The first sentence of the Laramie Project is not a description of Matthew Shepard’s beating or of Laramie, Wyoming, rather the play opens by detailing the construction of the play by the Tectonic Theater Company, ending with the statement that the “play you are about to see is edited from those interviews, as well as journal entries from members of the company and other found texts.” Thus, the play opens with something akin to the “Acknowledgments” section at the beginning of a non-fiction book; the project’s methodology is briefly explained and the audience is assured that the material about to be related were rooted in evidence. Creative invention is not admitted, merely construction. Throughout our pre-rehearsal table work we talked a lot about the nature and mission of documentary theater. After working with the text for several weeks I have been struck by the seductive nature of the central claim made by Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company in the opening lines of the play—this is truth—and I find it interesting, as someone interested in playwriting, that the strength of this claim relies upon assurances of factuality rather than creativity.
Larmaie does not open with a direct-address informing the audience that they are about to see a play about a town dealing with hate. Instead, it opens by telling the audience they are about to see a series of dramatized textual records—a compilation of fact. Reading and watching Angels in America as well as reading Execution of Justice for class was really useful in that the both plays represent an alternative way of dealing with a factual event. Angels is fiction, but it deals with real issues and even some real people. It’s story is invented, but it is not fantastical. Execution of Justice is a piece of documentary theater like Larmaie, except it clearly departs from truth at times. Emily Mann’s opening monologues frame the documentary evidence about to be dramatized, but also places the audience in a theatrical world. They are informed by the play’s opening that what they are about to see does not claim to be truth, but rather a riff on the truth. Angels is a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and Execution is essential a critique of an event. They are both more a mediation on the truth than a statement of it. But Laramie is different. Even though Laramie is clearly a constructed text with a clear critique of the truth the play attempts to assuage this belief.
At the same time as I am working on The Laramie Project, I am in the midst of working on my senior distinction project. For my distinction project I am writing an historical drama about politics in the early American republic in general and the divide and eventual duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in particular. In writing the play I have looked at the primary sources I could find (letters, diaries, and speeches) as well as secondary historical sources (biographies and historical accounts of the time) and plays (primarily dramas in which the playwright tackles a concept, character or event in history). Thus, I entered Laramie already thinking a lot about how one presents an account of something or someone real onstage. I have felt the burden that I’m sure the Tectonic Theater Company members felt to “say it correct.” Even though my characters are long dead, I tread carefully around them. My greatest concern was not with taking liberties, but in taking accidental liberties. For me, it was important that I learn as much as possible so that omissions could be a more deliberate exercise. I also felt that even if the audience did not know something, the fact I knew it would ensure that the “truth” was respected. The Tectonic Theater Company’s omission of certain layers of truth does not offend me because I understand the demands of the dramatizing history more so than I did several months ago.