Ah deadlines, deadlines, how many a fair evening hath fled before thee? But if variety is the spice of life, deadlines must be the cookfire, because they sure make everything burn just a little bit quicker. Not only must I share my reflections on an intensely personal and introspective theater experience, but I must do so soon, and online. I’m actually quite excited.
About 20 minutes ago I was stopped by a total stranger on Duke’s Main Quad. I was looking for free pizza. She recognized me as a Laramie cast member and proceeded to tell me how much she liked the show and how she noticed the different physical tics I used to differentiate Sergeant Hing from Father Roger, and so on. I don’t say this to toot my own horn; I can do that on my own time. But Laramie showed me the personal results of impactful theater more so than any other show I have worked on.
The young lady on the quad joined a considerable number of strangers who have walked up to me and told me how much they liked the show in the days since our performance closed. I’ve actually lost count at this point, but the frequency does little to diminish the feeling of the encounters. There’s the initial awkwardness, then the gratitude that the person was so moved by our performance that he or she came to talk to me about it out of the blue, then the scramble for a quick response to the comments: “It was a great ensemble to work with; I think we really came together over the course of the show.” How can you encapsulate the combined experience of this project in a few quick sentences before we shuffle off to our original destinations?
I’ve changed as a result of the Laramie Project. I wouldn’t say my attitude toward LGBTQ issues overall has changed; I am grateful to have grown up in a cosmopolitan environment at home and at school in DC, and in the Unitarian Universalist spirit of active acceptance of the worth of other human beings. But I suppose my level of understanding has deepened. To play a character is to understand someone other than yourself at such a level that you can adopt their motives, habits and mannerisms. Thus, donning the persona of Jonas Slonaker required me to analyze the psychology of a gay rancher living in a generally hostile population, and then become him for certain periods of time. Theater is an act of compassion; if you aren’t interested in exploring another identity, the act becomes little more than recitation. But if you do welcome theatrical compassion, you gain the opportunity to temporarily experience a new perspective on the world (or, in the case of Laramie, six or seven new perspectives).
I certainly grew as an actor. For that I really must thank Jeff, Jules and the rest of our cast. In my individual meetings, Jeff got me thinking about the questions I needed to consider to transform my characters into active, dynamic beings. I am continually stunned at Jeff’s ability to pour his own emotions directly into the theater he creates. His personal anecdotes and life experiences informed my work and many of my colleagues’. Jules provided the rich historical and factual backdrop upon which to create my characters. And my fellow actors never stopped raising the bar on their excellence; I had no choice but to try harder just to keep up with them.
Bart’s chillingly gorgeous piano score helped me get into my Laramie frame of mind every night, after 15 minutes of watching the audience nervously tip-toe across the canvas to get to their seats. I imagined myself as a small bird soaring up from the site of Matthew’s beating, fluttering with Bart’s melody until I soared high above the valley floor. By the time Bart finished, I was ready to act; in addition to setting the tone for the audience, the music became an integral part of my pre-show ritual. And then there were Alex’s photos and videos, which extended the depth and the potency of our evocations. I especially enjoyed the media cacophony sequence, in which a motley crew of leading news personalities weighed in on the Shepard case, but with the video freezing and jerking, turning their impartial deliveries into a journalistic haunted house. And then our crew kept challenging me with their professionalism and precision.
In short, everyone involved with Laramie made my experience with the show so meaningful. I wish there was a more nuanced way to say this, or some way to deliver the sentiment allowing some room for interpretation, but I realize now that sometimes the truth is unambiguous. The collaborative effort defined this show for me and improved me as an actor and a human being. So I guess my instinctive response to the fan on the quad got at the core of the matter instantly in a way that my final blog post could not. But I could never reject an opportunity to reflect on this show, online or in print. Give me a deadline and a place to write and I will ruminate textually until time runs out.