Doubting myself

Ashley Jones

Growing up, I was not exposed to much theater. I saw plays and musicals as merely entertainment, an escapism where an audience could put its own feelings on hold for a few hours and delve into the life of someone they would not normally be exposed to. Chalk it up to present-day Hollywood, perhaps. Theater seemed to be simply a live version of a summer blockbuster I would rent. It was not until I attended the Duke in London summer program that I finally went to a piece of theater that really existed to make its audience think. It tackled euthanasia, death, and rape in a very head on kind of way. It really took me off guard, and at first I was sure that I did not like the play, that the director had created a show purely to be controversial. A few hours later though, I was still thinking about it. A day passed, and I could still not get this play out of my head. Without warning, I realized I enjoyed the experience. It was not the same experience that I was used to and comfortable with, but through the play the director was able to speak to me and raise controversial and thought provoking questions in my mind.

Jump forward several years, and I am in a production of The Laramie Project. During table work, we talked a lot about Brecht. Like Cameron, I have always learned about acting from a more Stanislavsky point of view. I thought I understood the concept of Brechtian theater, but wasn’t really comfortable incorporating it into my own acting. It wasn’t until a visit by Maude Mitchell, who was part of the original group who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, that “doubting” the piece and acting as a vessel really started to make sense for me.

Maude made me think more about the motivations and opinions of the people in the play. Laramie is an easy piece to think about in this manner, simply because the people are real. They are Tectonic Theatre Project Company members, Laramie residents, and students. They all went into the interviews with not only a story, but a mentality, an approach. Some of them went in with open minds and plenty of stories to tell, sure. But others were more wary of the theater troop, others probably didn’t want to share their stories. Maybe they had things to hide, or they were just unsure of what the Tectonics members wanted to do with the stories. Perhaps they wanted to spin the theater piece to their own ends; make the crime seem based more on hate, class, or drugs than it actually was.

This especially helped me think about the character and person of Rebecca Hilliker, the theater director at the university. Casting doubt on her motivations helped me work through her monologue. I am merely presenting the words of a real person portraying a version of the Matthew Shepard story. But in order to make her character seem real, I had to analyze how she might have felt working with the theater company. Was she happy that they were interested in Laramie? Was she a little wary giving them contacts? I came to realize that she is a very important player in the show. Rebecca is the link to Laramie, she is the one who allows the Tectonic group in and tells them people of interest to interview. It was only through doubting the text, doubting that the words on the page were the whole and exact truth, that I was able to really think about who Rebecca might have been and get more of a grasp on the character that I will portray on stage.

2 thoughts on “Doubting myself

  1. Ashley–

    I’m intrigued by your description of the show you saw in London. Do you remember the play title?

    I’m glad to hear that Maude’s visit was helpful to how you were thinking about the character of Rebecca Hilliker. I wish there was a bit more of *her* journey included in the text. Sometimes she seems like our pathway to talking about/with Jedediah. And once I started to uncover just how many people in the show are from U of WY (Harry Woods, Jeffrey Lockwood, Jon Peacock, Catherine Connolly, Zackie Salmon, April Silva, Jedediah …) and, presumably, folks that Rebecca helped TTP contact, it seemed like there might have been more of her own story to be told.

    That said, I think the early monologue of hers, where she talks to Moises about her students, is a gem. It offers another answer to the question that the reporter poses to Sgt Hing in the opening scene about why do people come to/stay in Laramie. Her insistence that she would rather have opinions she doesn’t like than no opinions at all, says a lot about why she would teach in a place where (it is implied) that might be in conflict with her own political and artistic sympathies. In the trailer for Ten Years After, the TTP epilogue, she’s got a brief section where she talks about change requiring people to put their “money where their mouths are”. It made me think of part of her 2002 interview with Time magazine on the occasion of the release of the HBO movie of *Laramie*. When asked about “teaching tolerance” she said:

    “I think the thing for teachers is you can’t ever assume that you’ve gotten there in terms of teaching tolerance. It has to be ongoing; it has to be thought-out; you can’t ever let inappropriate language be used, even if it seems to be a joke. You have to stop and make the students talk about it and think about it. You just have to always go there. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line and say, “This is what I believe, and this is why I believe in this.” Because if you just let the students read the play and then go away, they can say, “Well, you know, I don’t really need to accept this. I don’t really need to think about it very much. That’s somebody else’s idea and opinion.” You have to take an active role in trying to be a good role model, and trying to have your students understand where you’re coming from yourself. Because if you don’t put your own emotions on the line and your own ideals on the line, why should students have to? So that’s the thing that I learned most about being a teacher.”

    I’ve not read any of her theater scholarship, I’m sorry to say. Writing this response to your post reminds me I need to do that. I’m interested to hear how her scholarly voice connects to the sides of her that we see in Laramie.


    • It was Six Characters in Search of an Author, by the way. Which is not intrinsically controversial. They added euthanasia commentary, as well as the drowning and rape scenes. Plus a chainsaw murder.

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