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.
One thought on “T-shirt: Do your best to say it correct.”
I gotta see that otter-tricycle-astronaut bird shirt!
Your post got to the heart of why we selected that particular line from Father Roger for the t-shirt and publicity campaign. It embodies the paradox of “saying correct” that the play aspires to and yet, like all documentary forms, can’t quite manage without some intervention and overt influence. Correcting Father Roger’s grammar would make the phrase *more* correct but then it reveals the hand of the interviewer. Leaving it “as is” implies non-interference on the part of the interviewer; however, every time we turn around in this play someone is telling us/showing us how the company has made choices about how what the audience is going to hear/see and what they are not.
I wonder if you’ve seen or what you’d think about the work of Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles; Fires in the Mirror, and the very recent Let me down easy) in this context of “saying it correct”. Smith is renowned for her meticulous mimicry of her subjects. In fact, it is in the very close attention to individual vagaries of language (pauses, stutters, incoherencies) that she roots the physical life of her characters. Reviewers have marveled at her ability to “become” folks so different from herself with very little stage “magic” (costume, props, lighting).
Language in the Laramie text is much more clean, polished, much more open to actor interpretation than in a Smith script. And yet, the lack of specificity in the linguistic modes of individual informants leaves, in my opinion, the script open to greater tendency to stereotype characters because there is so little specificity to hold onto. That’s why so many productions I’ve seen have actors falling into southern accents as a way to sound “Western” (?) or which tend to assume all middle-aged male characters in the play are cowboys or cowboy-like. There’s a fine, fine line between narrative construct and stereotype and it’s easy to cross it in Laramie.
I’m struck by your assertion that this play will never be “true”. I think, following Carol Martin, that the play is certainly not *real*. It is a version of a reality that existed during those years of 1998 and 1999 when the company was in Wyoming. But it is true, or, at least, it has the potential to be. True in this circumstance meaning a “good faith” effort to bring that long-ago reality to life on the stage with, as you say, “a great deal of power.”