Finding the Questions

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.

–Emma Miller

3 thoughts on “Finding the Questions

  1. Emma —

    Every time I dramaturg a documentary theater piece, after time spent in research and reflection, the question arises of how best to activate what are largely monologue driven texts. The didactic qualities vary from text to text, but I laughed with Jeff just the other day how much I missed a good ole “fourth wall UP” scene where people talked *to* each other and the audience was allowed to eavesdrop. I meant it as an off-hand comment at the time, but I stand by my general scholarly argument that the monologic character of documentary theater can be an aesthetic and political handicap. How come plays meant to spur dialogue amongst an audience about issues and events of the day/of history spend so much time talking *at* the audience instead of modeling *for* an audience how people might talk with each other. But that’s another story.

    It’s probably not surprising that I like the approach you mention — of activating these monologues by thinking of them as spurred by conversation or interrogation instead of more passive reflection. This will be an approach that sets our production of Laramie apart from many recent ones I’ve seen that lagged in pace and lagged in political imperative, in expressing their *reason* for telling theses stories/this story.

    I’m also struck by Julie Fishell’s comment from Saturday’s brief Q&A with the Angels’ actors. As I remember it (somehow I feel compelled to preface all my comments from member with this caveat), she talked about handling her multiple characters by just jumping into the action, attacking the scene from the very opening without hesitation, as if the “raw” feeling of short, ever-shifting scenes was actually a way to approach characterization. Each person has to get in, get his/her voice heard, and get on to the next scene, the next conflict. It makes me think of Rebecca Hillliker’s assertion early in Act 1 about how much her students need to “talk”. That the media’s appearance on campus “shut down” the dialogue they needed to have and that Tectonic’s presence might just open that space back up. Now, certainly that supports Tectonic’s mission, but I think the sentiment can also be a way to activate one of probably many reasons why people agreed to be interviewed. The desire to have their say. Hmm, makes me think of the title Emily Mann gave her biographical play about the centenarian Delaney Sisters, “Having Our Say.”

    — Jules

  2. Hey Emma and Jules!
    Emma – wonderful post. The narrative way you describe the individual rehearsal with Jeff and your boring expository monologue becoming a “snappy retort” is vivid and serves as a reminder to me to keep my monologues snappy too. I think Jeff’s tip about the active question is one of the most useful ones I’ve heard in terms of doing documentary theatre monologues.
    (Also, sidenote, did I tell you how fabulous you were in Proof? Well, you were fabulous in Proof).

    Jules – I remember that you mentioned your general scholarly argument on the usefulness and limitations of the monologic form of a lot of documentary theatre, last semester, when we met for the first time to discuss Me Too. (Thanks again for your help by the way – much appreciated!) I think it is a great question and the Jules-Jeff combo of ‘general scholarly dramaturgical argument’ and ‘directorial active question advice’ is percolating in my brain right now for next year’s Me Too show. I just had this GREAT idea (like literally just this second) about doing some sort of documentary dialogue – getting people together for a conversation and asking some standard questions about race/gender etc and recording it somehow, then interspersing that with monologue submissions. Could be really cool!

    – Kimi

  3. Hello Emma,

    Like Jules, I really am interested in your statement that “one side of this dialogue is frequently missing from the Laramie script.” For you, that observation has a specific, functional purpose for the creation of your characters, and I am intrigued at how much the realization of this concept has changed the way you’re preparing your characters. Nice observation!

    Your observation about the one-sided dialogue spills into so many other interesting questions about “The Laramie Project,” too. Sometimes we get to see the creation of dialogue– for instance, with Father Roger and the waitress at the Chuckwagon, but otherwise these characters aren’t responding to other people. It reinforces the idea that everyone interviewed “needs to talk,” as Dr. Hilliker noted in the play, and for that reason perhaps the audience doesn’t understand the exigence which prompted everyone to speak. I wonder what kind of consequences that has for the play regarding its structure and social impact.

    On the other hand, if the interviewees in this play aren’t in dialogue with Tectonic, who are they talking to in the final version of the play? One advantage seems to be that these voices are talking to each other, which is something Kaufman specifically mentions in his Introduction: they wanted to see how the town wrestles with hate, and at least part of that, I would imagine, means observing how the town is wrestling with each other. Some scenes, especially in Acts 2 and 3, seem to reenact a community dialogue about Matt’s sexuality.

    On the one hand, that conversation was taking place in the community. On the other hand, that conversation is constructed from disembodied chunks of interviews given in a much different setting. Does that matter? How important is the inclusion of that city-wide conversation in Laramie? When can that simulated dialogue be useful for thinking about dramatic form, interpreting roles or structural form, and when might that dialogue be misleading?

    I don’t know what to do with this observation other than to take note of it, but it could lead to some interesting questions in the light of the play’s status as documentary theater. Thanks for sharing your post!


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