I have never been involved with a show like this before.
Almost all of the plays I have performed in since coming to college have had tiny casts. Scenes centered around two or maybe three characters involved in a back-and-forth exchange. The nature of these dialogic exchanges made listening and reacting and responding and being in the moment feel natural and spontaneous and easy. I knew my character, and I knew what was happening in the scene. I could figure out what my character’s objective was in each beat and determine what tactics my character needed to use to go about getting what she wanted. I could trace my character’s development and change from the beginning to the end of the play, and it was usually easy to figure out how my character fit into the story’s larger narrative arc. Blocking and business were naturalistic, and they often arose organically from the action going on within the scene — here is where I pick up the magazine, here is where I get the tray from the kitchen, here is where I gently touch my scene partner on the shoulder.
My, how things have changed.
The rehearsal process for this production of Laramie has pushed me into starkly new territory. It is uncomfortable and different, and I find myself feeling completely out of my element at times. How am I supposed to figure my characters out when I am only offered a few mediated snippets from interviews they did more than a decade ago? How am I supposed to know how to listen and respond and react on stage, when I am rarely engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue with another character? How do I “find the ideas” and make interesting choices when I feel like I’m often just presenting information or explanations? How will I ever learn all this complex, orchestrated blocking, dammit?
A few of the other castmembers who have posted before me have highlighted how helpful our individual rehearsal meetings were at answering some of these questions. In the process of starting to figure out when I was speaking and when I was a narrator and what character I was supposed to be at each point in time, I had forgotten that I was, in fact, always engaged in a dialogue. The difference between Laramie and shows I have worked on in the past is that one side of this dialogue is frequently missing from the Laramie script. We hear what Zackie Salmon and Reggie Fluty are telling their interviewers, but we don’t hear the questions they’re being asked. Most of the time, we don’t even know whom, exactly, they are addressing.
But the conversation I had with Jeff and Jules during my individual rehearsal time completely opened my eyes to the fact that just because these dialogic questions aren’t written into the script doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely imperative that I know and understand what I am being asked and who I am addressing. There’s one short speech that I make as Zackie Salmon where I explain my background and my relationship to the town of Laramie. I had earlier struggled with this speech, feeling some of the details Zackie offers are far too expositional and biographical to be particularly dramatically compelling. Jeff asked me to read this speech during my individual rehearsal.
“I grew up in rural Texas,” I began. As I spoke, the words felt flat and boring, despite the slight twang of an accent I had adopted.
“What do you think is the question you’ve just been asked by your interviewer?” said Jeff.
I hesitated. “Umm. I’m not sure. Maybe like, ‘where did you grow up?’” I responded.
“Okay,” Jeff said. “Let’s make it a little more dramatically interesting. What if I, as your interviewer, said, ‘You don’t seem like you’re from around here.’”
“Well, I grew up in rural Texas,” came my snappy retort. And from there, the rest of my short monologue somersaulted forwards — I suddenly knew why I was explaining my background, my history, my roots. I needed to make my interviewer understand how I was different, and why it seemed that I was such. I needed to relay how I fit into the larger puzzle of the town. I needed to make the audience see why my story, as Zackie, was so important.
Laramie’s story, like Zackie’s, needs to be told. And the process of rehearsing Laramie is new to me. I feel incredibly out of my element.
But I am learning so much.