Working on The Laramie Project has (among many other things) raised some significant aesthetic questions for me as an actor and an artist. What is this piece? Surely a work of fiction would not draw its text from real interviews and journal entries, and surely a work of nonfiction would not incorporate lighting design, sound design, costumes, blocking, and certainly not actors. What I have come to realize is the important distinction between fact and truth. As a culture we seem to conceive of fact as being the touchstone for fiction and nonfiction. If it’s fact, it’s not fiction; if it’s not fact, it must be fiction. And if it’s fiction, then it must be true.
This is misleading.
What The Laramie Project proves is that something need not be factual in order to be true. By and large, the play is a fabrication (to borrow a word from Julian’s post, despite my knowing he doesn’t really agree with my new aesthetic theory): the actors are not the original people, the theatre is not the town of Laramie, it is not 1998, these aren’t the clothes they wore, this isn’t the order they spoke in. Indeed, the only element of the play that is at all factual is the text (which is merely one dimension of such a highly complex aesthetic object as a piece of theatre), and even then, it is a highly edited transcript of recordings to which, if we are to believe Maude Mitchell, less than perfect assiduity was given in moments of weakness, exhaustion, or boredom. Really, despite being a piece of documentary theatre, very little of The Laramie Project is fact, and even then it is not above suspicion (e.g., the journal entries kept by the company, which according to Maude were a very quaint bit of bullshit).
But the facts are not what matters. Facts are for science; art has something different in mind. The Laramie Project may not be fact, but it can be wonderfully, terribly true–and that truth is up to the actors, the director, the dramaturg, and how they approach the documents given to them. When our angels raise their wings in one beautiful, synchronized move, no one will care that technically, the angel outfits that Romaine and her friends designed had wings permanently extended from the shoulders. We shall have created a moment that is true–a moment to silence hate with a swift, united sweep of a feather–even though it never happened. In this way, the characters that we create (for indeed, as actors, we always create the characters, never the other way around) have great potential for truth whether or not they correspond to the factual people–sometimes even greater potential than the real-life characters might. Last week, Spencer and I sat down and sorted out Russell’s and Aaron’s lives–their history, their motives, their beliefs–so as to give the characters greater depth when we played them. The decisions we made were not just in keeping with the facts; they were in line with how we thought the characters functioned in the play and its themes. In this vein, we made decisions whose likelihood I’m sure could be disputed–but such a disagreement would not matter at all to us. The point is that Aaron and Russell be true, not factual, that what they represent in the play be heard loud and clear through our performances. They might not be authentic, but you’d better believe they’re real.