Thursday, April 18, 2002
People Like Us: In the Magic Circle Center''s production of The Laramie Project, eight actors play 77 characters from the Wyoming town. From left to right are Mike Newman, Dawn Flood, Julie Kobrinsky and Greg Falge. Not pictured are Fred Herro and Jane Piess.
Photo: Randy Tunnell
A wooden fence, a lonely road, a spacious prairie. And miles of darkness.Simple elements, a forbidding setting. In the early morning of October 7, 1998, a scene of twisted horror erupted here when Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming undergraduate, was brutally beaten by two men, tied to a fence, and left to die.
Wood, space, darkness-and light.
Here, years later, people have gathered to find out, amidst their anger, sadness and bewilderment, what happened to Matthew Shepard and why. Only now the setting is a stage, no longer in Wyoming but in theaters all across America: planks of rough wood, open space, and a spotlight shining on hate-and on hope.
This week, the Magic Circle Center, in Carmel Valley, begins its one-month run of The Laramie Project, a powerful new drama that weaves together a collage of actual interviews conducted in Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of Shepard''s murder. Created by Moises Kaufman and members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, this brilliant play inaugurates a new kind of theater; call it theatrical reportage. Kaufman and his team interviewed 200 Laramie residents immediately following the attack and then during the two trials. The result was hundreds of hours of tape-recorded words, raw text that was then distilled and crafted into a two-hour, three-act play, one that breaks new artistic and political ground.
Favoring soul over sound bite, The Laramie Project tells the story of Matthew Shepard from the point of view of the townspeople, some 60-odd men and women whose idiosyncrasies, prejudices and kindnesses could mirror those of any audience anywhere in America. Many playwrights attempt to communicate a single political point of view, with varying degrees of success and subtlety. The Laramie Project is unique in its effort to portray a whole town forever marked by a single act of violence. The play moves swiftly from story to anecdote to reaction to memory to media moment, as if looping kaleidoscopically in and around the town and its inhabitants. Priests and doctors, bartenders and students, teachers and housewives, ranchers and TV reporters, Kaufman and his team of actors and writers: all have something to say. From this mosaic of disparate monologues emerges a plain-spoken dialogue on the nature of community in America, a collective tale imbued with the openness of a Wyoming plain and the complexity of its prairie grass roots, growing deep and wide, just beneath the surface.
It was precisely this level of depth and complexity that drew Elsa Con, the play''s director, to The Laramie Project. "This play is about so many things," says Con, a retired clinical psychologist. "About intolerance, about compassion. About what happens when we perceive people to be different from ourselves."
Con, who founded the Magic Circle Center three years ago, first learned of the play when a friend of hers in Denver, where the play premiered in 2000, mailed her the program with the comment, "This is incredible." She quickly requested a copy of the script. "It was an amazing script," Con says. "For every play I put on I read 40 scripts, but this one was like a suspense novel. I couldn''t put it down. My response was emotional and immediate. I knew I would have to put it on."
Many people saw in the imagery of Matthew Shepard''s murder a crucifixion-type martyrdom. But Kaufman, the son of a Holocaust survivor from Romania, had a different response. "I immediately thought of the electrified fences around concentration camps," he told The New York Times in 2000. His impression resonates with Con; many of her close relatives in her native Holland were killed in the Holocaust, lending this work about intolerance a powerful personal connection for her.
It might seem as if a play based on a recent news event would be too bound to well-known facts to soar as art-after all, this is the perennial problem with leaden TV movie-of-the-week renditions of public figures and stories. But in fact, Con says the unusually open structure of the play allows her the most freedom she has ever experienced as a director. The cast of eight actors performs 77 different roles, and there are few stage directions, leaving a director a lot of leeway.
The multi-role casting certainly makes for some intense juxtapositions. One actor, for instance, inhabits the lives of several vastly different men: Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister who loudly claims that "God hates fags"; Matthew Shepard''s father, who speaks with quiet fury at the trial of one of the murderers; a mousy gay man who watches the town''s homecoming parade alone from his window; and the playwright himself, a forthright gay Jew who brings all these diverse voices together in the belief that theater can express something about Matthew Shepard''s murder that traditional journalism could not.
"The structure of the play really makes a statement," Con says. "We each have one cell that could be that of a murderer, or a nun, or anything. An actor can grow a whole character out of that one cell." And if actors can do it, perhaps we can, too. The play shows us how it might be possible for each person to step outside the rigid boundaries of her or his way of thinking and adopt a different point of view.
During a recent rehearsal, Con speaks to the actors about the "in-between" moments, when the actors must make the transition on stage from college activist to mother, gay man to homophobe, judge to accomplice-the very shifts in thinking that are so hard for us to imagine in our own lives, and yet without which true and fruitful dialogue is simply not possible.
Actor Mike Newman, whose roles include the friendly bartender who wishes he had spoken up when he saw Shepard leave with the two men who eventually killed him, says that appearing in the play is emotionally challenging. "It forces you to think about different opinions you normally would not have considered," he says. "But it''s important to understand where every voice is coming from."
Dawn Flood, another cast member, agrees, adding that it has been a challenge getting to the bottom of characters whose views she disagrees with, such as the wife of a police officer whose sympathetic remarks about Shepard quickly take a judgmental turn. But the point of the play is not to "comment on the characters," Flood says, "but to make every voice heard."
The play is challenging in other ways as well. Responsible for bringing so many different men and women to life, the actors must also double as stage crew, assembling and disassembling numerous settings out of eight wooden chairs, simple props that by the play''s concluding moments have come to seem endowed with the complex emotions of all those who have leaned on them for support.
All the actors I speak with encourage parents to bring their teenage children; most mention middle school age, around 12-14, as an appropriate age limit, due to the play''s sprinkling of profanity and its intense subject matter.
The play''s director and actors all concur that what happened to Matthew Shepard could happen here-or anywhere.
In fact, it does happen here. Every time a child in one of our local schools is called a "fag" or a "dyke," every time the word "gay" is used to describe something pathetic, or stupid, or expendable, the murderous tree of homophobia, which still flourishes throughout the country, is given more sunlight, more water, more careful cultivation, ensuring that its toxic shadow will continue to darken our communities.
For the mothers and fathers of gay children, the murder of Matthew Shepard was a wrenching event that reminded them of the many dangers their sons and daughters face in our society. Like Matthew''s mother and father, many local parents are engaged in the struggle to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Those I spoke with welcome The Laramie Project as a means to raise public awareness of issues that for many of them were long dealt with in private.
"When my son first came out, I was initially very disturbed," says Mary Ellen Martinelli, of Carmel Valley. "I thought he was going to a dark place I couldn''t follow."
Helping parents and their children work through these difficult feelings has been part of the life work of Gene Bullock-Wilson, of Carmel. In 1991, Bullock-Wilson co-chaired a committee that led his local Unitarian Universalist Church to become a Welcoming Congregation, a designation that signifies unconditional non-discrimination for anyone in the gay community.
Bullock-Wilson says that as more gays and lesbians began coming to the church, others feared that theirs was turning into a "gay church."
For Bullock-Wilson, who watched his lesbian daughter deal with the struggle of coming out, the bottom line is simple. "As a church family, I want us to do all we can to make sure that gays and lesbians are acknowledged, supported, loved, and celebrated."
Martinelli points out that even with all the awareness and media coverage of gay issues, it''s still hard out there for gays and lesbians. She describes The Laramie Project as a "must-see for everyone that can really sharpen our sense of what is still happening." She appreciates that the tone of the play is not mean-spirited, which makes it more likely to illuminate and less likely to polarize.
More than once in the play, for example, several residents of Laramie profess to feel no hatred toward gays, suggesting that everyone should just "live and let live." "But," some go on to say, "why do they have to flaunt it? Why can''t they just keep such things private?"
This kind of statement infuriates Margaret Clukas, of Monterey, mother of three children: a lesbian daughter, a straight son, and a gay son who died of AIDS in 1986. "I hate that ''flaunting'' comment," she says. "They have to ''flaunt it'' until they have the same rights and are no longer discriminated against. They have to ''flaunt it'' until there are no more Laramies."
Clukas''s words resonate with a brand of common sense easily lost amidst emotional polemics. "Gay people are here, they are simply a part of life," she says. "Always have been. All around the world. It''s something that some people are born with, and everyone should just plain accept it as a fact of life. People should be considerate with gays, like they would be with anyone."
The Laramie Project grew out of a tragedy, but its ultimate message is one of hope, "H - O - P - E," as one of the characters emphatically spells out for the character-interviewers of the Tectonic Theater Project. It''s worth noting that the word "tectonic" derives from the language of construction, of building. Mike Newman says that some of his friends have told him they doubt they''ll see the play; too depressing. "I say to them, there is sadness, yes, but there is also hope and even humor in this play. Most important, this play is about community, about a community dealing with something, and rebuilding. It makes me think of America as a whole, since September 11th-coming to terms with a tragedy. And rebuilding."
It''s hard to change people''s minds. There is always resistance. In Con''s intelligent staging of the play, the eight actors often find themselves lined up in chairs on two opposite, facing walls. It sums up the divided and divisive world we seem to find ourselves in: black or white, gay or straight, Arab or Jew, no space in-between. Yet the truth-and the only space where progress can occur-is in the in-between places, on the open stage of possibilities.
Bullock-Wilson recounts a story from the time of his church''s discussions about homosexuality. At one point, a woman who had just had a baby stood up to speak. "You understand," she said, holding up her infant daughter, "that all this is for her more than for anyone else. What kind of world will she grow up in? How will she perceive the values of those she loves and respects?"
The Laramie Project opens Friday, April 19 and runs through May 19 at the Magic Circle Center, 8 El Caminito, just off Carmel Valley Rd. in Carmel Valley Village. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets $15-18. For reservations call 659-1108. This Sunday''s performance will feature a post-show discussion with actors and the director, and a wine and hors d''oeuvres reception. Tickets $25.