Owning a Story

Jeff tells us so often that we must own this story. I typically took this to mean that we should be confident in our knowledge of the play and our ability to perform it. It was encouragement.

I took new meaning from it when I had the pleasure of meeting a former student of the University of Wyoming. She came to see our production and even made herself available to talk and answer questions beforehand. Naomi and I bombarded her with our inquiries and curiosities for hours, asking about her experience in Laramie, her connection to the incident, her closeness to the play and her life in general. She was very open to our naïve invasion, even after what must have been years of allowing other people into what must have been painful memories. We learned so much from her, and I really just enjoyed the conversation.

After speaking about her acquaintance with many people featured in The Laramie Project, I realized that I was responsible for the portrayal of part of her life. I became a bit worried about the prospect of telling someone else what their life was on an open stage. I made sure to apologize in advance if I misrepresented or failed someone or something in my acting choices, as someone unfamiliar with the real subjects. She gently refused my apology and told me that this was my story too, that I had become a part of Laramie and it had become a part of me through my dedication to it. She said that this was the point of theater – to interpret life as I will and share that interpretation with others – and that I should never apologize for it. In that Moment, the encouragement to “own a story” became more of a license. The material and the questions and the images of this play (better understood as a story, with a human rather than a literary legacy) were mine.

Later in the evening she presented a group of us with a box of vials to be distributed to all involved in the production. She had put in each of them pieces of granite from the land just outside of Laramie. Apparently, at certain times of day it makes the interstate going into Laramie from Cheyenne…sparkle. By the end of the evening, I realized that she had provided me with knowledge, context, photographs and earth of Laramie. She had given me Laramie. Tectonic had given me Laramie. The citizens and our production and this process had given me Laramie. In my own way, in an open and welcoming way, I own this story. I’ll be carrying it with me always.


2 thoughts on “Owning a Story

  1. It has been such an inspiration to my work and my politics to see how you and the rest of our company have invested, possessed and passed along this story. I sit here looking at my own jar of Laramie sparkle, and I know it will be a reminder for the rest of my life what a rich experience this has been for me. I am thankful for those of you that have had the courage and put in the long hours of hard work to realize such a rich experience. I look forward to the next time I have the chance to work with each and everyone of you.

    As we continue to here from audience, I become more proud of our accomplishments daily. Proud of the Collaboration, The Passion, and The intellectual and emotional commitment .

    One of my most beloved mentors, Duke professor Emeritus Dale Randall (who i have known since coming to Duke in 1982) wrote the following to me today and I share it here:

    Dear Jeff,

    Having been a theater buff for about sixty-five years, I want to congratulate you on what has been achieved in your “Laramie Project.” The wonder is partly that you have managed to get so many students to be so good, though probably a good many of them aren’t Theater Studies students at all.  The work has motion, diversity, staging, and variety of various sorts. As well, of course, as varied and serious meaning.

    I don’t do a lot of gushing, but Phyllis and I were both very impressed with a fine job of directing.  However much time you took to work with these kids, it all was worth it. And some probably learned a little about life, too.

    Congratulations, sir, on a fine job.

    Your ancient but permanent friend,

  2. Spencer —

    For a while now I’ve been considering the ways in which documentary theater and film practices intersect and diverge from performance ethnography and ethnographic film traditions. Both share problematic histories (quite literally in the sense of emerging as creative and academic traditions about the same time in the late 19th, early 20th centuries and using some of the same technologies–the still and film camera & the tape recorder–to “collect” data) with the tendencies to objectify their research communities or “fields” and to examine an”other” culture while not necessarily turning an eye to the assumptions and hierarchies that influenced their very research practices and products. More recently, however, the idea of reflexivity, of looking at self and ‘other’ or of researching cultures in which you have a personal stake, have taken root in both documentary and ethnography. Both have turned to performance — quite literally in terms of a stage show and in terms of performative writing practices (writing in ways that try to evoke rather than just describe field notes) — to display the often tangled web of relationships, perspectives, testimonies to be found in any “field” or subject or event or even personal history.

    I would say, though, that the key distinction, for me, between performance ethnography and documentary is in the freedom or ethical responsibility in the re-performance of material (and the reception of that material). While the film medium has been blurred as a tool for both ethnographer and documentary artist (in fact there are tomes of scholarship that examine the interrelationship of those worlds), for embodied performance on a stage there hasn’t been the same kind of hybridity. One reason, I posit, is that the frame of “theater” already carries with it the impression that something is being fictionalized or changed/shaped for performance, specifically the introduction of “actors” into the process. Once we are no longer watching the “real people” of a place or event, the assumption might be that the frame has shifted from capturing reality to creating a false (if truthful) reality. And there is also the different contexts of creation for documentary plays vs. performance ethnographies; the former being the theater space, bound by specific aesthetic and economic demands of contemporary theater performance, and the latter being the communities themselves and a more “academic” or social frame that doesn’t necessarily consider aesthetics and economics in the same way. Again this is not to pit these two approaches against one another as if one is inherently better, but it is to mark a set of shared and divergent tensions.

    All of this to say that your story about feeling authorized by Jackrabbit to “own” the story, to feel as if you had gained some kind of credentials to “be” Laramie through talking to her, doing research, drawing upon your own history and artistic sensibility seems to indicate the process of making (even once removed, as we were with Laramie–we used TTP’s script, we didn’t go collect interviews ourselves) a documentary play can becomes a kind of performance ethnography project in and of itself. By having our own informants (like Maude and Jackrabbit) who provide us with their experience of an event that can stand alongside the dominant version (the script) of events, you all began your own process of deconstructing whether what we heard from TTP was true, how you would ‘inhabit’ the ‘real’ people of the script in ways that were bound by authenticity or deliberate theatricality and what the implications were of either of those choices, and noticing your own evolution of knowledge about the material but the process of “making” documentary reality over the course of a lengthy rehearsal process.

    In this way Jackrabbit’s assertion that this was “your” story too is so profound. It also strikes me that whether anticipated or not, Moises and TTP actually write the potential for performance ethnography–on the part of the actors–IN to the Laramie script. IF one commits to the “project”, as I believe we did, as more than just a piece of theater but as a kind of stewardship (in the words of Eileen Engen) being connected and ethically responsible to multiple “Laramie” communities. Wow. I have only been able to make such a connection by participating with you all on this class and this production. Thank you.

    I’ll be very interested to see how this experience folds into your summer acting workshop in NYC!!


Leave a Reply