By Julian Spector
Moment: Medical Update
Matthew Shepard was admitted in critical condition approximately nine-fifteen P.M., October seventh…
I watch Cameron’s bespectacled face swim in a sea of darkness, glaring fluorescent lights still leaving his eyes in shadow. The image shines brightly in the dim theater, luring my eyes like one of those deep-sea fish. I see the reality of his presence captured in high definition.
But this image is false. The actual Cameron stands perhaps ten feet away, diagonally back and down. His head, in fact, is not alone: it connects to a torso that extends down into legs and feet. A tawny wooden podium sits just to his right. His background, I now see, is not black at all, but a curving sweep of intricately layered earth tones, dripped and washed into canvas. The picture I first saw on the television screen offered a distorted view of a small piece of the entire scene.
There we have the essential flaw of journalism. Any attempt to describe a true event correctly commits the same inherent contradiction as Cameron’s disembodied head: the act of telling necessitates a narrowing of focus, a fixation on the one spot-lit point that can most effectively hold the camera man’s attention.
Any given event contains far more information than a reporter could ever put into words. You might give a sentence or two to the weather, just to set the scene, but how could you ever convey the feel of the breeze on the back of your neck, or the gradual warming of the sun on the back of your neck? And what about the sky? And the sky was that blue that, uh…you know, you’ll never be able to paint, it’s just sky blue—it’s just gorgeous. A reporter or witness must therefore reduce the experience in order to convey it in a useful and timely manner.
All journalism is compromise. You choose to report one fact and not another, one storyline and not another, the testimony of one human being and not another, and those choices come to define who you are as a journalist and a human being. Certain stories must be told, others would be very nice to recount if there were a just few more lines left to fill, and still others sounded intriguing at the time of reporting but appear superfluous in the stark light of the editing room.
The Laramie Project represents the polished result of this same process of compromise. The Tectonic Theater Project, as they inform us in Moment: A Definition, conducted around 200 interviews. More than half of those never made it to the stage. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily—it was up to them to make the artistic choices of what to include or not. However, in the spirit of saying it correct, we must recognize that none of these monologues captures the full truth of the original telling. The editing process took the words of the speakers, leaving behind the situation in time and space in which they originally occurred, and zoomed in on a chosen aspect of that conversation until all that remained was the sparkling high definition close-up of the original interview against a new backdrop. For all the talk about saying it correct, the play itself does little to emphasize that reality had to pass through several filters of editorial choices before arriving in the finished script.
Fiction, on the other hand, requires no such compromise. Fiction writers create their own characters and scenes rather than chasing after real ones with diminishing returns. By putting down one sentence instead of another, they do not deny one aspect of an extant reality, but simply decline to create a different possibility. In this way, every act of fiction forms a positive act of creation, whereas every act of journalism represents a loss, a whittling down of the overwhelming complexities of the world. The success of a journalist lies in his ability to efficiently select the most compelling information from all that he could report and leave the rest behind; the same goes for documentary playwrights. The attempt to record a true story may seem like a doomed endeavor, a lost cause, and in some sense it is: no matter how hard you try, you will never rediscover the Eden of a complete retelling of a true event. But there is beauty in this impossibility: moments are precious because they are fleeting.
Journalism and documentary theater aim to pay homage to bygone moments by reconstituting some elements of those moments in a new time and place. Instead of a lost cause, I see it as more Sisyphean: I may never reach the peak of truth, but I can take pride and satisfaction in doing my job well, rolling my little story as far up that slope as I can before it will go no further. At which point it’s time to find another story.
I don’t know how Sergeant Hing spoke, or exactly what he was thinking when he said the words that I now say as him. But if my Jonas can make someone reconsider their live and let live mentality, or Ben’s Matt Galloway can make somebody laugh, or Jacob’s Dennis Shepard can bring an audience to tears, then perhaps the lens of our documentary theater found the right focus for the close-up, after all.