A Laramie Project

Ashok Palaniappan

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?

One thought on “A Laramie Project

  1. Ash —

    I’m struck by your discussion of the play as a “project”. I found myself noticing how/when that term gets attached to documentary theater work. There was just a recent piece titled “The Uganda Project” at the University of Mississippi http://www.thedmonline.com/article/review-uganda-project. It makes me consider what the term “project” connotes. I think it’s a way for Tectonic to signal that their process is on display; they show themselves as characters, in action (somewhat) with their interviewees. And, it’s also a way for them to imply that there’s a kind of transparency embedded within the text when, in actuality, there’s actually quite a bit that we do not see/know about their process (as evidenced by Maude’s visit).

    As much as we learned about the fraught backstory of Laramie’s development, I agree that her reaction to holding the text made the *reality* of what the company did for those 3 years (their multiple trips to Wyoming, their extensive discussions about what stories would and would not be included, their fundraising readings to bring the script to the stage) palpable and significant. That in turn made the *reality* of the event they were covering also palpable to me in a new way. It actually makes me think of one of your characters, Aaron, and how he struggles with reliving his discovery of Matthew, his difficulty in owning and then moving on from such a transformative experience (kind of like Maude’s journey seems to have been). I can’t remember if I shared with you the site that discusses where Matthew’s body was found. I apologize for reposting if I’ve already sent it to you: http://www.findingbrokeback.com/Entering_Wyoming/Matthew_Shepard.html. It’s actually not as desolate as I’d first imagined; however, at dusk and paying attention to a rather treacherous bike course (some of the images from this mountain bike forum give a sense of the paths http://forums.mtbr.com/showthread.php?t=438292) it might be quite a different experience.

    I also re-found this section from an article by Amy Tigner (in Modern Drama, 2002) titled “The Laramie Project: A Western Pastoral” that discusses Kreifels as a kind of hero in the play’s Western narrative; she also reveals a detail that actually brings Kreifels a bit more “in line” with some of the other Laramie characters you play.

    Tigner writes:

    “The audience hear only a portion of what the interviewers heard, and even that is carefully located in a narrative foundation conforming to the Western genre. For instance, the actors create noble protagonists who fit into the heroic mode. The process of theatre production, in fact, demands editing, which turns random and incoherent interviews into unified narratives that fit together with other narratives. […] The process narrows people with conflicting and inconsistent subject positions into focused characters. For example, Aaron Kriefels … the boy who found Matthew Shepard, becomes a romantic hero who leads us through the graphic terror and the great tragedy of Shepard’s death. He speaks with great poignancy as he describes finding Shepard tied to the fence; […]

    Kreifels is the hero of his own Western; he is riding out alone (albeit on a mountain bike instead of a horse) in Cactus Canyon (a real place, though nonetheless highly evocative of the stereotypical Western landscape), finds someone in distress, and goes to help him (35). The story is a tragedy because Kreifels can’t save Matthew’s life and Matthew dies anyway; Kreifels’ valiant effort only prevents Matt from dying alone by the fence. Kreifels’ story is factual, but how he himself transforms it into a narrative, one in which he must find the meaning of his actions, follows the typical romance structure upon which Westerns are based — young man leaves society, encounters a conflict, succeeds in overcoming some obstacle, discovers an inner truth from the experience, and then returns to society a changed man. The TTP writers further craft Kreifels’ words so as not to include some homophobic remarks that he made. Though the writers do include other characters who utter homophobic opinions, they chose not to expose Kreifels’ anti-gay sentiments. Actress Mercedes Herrero explained that to include this part of his interview would have Kreifels “sound out of line,” or, as I would argue, “out of character,” not in terms of the real person but in terms of the theatrically and narratively defined person.” (144-145)

    Tigner gained this detail about Kreifels in an interview she conducted with Herrero in May 2000. I share her writing with you because it shows, yet again, how each of these characters is both a real person AND a theatrical construction. Does it matter to our production that the real Aaron Kreifels might have been homophobic? Not really. It doesn’t change how he functions within the bounds of this script. Maybe so. It might give you an extra layer of confusion, conflict to play as Kreifels tells about his discovery in the context of realizing that the person he “saved” (so to speak, at least saved from dying along) is a gay man. It might add even more texture to his questioning of why he was the one who made the discovery.


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