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STANDING TALL WITH PRIDE: When social justice and tectonic theatre collide, ‘The Laramie Project’ emerges

Moving play opens in time for PRIDE month.

In the year 2000, Moisés Kaufman headed to Laramie, Wyoming, along with members of the Tectonic Theater Project, to interview members of the community about the 1998 brutal beating of one of its own gay citizens, Matthew Shepard. His murder was denounced as a hate crime at the time, and incited backlash for politicians to take a closer look at laws nationwide that can protect people who are targeted for their sexuality, race, gender, etc. The theatre company’s interviews helped create “The Laramie Project,” which brings to light 60 characters in the town of Laramie, all performed by eight actors in three acts, to tell their stories as if they’re being interviewed. These moments are what the theatre company calls a “tectonic” method—to analyze and create theatre from a structuralist perspective.

ACTING UP: Amanda Young and Christine Brown perform in the powerful "The Laramie Project," opening this week. Photo by Tom Dorgan

ACTING UP: Amanda Young and Christine Brown perform in the powerful “The Laramie Project,” opening this week. Photo by Tom Dorgan

The power of the production has garnered as much praise for the empathy it espouses as it has controversy from folks like the notorious Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who is portrayed picketing Shepard’s funeral in the play. Though at its foundation “The Laramie Project” was born from tragedy, it has become a beacon of light, hope and honor. Tectonic Theater even did a follow-up story in 2008, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” wherein they returned to the town for more interviews and with new content coming to light in the wake of Shepard’s life.

Shepard’s family’s upstart of the Matthew Shepard Foundation oversees royalties and rights for the plays offers support for the play and “shares a collection of digital resources to use in dramaturgical research, to project during performances, or to create lobby displays,” according to Louis Sisneros, Legacy Project coordinator for the foundation. “We also consult with directors and their casts and crews; and we participate in after-performance panel discussions, Q&As and talk-backs.”

It helps ensure the play can be produced worldwide to keep the message of endurance and acceptance alive. As part of PRIDE month, Big Dawg Productions is launching “The Laramie Project,” with Josh Bailey leading the helm as director. Bailey sees many similarities in the world today to when Shepard’s story became a news sensation almost two decades ago.  offer support for performances of the Laramie Project plays, however. We share a collection of digital resources to use in dramaturgical research, to project during performances, or to create lobby displays. We also consult with directors and their casts and crews; and we participate in after-performance panel discussions, Q&As and talk-backs. We do not charge for these helps, but we do work very hard for the donations that support this and our other work—we would not want theaters and schools to have the mistaken belief that their fees for performance rights compensate us for what we do!

“In the discussion of how a tragedy affects the fabric of a town and drives national dialogue, I see a parallel between this story and what has happened in the last few years with Black Lives Matter, in communities like Ferguson, MO, and others around the country,” he notes. “Outside of the issues of the LGBT community and Matthew Shepard, the play speaks in so many ways to how a community and our country define themselves—and how we respond when that definition is challenged.”

Through Shepard’s life and death, an 11-year battle emblazoned with hopes to receive legislature recognizing hate crimes. In 2009 President Barack Obama finally signed into law a prevention act known as The Matthew Shepard Act. But that’s only one part of a very long and nuanced story. Its details can be seen in the first tale of Shepard and Laramie, as “The Laramie Project” opens this weekend at Cape Fear Playhouse. encore interviewed Bailey and Big Dawg artistic director Steve Vernon about the show and its powerful message.

encore (e): Steve, how were you impacted by this story when it first broke? Was it an instantaneous connection? Or did you learn of it later through the show itself?

Steve Vernon (SV): Honestly, I read about Matthew Shepard’s murder and saw news stories about it, was moved and angered by the event, but it wasn’t until I read the play I became truly emotionally aware of what his death meant to people outside of his family and friends—or outside the gay community in general. I realized many of my gay friends had been profoundly affected by Matthew’s murder. I began to see the crime had repercussions in areas outside the community—how it changed the national dialogue on subjects as diverse as legislation, the role of media in the face of tragedy, and how events in small towns can alter perceptions of those towns when presented to a global audience. This play is about Matthew, but it is also about Laramie, and by extension, America. Every society has five institutions in common: religion, education, government, law, and economy. “The Laramie Project” manages to examine all subjects.

e: You have a history with this show; tell us about it, and how and why you included it during Big Dawg’s season.

SV: I first heard about the show from a friend of mine who had moved to South Carolina, and had been cast in a production of it. His description was fascinating, not only because of the subject matter but the structure of the play.

At the same time, Opera House Theater Company had chosen “The Laramie Project” as part of their 2003 season. Alice Morgan Sherwood, now Opera House’s company manager, had convinced then founding artistic director Lou Criscuolo to hire me to direct it. At the risk of sounding cliché, the experience literally changed my perception of what theatre could be.

A little over two years later, I was completing work on my masters in Liberal Studies at UNCW. I decided the focus of my thesis would be the ability or inability of the arts to affect social change, largely based on my experience directing “Laramie.” I mounted a second production as part of my thesis.

Fast forwarding to present day: After witnessing the progress we’ve made as a society in terms of LGBT issues and hate-crime legislation over the last decade, it was becoming obvious there was a vocal, and in some cases, physical backlash to the progress. Our present climate, for a number of reasons, has become quite antagonistic. We’ve stopped being civil to each other, and we’ve resorted to allowing hatred and prejudice to have a place at the table in our discourse. “The Laramie Project” reflects what can happen to us as individuals and communities when that occurs—not just in terms of attitudes about homosexuality. The themes of the play are incredibly relevant to what we are witnessing right now.

Just this year a gay man in Idaho, Steven Nelson, was killed in similar way and for the same reason as Matthew. The Pulse nightclub attacks last summer; the dozens of transgendered men and women who have been killed in the last year; a man opening fire at a Virginia gay bar with the intention of killing gays; politicians who still use anti-LGBT legislation and rhetoric as a way to stoke support in everything from local Congressional campaigns to the presidency. Examples of anti-LGBT attacks have occurred in our own Wilmington in just the last few weeks. The story of Matthew Shepard, while singular and powerful and a moment of transformation in the American discussion, is also not unique or singular. It’s repeated in large and small ways every day—in schools, communities, pulpits, states, and campaigns across the country.

LIGHT AND HONOR (From l. to r.) Craig Myers, Holli Sapperstein, Amanda Young, and Jaime Jarwood hold candlelight vigil. Photo by Tom Dorgan.

LIGHT AND HONOR (From l. to r.) Craig Myers, Holli Saperstein, Amanda Young, and Jaime Jarwood hold candlelight vigil. Photo by Tom Dorgan.

e: Josh, is this your first time directing the show? How is it challenging you in ways other shows have not?

Josh Bailey (JB): This is my first time, and it’s challenging in the sense that it’s not a typical play. While it has the bones of a plot, the fact it’s as much an oral history as it is a play produces the greatest challenge, but also is its greatest strength. It requires bringing to life not imagined fictional (or even re-imagined historical) characters, but rather breathing emotion and humanity into the recollections of the real people and words of the Laramie residents. There is so much emotional weight packed into every role and moment, but the structure of the play produces a trap that can turn it into simple interviews if we don’t focus  on the real emotion and gravity.

e: What appeals to you most about this story now 20-some years after the news hit of Shepard’s grotesque beating?

JB: There are two things that appeal to me:

First, for recent generations of youth, and for many Americans, the story of Matthew Shepard is either a distant memory or something they’ve never even heard of. Exposing new audiences to something that’s only two decades old, and dramatically altered the way Americans talked about and viewed LGBT rights, especially in the light of all the recent  advances—and the vociferous opposition that has continued to rise against it—is of vital importance. It shows us how far we’ve come, and in many ways where we as a nation began to have these dramatically different conversations. It also shows how far we still have to go.

e: Can you tell me a little about the cast’s performances and how they are compelling you as a director? Anything specific you’re learning from them?

JB: This play gives a director a lot of freedom in casting. The original production was written for four men and four women, each person portraying up to 10 different characters of differing genders, sexual orientations, ages, and backgrounds. This show has a larger cast, to lessen the monumental emotional load for each individual, but still eschews traditional casting. The actors onstage may portray someone who is a 19-year-old lesbian in one moment and a 40-year-old rancher in the next.

The performances compelling me most are moments taking shape where we see someone go under a real transformation onstage—not by faking something with an accent or a body change, but through an expression of emotion and intention, a conscious shift in tone and cadence, embodying one of these real people’s hopes and desires in a way we fully believe we’re watching this person express what Matthew meant to them. Especially moments where actors are finding ways to humanize and understand characters they may be personally inclined to think are wrong or evil.

e: Do you think art is a good way to affect social change? How would you say this play does or doesn’t do such?

JB: Art has always been a way to affect social change. The jester was able to say things to the king that no one else could. “The Great Passion Play” may have been the most effective tool in Christian missionary activity in a pagan Europe. “The Crucible” teaches more about the dangers of McCarthyism than a textbook ever can. For better or worse, art comments on and impacts our society.

“The Laramie Project” is powerful because it doesn’t preach—because it is the style of an oral history, and because every viewpoint and side is presented with truth and without editorial commentary. It lays bare the realities of what happened—and what still happens—in this community. It won’t shut down people who disagree with it because it honors the hundreds of shades of grey in every issue, to allow common ground, to guide an audience into a space where they are open to hearing something new and considering a new perspective. It has so many powerful moments, I can’t imagine anyone not being moved or affected by something—even moved by the perspective and viewpoints of someone they disagree with on an ideological level.

e: Steve, you’re very forthright about using art as empowerment for the greater good and achieving social justice if possible. How do you feel “Laramie” achieves that goal?

SV: I think “Laramie” is as impactful as a piece of theatre can be, as far as affecting change. I know from comments from people who saw previous productions, either here or other places, it had a profound influence on their attitudes. Part of the success of the play in that arena can be attributed to how the material treats the residents of the small town, all of whom have different attitudes about homosexuality. It goes to great lengths not to paint everyone as villains or heroes. There are plenty of those, but the bulk of the people represented onstage are just caught up in being human—much like most people outside of the events depicted. By doing that, the play never becomes preachy or condemning.

e: Josh, how are you approaching the show? Is it traditional as suggested in the book notes, or are you doing anything nontraditional with it?

JB: We’re approaching this show first and foremost as an emotional work of real people. We’re focusing on how it highlights what happens in society when cultures and ideologies and perspectives meet and clash or come to understand one another better.

As far as staging, the play has few directions, so much of our work has been organic. Highlighting some moments as pure monologue or interview, turning some into media circuses, others into conversations—whatever works to highlight the interplay and juxtaposition of perspectives and emotional moments.

e: What will the world look like for the audience? Who is helping design it?

JB: The set looks as nontraditional and “tectonic” as the play itself. The stage is a collection of panels that hide entrances, platforms, and ways to suggest location, create levels, and add juxtaposition of emotions and ideas. Painted in an abstract representation of the Laramie mountain view, and surrounded by televisions and lights. The technical director and genius behind all of this Scott Davis.

Costuming is simplistic. A hat or jacket or glasses or hijab draw separation between characters but are not the focus.

e: Anything else you find imperative for audiences to know about “The Laramie Project” if they’ve never seen it?

JB: It’s a must-see play. Reading it is powerful and should be required, but nothing can ever replace the power of hearing these words spoken, of embodying these emotional moments, of realizing the moments are real and actually happened. It’s not like anything else in theatre today and is truly life-changing.

DETAILS:
The Laramie Project
June 8-11, 15-18, 22-25
8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$22
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
www.bigdawgproductions.org

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