cultural commentary from the desk of Don Shewey
In October 1998, when the news flashed around the world of the brutal killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, playwright and director Moises Kaufman was struck by how swiftly the crime riveted attention coast to coast. Fresh from the success of Gross Indecency, his play about the effects of Victorian society on the trials of Oscar Wilde and vice versa, Kaufman found himself wondering how theater artists could contribute to the national dialogue about the incident.
“As a gay man, I’m always interested in who tells what story, and how,” says Kaufman. “And I noticed that while the symbolism of Matthew Shepard’s death captured the imagination of a lot of people, we weren’t hearing very much about how the people in Laramie were talking about it among themselves. That’s what I wanted to know.”
Within a month, Kaufman and ten other members of his Tectonic Theater Project flew to Wyoming and spent a week interviewing people in Laramie. From the media coverage of the brutal event, the New Yorkers had no inkling of what they’d encounter in Wyoming except deranged cowboys bent on killing queers. “I was really frightened driving into Laramie at dusk.” says Leigh Fondakowski, an out lesbian Tectonic Theater member.
By the time the company had finished developing The Laramie Project, 15 months and six return trips later, both they and the people of Laramie had taken an intense journey together. While some devout Christians were predictably moralistic about Shepard’s “lifestyle,” the artists found their stereotypes about violent rednecks upended by townspeople who were open, astute, often heroically self-questioning. Because the company members had varying interests, they were able to conduct more than 200 interviews with a diverse cross-section of the population, from a limo driver who used to ferry Shepard to a gay bar an hour’s drive away to a young Islamic feminist who was born in Bangladesh and had lived in Laramie since the age of 4.
What Kaufman and his company created is less a reenactment of a crime than a portrayal of a social milieu – instead of Boys Don’t Cry, think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Although the play includes some material familiar from media coverage (such as Aaron McKinney’s confession and Dennis Shepard’s powerful courtroom statement opposing the death penalty for his son’s killer), Matthew Shepard is never represented onstage. Instead the play focuses on ordinary people ruminating over questions they’d never been required to address publicly before.
“If you listen to the people in this town,” says Kaufman, “a hundred years from now you’ll have a document of what Americans were thinking about a whole range of subjects, from money and class and education to sex and effeminacy.”
The Laramie Project was an exceptionally ambitious undertaking for a small, independent theater company that had never done this kind of research or created a piece from scratch before. Fondakowski says that she and Greg Pierotti, another gay member of the group, “were very interested in meeting friends of Matthew Shepard’s and finding out what it’s like to be gay there. Laramie has no gay center. We just called people up, and one contact led to another.”
They attended a gay Thanksgiving potluck in a church basement in Cheyenne, Wyo. The attitudes they encountered were eye-opening to the gay new Yorkers. “We heard a lot of rural gay people defending the concept of ‘Live and let live,’” says Jeffrey LaHoste, managing director of Tectonic and Kaufman’s lover of 11 years. “For them, not flaunting your gayness was a positive idea.”
The first draft of the piece was written in three weeks by the ten people who first visited Laramie. After that, a four-member writers’ group took charge of editing and shaping the text of the piece, in which eight Tectonic actors play 60-odd characters. As head writer, Fondakowski also served as Kaufman’s assistant director as well as company travel coordinator (yes, she’s a Virgo).
The piece was further developed at the Sundance Theater Lab and at a workshop sponsored by new York Theater Workshop at Dartmouth College. (After its premiere run, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 1, Kaufman plans to take the show to Laramie and to New York as soon as possible.)
“One of the great achievements of the piece was following the journey of various individuals,” says Fondakowski. She points to the example of Romaine Patterson, the 21-year-old lesbian who created a brigade of silent demonstrators wearing gigantic angel wings to counteract the presence of Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps at Shepard’s funeral and the trials of his assailants. “When we met her in November, [Romaine] was incredibly young,” Fondakowski recalls. “Six months later she was a fully formed community activist.”
The February 26 opening night performance was especially cathartic for the Laramie residents in attendance. Zackie Salmon, a 52-year-old lesbian university employee, and Matt Galloway, the bartender who provided crucial court testimony about Shepard’s last hours, were among those clearly exhilarated and emotional about seeing themselves depicted onstage. As they embraced the performers afterward, “it was a chorus of thank-yous on both sides,” says Pierotti.
But the project has also changed the lives of the New Yorkers. “When we went to the fence [where Shepard’s near-lifeless body was found], we were both very emotional,” says LaHoste. “Moises was in tears. He said, ‘It’s so sad that Matthew will never have what you and I have.’ This whole experience has made me realize what a privileged position we’re in as gay people living in New York and working in the theater and not having to pretend. It’s placed us in a larger world.”
The Advocate, April 11, 2000
February 23 – When BAM announced that it would be presenting The Laramie Project Cycle – the Tectonic Theater Project’s original 1998 docudrama about the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and an epilogue that takes place ten years later – my first thought was: why now, why so soon, didn’t everybody already see this show and/or the HBO movie? Then I realized that just because I saw it four times doesn’t mean everyone else has – maybe it has new relevance because of the focus on bullying in recent years. But I mostly thought, well, I’ve seen it plenty, don’t have to see it again. Somehow when I read Charles Isherwood’s rave review in the NY Times, though, I felt called to revisit the material, if only to come full circle with it myself.
And indeed, the show was very good, very moving – I was in tears almost continuously throughout The Laramie Project, sometimes making sounds involuntarily, even though I was trying not to sob uncontrollably. I guess there’s such a sense of identification – in that time and place, it could have been me who ended up tied to a fence and beaten to death. But I admire the craft of the piece so much, not just the writing and the staging but also the way the performers perform their own experience of going to Wyoming and interviewing people. And I found that I felt surprisingly emotionally invested in the original cast: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, and Barbara Pitts. Seeing them again brought back my own elaborate history with the show.
I flew out to Denver in February 2000 for the world premiere of the show at the Denver Center Theatre Company. I interviewed the Tectonic ensemble for an article for The Advocate and made especially warm connections with director Moises Kaufman, writer Leigh Fondakowski, and actor Greg Pierotti. I took my youngest sister to the opening night performance, where we sat next to Zackie Salmon, a Laramie resident portrayed in the show, and met Matt Galloway, the gabby bartender who was one of the last people to see Matthew Shepard alive. When the show moved to New York a few months later and opened at the Union Square Theatre Off-Broadway, I wrote “Town in a Mirror,” a cover story about it for American Theatre. And then two years later, when amateur rights became available and hundreds of high schools across the country started staging The Laramie Project, I wrote an article about that for the NY Times’ Arts & Leisure section. I attended a high school production in New Jersey with a posse that included Kaufman and Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew Shepard who is also a character in the play.
Here are a couple of key passages from that Times article:
The Laramie Project has entered the mainstream of American culture the way few plays do. Through a combination of its topic, its timing, and the artistry with which it was created, it has become more than a docu-drama fleshing out a news story. Tapping the essential function of theater since it began in ancient Greece, it has become a catalyst for the community to discuss among themselves something of urgent importance — in this case, hate crimes, homophobia, and the treatment of difference in American society…
The Laramie Project is ultimately a meeting between two communities — a community of speakers (the residents of Laramie) and a community of listeners (the Tectonic Theater members who interviewed them). As a theater event, it models a way of speaking tough truths and listening respectfully that human beings crave but that we hardly ever see anywhere in public, especially in the news media, where sound-bites pass for insight and competing monologues masquerade as debate. The play doesn’t deliver any message that can be summed up in a bumper sticker, but the essence of it is captured in the tag line Mr. Kaufman chose for the HBO film: “Each one carries a piece of the story.”
During intermission at BAM, I ran into Moises and got to have a little chat with him. And after Part I, I talked briefly with Michael Winther, whom I know slightly through mutual friends. Not an original member of the Tectonic Theater Project, he told me he stepped into the show at the very last minute, the night before rehearsals began. He plays Moises and Dennis Shepard and a whole lot of other people and does a very good job with many different accents. (There’s one other actor who wasn’t in the original cast, Libby King, who plays Romaine Patterson and others.)
The second part of the cycle, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, was not nearly as emotionally affecting. When it was over, the audience didn’t automatically leap to its collective feet. Walking away afterwards, I started out thinking that it felt a little thin, an extended footnote, a history lesson, a journalistic follow-up more than a free-standing theater piece. And certainly compared to the original work, not nearly so original. And yet…I learned a lot from it that I didn’t know. There is a way that, by now, if you know anything about Matthew Shepard’s killing, you probably feel like you know everything about it, largely based on information conveyed in The Laramie Project. But when the company went back to Wyoming ten years later, they discovered that the narrative had shifted. Younger people only vaguely knew who Shepard was. Even older people who’d been around at the time of the original incident had come to believe that the murder that made their town internationally notorious was not a hate crime based on the killers’ homophobia but a drug-related robbery gone wrong. How did this narrative get implanted? Largely through the agency of a sleazy story broadcast on the TV newsmagazine 20/20, which claimed to have new information based on interviews with the killers in prison. Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project were deeply disturbed that the facts of the case could be so easily distorted and supplanted in the minds of the public, even the local population. So Ten Years Later is partly a meditation on irresponsible journalism and partly about how denial sets in to erase and correct facts that don’t match a community’s (or an individual’s) self-perception.
It seems clear from the theater piece that the artists, and many of the gay Laramie residents they interviewed, were attached to a political agenda promoting hate crime legislation – that is, laws that dictate harsher penalties for crimes driven by bigotry. I have mixed feelings about pushing for hate crime legislation – I think all horrible crimes such as murder should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. As someone in the play says, “If you kill somebody, you probably hate ’em.” The play did cause me to understand one part of the reasoning, which has to do with forceful public education – it’s not the only way to teach that racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other prejudices are unacceptable, but it may be a powerful one.
The other question that drives Ten Years Later is: has anything changed? There is a certain amount of hand-wringing that homophobia still exists, but there are also some surprising revelations of positive change. A lesbian university professor who figured in The Laramie Project got elected to the state House of Representatives, and when a vote came up on whether to amend the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage, the measure failed, thanks to persuasive testimony from two conservative white male Republicans. And of course President Obama did sign into law hate crimes legislation named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. (the black man lynched by three white supremacists in Texas).
Theatrically, the high points of Ten Years Later are the scenes depicting jailhouse visits with the two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. The lengths the company went to in order to obtain these interviews, their efforts to view these guys with open eyes and open hearts, and the performances in these scenes by Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber are all tremendously admirable. The scene between McKinney (played by Pierotti) and Pierotti (played by Paris) will stick with me for a long time. After Pierotti has spoken with McKinney’s spiritual counselor Father Roger, who has lectured the actor at length about having compassion for the murderer’s process of remorse, we’re prepared for a scene of redemption and forgiveness. Instead, we learn that in prison in Virginia McKinney has been reading lots of books about Germany and has acquired a giant swastika tattoo on his arm and one across his back saying NAZI. He expresses irritation at Judy Shepard because “she can’t shut up about it.” Pierotti/Paris quietly reminds him, “You did brutally murder her son.” Then McKinney says to the actor, “So you gettin’ any pussy down here?” Ashen, the actor says, “Aaron, I’m gay.” The convict says, “Yeah, I thought so when I first saw you, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” That’s the amazing thing about documentaries, isn’t it? You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Steven Witherly, a food scientist, wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”
— Michael Moss, “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food,” New York Times Magazine
Happy birthday to Harry Kondoleon, who would have been 58 today. Sadly, he was a casualty of the AIDS epidemic who died in 1994 at the age of 39. A blazingly original writer and unforgettably eccentric character, he is best-known for such plays as ZERO POSITIVE, CHRISTMAS ON MARS, and SELF TORTURE AND STRENUOUS EXERCISE, as well as his fiction (DIARY OF A LOST BOY). Actors who appeared in premieres of his work include Frances McDormand, David Hyde Pierce, Harriet Harris, Kristine Nielsen, and Michael O’Keefe. You can download a free PDF of his play THE BRIDES here.