Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later

Courtesy Fresno Beehive

By Donald Munro - Fresno Bee

In Friday's 7 section I feature an interview with Sara Staley, director of the San Francisco-based New Conservatory Theatre Center's touring production of "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later." This follow-up to the famed original "Laramie Project," which focused on the murder of Matthew Shepard, plays 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The tour is produced in association with the Bulldog Pride Fund at Fresno State, Community Link, Gay Central Valley, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Get Equal, My Lgbt Plus, the Rainbow Delegation and the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Here's the extended version of my interview with Staley:

Question: When did Moises Kaufman and his company return to Laramie for the ten-year followup? When did your own production debut?

Answer: Members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie Wyoming on September 12th 2008, just a month before the 10 year anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. The New Conservatory Theater Center (NCTC) presented the San Francisco premiere run of "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" from March 23-April 29, 2012 as part of our Pride Season of plays.

Some people aren't familiar with the original "Laramie Project" and the Matthew Shepard story. Can you give a brief recap about him, the national reaction to his murder and Kaufman's theater piece?

On October 6, 1998, a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, left the Fireside Bar in Laramie Wyoming with two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The following day he was discovered at the edge of town. He had been tied to a fence, brutally beaten, and was close to death.

By the following day, Matthew's attack and the town of Laramie had become the focus of an international news story. On October 12, 1998 Matthew Shepard died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Matthew Shepard's death and it's aftermath launched the nation into a dialogue about how we think and talk about homosexuality, and the difference between tolerance and acceptance in America. Henderson and McKinney were both convicted and are serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of Matthew Shepard.

In November 1998, four weeks after Matthew Shepard's murder, nine members of Tectonic Theater Project travelled to Laramie to collect interviews with people from the town. They returned to Laramie many times over the next year and half conducting over 200 interviews which became the material for "The Laramie Project." Moisés Kaufman, founder and Artistic Director of Tectonic Theater Project, said that one of their goals was to find out how theater could contribute to a national dialogue on current events. They also wanted to learn how is Laramie different from the rest of the country and how is it similar. "The Laramie Project" premiered at The Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000. The play has since become one of the most widely performed plays in the last ten years staged by high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the country, as well as professional playhouses in the United States and worldwide. "The Laramie Project" is often used as part of a grassroots effort to help combat homophobia and promote tolerance and acceptance of the LGBT community.

Did Kaufman use the same structure as the original for this follow-up piece in terms of actors portraying both themselves and townspeople on stage? How many cast members are in your production?
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" debuted as a reading at nearly 150 theatres across the US and internationally on October 12, 2009 -- the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's Murder. The Tectonic Theater Project held their production at the Alice Tully Hall in The Lincoln Center in New York, where company members did play themselves as well as other people in the town. The New Conservatory production features a very talented cast of four men and four women who play over 30 roles, including Tectonic Theater Project members Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber.

Did you ever direct or were involved in a production of the original "Laramie Project"? If so, what is it like revisiting the material? If not, how did you prepare?
I have not been fortunate enough to ever direct a production of "The Larmie Project." As a director there is an abundance of material available to immerse yourself in the world of the play because it's based on actual events and the "characters" are real people.
Matthew Shepard's murder resontates with me on many levels. We were born the same year, and he was killed the same year that I graduted from the Theater Department at UCLA. Since 2001, I've been the director of the YouthAware Educational Theatre program at NCTC, where we use theater to educate young audiences about issues like HIV prevention, bullying, homophobia, diversity, respect, and school safety. Matthew Shepard also had interest in advocating rights for LGBT youth, and The Shepard Symposium on Social Justice (renamed for Matthew in 2002) is an annual spring event at the University of Wyoming that seeks to engage participants in discussion and analyses of strategies and actions that can eliminate social inequality.

In the original "Laramie Project," the members of Kaufman's company actually went to the town to conduct interviews and then played themselves on stage. In subsequent productions, other actors played those roles, adding another layer of interpretation to the experience, I guess you could say. What are your thoughts on this? Is it hard to capture the authenticity of having the original actor/interviewers in these roles? How did you approach this as a director?
I think one of our biggest responsibilities as as theater artists is our ability to to tell stories. Hopefully these stories reflect something about society that makes audiences reflect on their own lives and the ability they have in their own community to create change. Telling these stories truthfully and authentically is always at the top of the "to do" list as a theater artist. I think this script offered actors the same challenges that any script does in having to decide on the motivation, wants and needs for their characters in any given moment. The bigger challenge for the actors was playing so many roles, and differentiating between these characters clearly whent they might change from one to the next within a few lines on the same page.
As a director, I was less concered about them playing the people completely authentically as I was in making sure their character distinctions and choices were clear from one to the next. One of the main themes of The Laramie Project:Ten Years Later is the need for members of that community to tell their story about how Matthew Shaprd's murder shaped their town in the ten years following his death. Of course a big objective for the Tectonic Theater Project members was to tell this story, or write the ten years later play. Once my cast connected with this basic desire and shied away from treating any of these people as too "precious" , then the play really started to gain momentum as a compelling piece of theater. These characters/people have flaws and redeeming qualities just like any other characters real or fictional.

I understand that a narrative among some of the Laramie townspeople has risen over the years that Shepard's murder wasn't a hate crime but a drug deal gone bad. What are your thoughts? Is this a significant storyline of the "10 Years Later" production?
Yes, the play references a "20/20" episode that came out in 2004, which implied that Matthew Shepard's murder wasn't necessarily a hate crime, but could have just been drug, money or sex related. The play also indicates that the people in Laramie have a strong desire to own or control their history, and for many the "20/20" piece had an extremely negative impact because it included many inaccuracies (including interviews with both killers) that went against facts from the trial.
We watched the "20/20" episode in its entirety as a company, and it brought up a lot of emotions with my cast and crew. Because "20/20" is a "respected" news source, it shows the power that the media's interpretation has in this story as well. I think the bottom line is that the brutality of the crime itself reflects more than just a robbery or drug deal gone bad. Only Matthew Shepard, Aaron McKinney, and maybe Russell Henderson know the reality of what happened the night of the attack, but the legacy that the death of Matthew Shepard has created has been invaluable in opening up a dialogue about equal rights for the LGBT community in America.

Were you surprised by what Kaufman and his company found when they revisited Laramie?
Yes, we talked a lot about this play as a cast before we ever started to get it on its feet and "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" does what it is meant to do in that regard by continuing the conversation that "The Laramie Project" started around LGBT hate crimes, rights, and acceptance in the United States. The impact of the "20/20" episode surprised us all, as well as how the issues that the people of Laramie are dealing with parallel LGBT civil rights issues that the entire nation has been dealing with over the last ten years. 

Talk a little about the New Conservatory Theatre and your touring production. How many cities are you visiting? How did you connect with the local Fresno organizations sponsoring the production?
The New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC) was founded in 1981 by our Artistic Director Ed Decker as a Conservatory for young actors. NCTC is now a three-faceted organization with acting and musical theater classes for ages 6 to adult, the YouthAware Educational Theatre program also created by Ed Decker in response to the AIDS epidemic (which showed the need for theatre-in-education for young audiences around difficult social and health issues), and the Pride Season of plays for the queer and allied community. NCTC's home is a three theatre complex in the heart of San Francisco's Civic Center area.
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" is the first of NCTC's new Pride on Tour program. Our hope is to bring together LGBT and allied community members and organizations around this production in areas where there might not be access to programming or events of this nature. We kick off the tour June 1st in Grass Valley at the Don Baggett Theatre, perform at The Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on June 14th , and we will close the inaugural Pride on Tour with our performances at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno on June 16th at 7:30pm and June 17th at 3pm. Ed Decker did the leg work in bringing LGBT and allied organizations together in Fresno to sponsor these performances.

Ultimately, what does "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" say in terms of a commentary on human nature? Do you consider it a more optimistic piece than the original?
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" features interviews that the Laramie Project did not, with both convicted killers (the first play only features their commentary from trial transcripts), as well as an interview Moisés Kaufman conducted with Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard.
Judy has become an advocate for LGBT rights and hate crime legislation since her son's death, and I think her interview sums up the play best. She speaks about ten years of change but no progress in terms of LGBT equality, and Moisés notes her anger now compared to when he first met her during the trial for Matthew's murderers. I think the Ten Years Later play is a call to action. The need to continue to tell this story is evident in how issues of LGBT equality still dominates much of our political discourse. This play deals with issues like the Defense of Marriage Act and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Issues that resonate with every community in every city in every state. As noted in the play "Laramie is just like my town." The microscope was placed over this community after Matthew's murder, but we all need to examine the issues reflected in the play and ask ourselves if our community is one that accepts everyone now matter who they are, what they look like or what they believe in. LGBT rights parallel civil right issues for many disinfranchised groups throughout history, and we need to continue to observe, listen, reflect and learn from the stories of our past before we can move forward and promote positive change in the future.

Anything else you'd like to add?
A big part of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is opening up a dialogue on issues that might be otherwise difficult to approach. Our audiences play an important part in that dialogue. All of our touring performances will feature post-show discussions with myself and the cast, so I encourage community members in Fresno to help us spread the word about these shows, and to come see the play and lend their voices to the discussion afterwards. That will be a really interesting part of the experience for myself, the actors and everyone in the audience to hear how these issues are reflected within the different communities we visit.

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