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.
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?