularly thoughtful in our approach and conversation surrounding the production.
SGT. HING: And I’m thinking, “Lady, you’re just missing the point.” You know, all you got to do is turn around, see the mountains, smell the air, listen to the birds, just take in what’s around you (9).
REBECCA HILLIKER: I found that people here were nicer than in the Midwest, where I used to teach, because they were happy. They were glad the sun was shining. And it shines a lot here (6).
JEDADIAH: Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We’ve become Waco, we’ve become Jasper. We’re a noun, a definition, a sign.(9).
BARBARA PITTS: But as we drove into the down town area by the railroad tracks, the buildings still look like a turn-of-the-century western town. Oh, and as we passed the University Inn, on the sign where amenities such as heated pool or cable TV are usually touted, it said: HATE IS NOT A LARAMIE VALUE (14).
ALISON MEARS: Oh, not just ranching, this was a big railroad town at one time. Before they moved everything to Cheyenne and Green River and Omaha. So now, well, it’s just a drive-through spot for the railroad–[...] (15).
DOC: I like the trains, too. They don’t bother me. Well, some of the times they bother me, but most times they don’t. Even though one goes by every thirteen minutes out where I live … [...] They used to carry cattle … them trains. Now all they carry is diapers and cars (8).
NARRATOR: Doc actually lives up in Bosler. But everybody in Laramie knows him. He’s also not really a doctor (8).
EILEEN ENGEN: If you don’t take care of the land, then you ruin it and you lose your living. So you first of all have to take care of your land and do everything you can to improve it (7).
DOC: The fact is … Laramie doesn’t have any gay bars … and for that matter neither does Wyoming … so he was hiring me to take him to Fort Collins, Colorado, about an hour away.
MATT MICKELSON: We had karaoke that night, twenty or thirty people here–Matthew Shepard came in, sitting right–right where you’re sitting, just handing out …
SHADOW: So when they took off, I seen it, when they took off it was in a black truck, it was a small truck, and the three of them sat in the front seat and Matt sat in the middle. And I didn’t think nothin’ of it, you know. I didn’t figure them guys was gonna be like that.
STEPHEN MEAD JOHNSON: Clearly that’s a powerful personal experience to go out there. It is so stark and so empty and you can’t help but think of Matthew out there for eighteen hours in nearly freezing temperatures, with that view up there isolated, and, the “God, my God, why have your forsaken me” comes to mind (34).
ALISON MEARS: Wyoming is bad in terms of jobs. I mean, the university has the big high whoop-de-do jobs. But Wyoming, unless you’re a professional, well, the bulk of the people are working minimum-wage jobs (16).
REBECCA HILLIKER: I think that’s the focus the university has taken–is that we have a lot of work to do. That we have an obligation to find ways to reach our students. …
FATHER ROGER SCHMIT: Matthew Shepard has served us well. You realize that? He has served us well. And I do not mean to condemn Matthew to perfection, but I cannot mention anyone who has done more for this community than Matthew Shepard (65).
MATT GALLOWAY: The day of the funeral, it was snowing so bad, big huge wet snowflakes. And when I got there, there were thousands of people in just black, with umbrellas everywhere. And there were two churches–one for immediate family, uh, invited guests, people of that nature, and then one church for everybody else who wanted to be there. And then, still, hundreds of people outside that couldn’t fit into either of the churches (75).
DOUG LAWS: There is a proclamation that come out on the family. A family is defined as one woman and one man and children. That’s a family. That’s about as clear as you can state it. There’s no sexual deviation in the Mormon Church. No–no leniancy. We just think it’s out of bounds (25).
APRIL SILVA: I grew up in Cody, Wyoming. Laramie is better than where I grew up. I’ll give it that.
DENNIS SHEPARD: [Matt] actually died on the outskirts of Laramie, tied to a fence. You, Mr. McKinney, with your friend Mr. Henderson left him out there by himself but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him. [...] First he had the beautiful night sky and the same stars and moon that we used to see through a telescope. Then he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him. And through it all he was breathing in the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind, the ever-present Wyoming wind, for the last time (95).
FATHER ROGER: Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct (66).