The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 3

Our reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later on Monday went off very successfully, albeit with some last minute scrambling. When I walked into the green room at 6 (for a go at 8:30), there were three or so pages of e-mail with minor changes to the version of the script that we’d received the Friday before. Trouble for me was that about half of them affected my text, so I scribbled changes into my book, hoping I’d be able to read them. I groused that, since some of this material was journal entries made by the Tectonics, it was definitely going to look like I was reading my own journal entries.

Shortly after 8:00, the feed from Lincoln Center, projected in-house at RCC’s CenterStage, brought Glenn Close, Judy Shepard, and Moisés Kaufman to Reston in sound and light. Way cool. I am so honored to have been part of this event.

At about half past, we took out the grand drape and began to read for the 200 or so patrons assembled. We had only worked with lights in one prior rehearsal, and with the text changes that entailed characters coming downstage, needing light where there was none before, there were a few moments that recalled the spotlight business in The Actor’s Nightmare. But, as I said, we got through it.

I suspect that my affinity for Matthew Shepard’s story and The Laramie Project is less idealistic than it is for many other actors, designers, and technicians who have worked on various productions. Granted, I deplore what happened to this young man, and I support doing what we can to prevent it from happening to someone else, but I don’t have the visceral feeling that I have to work on the show because of that. Rather—and this is testimony to the fine job of playwriting that Kaufman and crew have done—I am fascinated by, drawn to, all of the personages-characters of Laramie, Wyoming that have been assembled into this text: the guys in the white hats and the guys in the black ones. I was as committed to telling the story of Fred Phelps (a seriously troubled man) as I was to Harry Woods, in my characterization a retiring, gentle man who acquires a measure of dignity. In the new play, I was as interested in pushing some personal boundaries as Jonas Slonaker as I was in the great work that David H. did as Representative Peterson and that Joshua did as Aaron McKinney.

And yet, who knows where this story will lead me next? I now own, by virtue of participation in this project, a copy of Judy Shepard’s The Meaning of Matthew. Once I read the book, I suspect that his meaning for me will have transformed in some way. Is Matthew Shepard my scarab? Perhaps, perhaps. A couple of months ago, I was helping my mother clean out her apartment. Generally, the only old magazines that she squirreled away had something to do with royalty, be it British (the Windsors) or American (the Kennedys). And she had forgotten that I had worked on The Laramie Project a few years back—trust me, I know she doesn’t remember. Yet there I was, crashing through a pile of old papers, and she walks in from the other room with a battered magazine and asks, “Would you be interested in this?” It was the 26 October 1998 issue of Time. Matthew’s fence was the cover image.

As to the text of the Ten Years Later epilogue, I admire the Tectonics for clarifying one of the piece’s themes: the stories we tell ourselves begin to change as soon as we tell them. The change comes from many directions: we don’t remember clearly, the facts are too painful or embarrassing to accept, the plain narrative doesn’t have a clear meaning, the eyewitnesses die or move away. Call it urban myth, call it folklore, call it rumor, but this is what a tragedy’s story becomes in the retelling. And as a result, the simple linear progress that perhaps the playwrights expected to be able to tell has become this murky, twining thing. To me, the core of the play is the moment called “Potluck,” which interleaves an interview with John Dorst, folklorist at the University of Wyoming (and read by yours truly), with an account of some average Joes of Laramie giving their take on what happened. In one draft of the script, Dorst says,

You start with more formed things, the facts of the case or the court proceedings. And the folkloric process is one of winnowing and reduction, the paring away of detail until frequently the actual events—something you might call a story—dissipate.

* * *

This is definitely the issue—maybe the core issue here in Laramie—the desire for control over memory or over history.

Elizabeth Blair’s piece for NPR is quite good, and expresses some of these thoughts more clearly; it excepts an article by JoAnn Wypijewski written shortly after the murder.

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