My Duke in Laramie t-shirt’s first day of service drew a rich variety of responses, from fellow Marketplace brunchers, Trinity Café barristas, and whoever else was on that characteristically late-night C2 ride. Some read it as a joke, spotting the discrepancy between the literal meaning of the sentence and the grammatical error in “correct”. Others simply stared confusedly until I shuffled my backpack off to show them the “Laramie Project” tag on the back. In any case, it generated even more discussion than my colorful shirt with the happy otter on a tricycle next to an astronaut bird and a friendly fire spirit, which is my usual go-to conversation starter shirt.
Insofar as documentary theater as a genre dedicates itself to saying it correct, I believe that goal deserves some strict scrutiny. The claim of representing the truth through theater sets a high standard for the playwright and actors to meet. Fictional theater thrives on conveying emotional truth through fabricated dialogue and characters; documentary theater communicates emotional and factual truth through the words of real human beings. This imposes a certain burden of authenticity on the playwright. How do you record, transcribe, edit, restructure, and ultimately publish the words of other people while maintaining strict loyalty to the content and meaning of their words?
The honest answer is that you can’t. Every step of the production process, from the moment the words leave an interviewee’s lips to when an actor delivers a theatrical interpretation of those words, distances the script further and further from the truth of the original statement. As an actor, I cannot claim to reproduce the exact utterance from the bygone conversation of someone I never met, nor should I. Pure mimicry has limited artistic potential.
Our production of Laramie must face the challenge of authenticity: we have to portray the script in a manner that appropriately bears witness to the tragic events described in the play—we must say it correct. Yet, in order to maintain our ethos with the audience we must simultaneously acknowledge that no matter how “correct” we say it, this play will never be, strictly speaking, true. We will perform a work of theater, not of reality. It just so happens that this particular work of theater draws its inspiration and text from a past reality, and that gives it a great deal of power.