Updated: 8/16/15; 18:42:59

pedantic nuthatch
Life in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. B.M.A.T.C., and Etruscan typewriter erasers. Blogged by David Gorsline.

Sunday, 7 March 2004

We had our first read-through for Reston Community Players' production of The Laramie Project on Thursday.

The play is about the effect on the community of Laramie, Wyoming, when a gay university student is found outside of town, tortured and tied to a fence. The student was Matthew Shepard, and the ultimately lethal beating took place in October, 1998.

The work was constructed from numerous interviews of Laramie residents by members of the Tectonic Theater Project, an organization based in New York. Therefore, all of the characters of the play are real people, not composites, and (where permission was given) are identified by name. The words are their words. Members of the Project are part of the play too, and they sometimes "break character" to comment on the process of collecting the play's source material.

Andy is the director; I've worked with him before on A Streetcar Named Desire and Birthday Suite. Jim is assisting; Kaiti and Eileen are co-stage managers; and Eileen is also producing. Other members of the cast are Bill, David H., Gary, Geoff, Jay, Joann, Lew, Nayna, Nina, Rebekah, Rich, Ryan, and Sue. The play was originally produced with a cast of eight, but any number can play: there are approximately 75 identifiable roles.

I am to play:

  • Gil Engen, 60s, rancher
  • Harry Woods, 52, a gay resident of Laramie
  • Jon Peacock, late 30s, political science professor and Matthew Shepard's academic advisor
  • Stephen Mead Johnson, 50s, Unitarian minister
  • Rev. Fred Phelps, 60s, minister from Kansas and anti-gay activist
  • and a jury foreman
Andy has encouraged us to do as much research as we like, to view the HBO film, and especially to get in touch with the people of the play. I dismissed this notion at the read-through, and then Andy threw a surprise at us this weekend (a surprise for him, too, it turns out). Stephen Mead Johnson happens to be in Reston for the time being, and had contacted Andy. Steve and his wife Penny Thoms visited with us on Saturday. They sketched the play, persons, and events from their perspective, and immediately set about cleaning up our pronunciation of local place names. The Poudre River is pronounced "POO-der," locally.

I was rapt, taking as many notes on the way that Johnson said something as I did on what he had to say about Laramie.

The visit was a head-smack to me that Fr. Roger Schmit's request of the Project that they "say it right," that they tell the story of Laramie with accuracy and respect for the people involved, was to be taken seriously. Here was Steve Johnson, the man whose words I was to speak, shaking my hand. I found myself obligated to him that I portray his story, and the stories of his fellows, without artistic license.

Mind you, as he ruefully pointed out when he met me, Steve is always played by someone taller, younger, and lighter.

I feel that I'm in over my head on this project. All my creative tools and tricks don't work: I have to strive for documentary accuracy, not colorful caricature. Maybe that unease is a good thing: in the course of the play, members of the Project comment several times that they're uncomfortable doing their research, that they're doing something they've never done before.

My discomfiture is greatest when it comes to Rev. Phelps. He is pernicious in his hatred of gays. His monomania is fascinating. I feel like I've been asked to kiss a cobra, and then come back and tell people about it. I am indebted to Andy for giving me this role. For four pages, I must tell Fred Phelps's story the way he would tell it. He says,

When those old preachers laid their hands on me it's called an ordination. They they deliver a charge. Mine was from Isaiah 58:1—"Cry aloud. Spare not. Lift up thy voice like a trumpet and show my people their transgressions."

Sue (also president of RCP) says that she's already received one complaint about the play from a season subscriber. Bill says that we can expect public protests from Phelps's followers. What's going to happen?

posted: 8:17:15 PM  

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