Anatomy of an Experiment

When the Tectonic team returned to 'The Laramie Project,' the docudrama's sequel became a collective creation seen and heard 'round the world

By Moisés Kaufman


Left, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at La Jolla Playhouse (photo by Craig Schwartz); right, an NYC performance given by Laramie writers, including Greg Pierotti, standing (photo courtesy of Tectonic Theater Project)

It was more than 10 years ago that the members of the Tectonic Theater Project visited Wyoming, in the weeks and months after the murder of Matthew Shepard, to write The Laramie Project. We found a town devastated by the torture and murder of this 21-year-old University of Wyoming student—a town thrown headlong into an impassioned debate about the values that formed the pillars of its culture.

As the 10-year anniversary of the October 1998 murder approached, I started thinking about Laramie again—about how (or if) it had changed over the years as the whole world watched. I wanted to know more about the long-lasting effects of the intense debate, media scrutiny and public criticism to which Laramie had been subjected. How does a town like Laramie look a decade after an episode of this magnitude? Have the people's attitudes changed? Their mythologies? Their conversations? Has change occurred that's concrete and lasting?

So from September '08 to June '09, five of the writers of the original Laramie Project—company members Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, Stephen Belber and I—traveled several times to Laramie and talked to its citizens. Our objective was to collectively write an "epilogue" of sorts—a 10- or maybe 20-page addendum to the existing play.

The first thing we noticed as we began interviewing people was that the question we were asking—"What has changed in Laramie that is concrete and lasting?"—wasn't really helpful. It didn't encourage fruitful discussions, because it relied heavily on arbitrary markers: Do we measure change by the fact that Laramie now has an AIDS walk that marches right down Main Street every year and raises thousands of dollars for people with HIV? Do we measure change by the fact that the university has instituted a Shepard Symposium for Social Justice that occurs yearly and that attracts students from all over the state as well as important civil rights speakers? Or by the fact that people now know to be careful in their daily speech?

Or do we measure change by the fact that not a single piece of hate crime legislation has passed at the state level? Or that the fence where Matthew Shepard was tied has been dismantled, and the bar where Shepard met his assailants has been sold and renamed?

Another important discovery was that a narrative had emerged in the town over the past 10 years: a narrative that said that Shepard's murder was not a hate crime, but a "robbery gone bad" or "a drug deal gone bad." There seemed to be a real attempt to rewrite history; and apparently this narrative was extremely popular.

To clarify the facts, we decided to re-interview the two lead detectives in the case: Rob DeBree and Dave O'Malley. Tectonic's Andy Paris and Greg Pierotti spent several hours with the two officers in an effort to obtain and clarify the facts of the crime. In addition, we sought to interview the two murderers, who were at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. After months of bureaucratic setbacks, Pierotti was finally allowed to interview Aaron McKinney, and Stephen Belber was able to interview Russell Henderson.

The play we eventually wrote deals with history—how it's created, written, recorded and told. It deals with how communities (as well as individuals) construct their own narratives, and how these narratives change as a result of traumatic events. It poses questions about identity, both individual and collective, and about ownership—about responsibility and accountability. This was obviously too large a subject to be dealt with in a few pages. Soon the 10-page epilogue became a full-length play in its own right.

Where would this new play be performed? As we broached this question, an idea for an experiment began to emerge. Could we perform the play in several different cities on the same night? What would that entail? How many theatres would be interested in participating? Could we make this a national event? Since the play deals with a decade in the life of a town, what shape would these performances take?

Historically, Tectonic had opened its plays in New York and then licensed them to other theatres around the country. But we knew that because the original Laramie Project had been so widely produced, we had a unique opportunity: We could ask the theatres who had done the original play if they'd be interested in performing this new epilogue. This would be a way to creatively subvert our traditional model, which involves exploring theatrical language and forms: Could that exploration extend to how the work is produced and presented? What kind of event would that create?

The Federal Theatre Project used to open the same play in 15 to 17 different cities around the country on the same night, and Hallie Flanagan, who wrote extensively about this practice, proved to be a great inspiration for our experiment. The FTP's objective was, of course, to offer jobs to as many Americans as possible, but also to create a certain kind of national dialogue. "The Federal Theatre Project strove for a more dramatic statement and a better understanding of the great forces of our life today," Flanagan declared expansively. "It fought for theatre as an expression of a civilized, informed and vigorous life. Anyone who thinks that those things do not need fighting for today is out of touch with reality."

We decided The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later could serve as a theatrical experiment of sorts. Could we get 100 theatre companies to do the play on the same night? What kind of dialogue would that generate? What kind of advantages would this bring to each individual theatre company performing the piece?

We decided we would perform the play on a Monday (when most theatres have available space), and our executive director, Greg Reiner, started contacting different venues to gauge their interest. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We quickly had 50 theatres, then 80, then 110. An inclusion in TCG executive director Teresa Eyring's weekly e-mail bulletin to TCG member theatres resulted in a flurry of calls; a subsequent article in the New York Times reached a multitude of other theatres. By the time we were done, there were 150 theatres—in all 50 states and eight foreign countries—that wanted to participate in this event. Some theatres would do readings of the play, others full productions. The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles wanted to intersperse songs with the text. Everyone agreed to do the play on the same night.

A single problem remained: As Reiner tallied more and more companies interested in participating and struggled to figure out how to coordinate this mammoth effort, the play wasn't yet finished.

We decided to send all 150 participating theatres a copy of the existing manuscript and organized a conference call with them to discuss the project. On that call, we explained that the draft would continue to change, but that a final script would emerge early enough to meet the demands of the performance date.

Other ideas began to emerge for enlarging the scope of the project. We decided to send company members around to theatres to offer seminars and lectures about the piece. With the assistance of David Lieberman, who books our touring program, we organized 20 of those internships. This strategy proved to be a powerful tool in preparing communities for the play, creating excitement among artists and audiences and starting a dialogue that would continue throughout the process. As co-writer Leigh Fondakowski puts it, "Each community we visited had their own individual connection to the story. Nebraska was the state where Brandon Teena [the transgender teenager who was raped and murdered in the city of Humboldt] had been killed. In Arizona there had been a hate crime in the town years earlier that people still needed to talk about. In Kalamazoo, Mich., there was an ongoing fight to have anti-discrimination protection for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens in the city bylaws. City by city, Laramie became 'Any town, America,' as one character put it in our play."

Reiner came up with the idea of connecting all the participating theatres via the Internet on the night of the performance. We decided to organize a live webcast from our performance in New York City—not broadcasting the play, but rather providing a context for the national nature of the event. Each presenting theatre would need a large screen that would be turned on at the beginning of the evening for a pre-show introduction by us in New York City, then each theatre would turn off the feed and do its own performance. After that, they'd turn the screens on again, and we'd take questions via Twitter and reply on the national webcast.

As the performance date approached, we started to get a great deal of national press coverage. We had provided each participating theatre with a "national" press release for their local papers, which resulted in an avalanche of media attention that proved incredibly helpful (especially for those theatres with small budgets). And this translated into ticket sales. As John Kenneth DeBoer, a university professor who coordinated the Montana Repertory Theatre performance, says, "We had people reserving tickets from all over the state, including Helena and Billings—and it's a big state."

Production manager Debra Acquavella of Boston's Emerson College said, "Calls came in from all over the city regarding tickets, and the entire college became engaged with the event. Students who had barely been born when Matthew Shepard was alive were suddenly confronted with the reality of his death and the importance of his life. It was a life-changing event for the Emerson community."

On Oct. 12, 2009, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later was performed in New York at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. As we started the webcast, actress Glenn Close introduced Matthew Shepard's mother Judy Shepard, who spoke about her son and about her activism in his behalf during the past 10 years. She then introduced the writers of the play.

We spent a few minutes explaining the basics of the event about to unfold. We told listeners that they were part of a community of more than 50,000 people who were about to watch the same play on the same evening—that around 1,000 actors would be performing the play around the world. And we invited them to return to the webcast after the performance so we could take their Tweeted questions. Neda Ulaby of National Public Radio moderated the question-and-answer session.

Since nothing of this nature or magnitude had ever been tried before, there were quite a few surprises. Benjamin McGovern, the associate director of studio programming at Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis recalls: "The timing of the show was a bit nerve-wracking, because we didn't know if we were getting the feed until the introduction actually started. We were sitting on eggshells until the feed finally came up. But the broadcast intro gave the audience the feeling that they were a part of larger, meaningful moment. Then when the local actors took the stage and started to read, you could hear a pin drop. There are precious few evenings in the theatre where people from around the country can say that they truly felt connected to something larger than themselves, and this was one of them."

In Casper, Wyo., this sense of being connected to the outside world had a very specific meaning. "Casper is the boyhood home of Matthew Shepard, and the site of Casper College," says Richard Burk, resident director and program coordinator of the college's acting program. "The department of theatre and dance at Casper did the reading. The audio/video link to the post-play discussion in New York connected Casper to the world in a way that touched everyone in our theatre. It meant a lot to the community that we were able to participate and put this production on the stage where Matthew Shepard had performed in Our Town as a child. The Wyoming participants included people who had known Shepard, people who had attended his funeral, people who had taken part in vigils to keep homophobic protestors out of view of the church where the funeral was held."

The next morning, the blogosphere was buzzing with accounts of the event. Often, when we discuss the use of multimedia in the theatre, we are referring to using technology within the performance itself. But in this case there was no video per se. By using the live webcast to bookend the performance, we had completely altered the perception of the play, and hence the substance of the experience itself.

Reiner also had the idea of creating an online site, LaramieProject.org, which would serve as a virtual meeting place for artists and administrators could connect and discuss their experiences as they prepared for the play, then for artists and spectators to exchange ideas and impressions long after the performance. In England, Adam Zane, artistic director of Hope Theatre Company of Manchester, confirms, "Because the play was being performed simultaneously in 150 theatres, the event was not merely about watching actors performing or reading a play. Everyone felt that they belonged to a larger community, a larger event."

Another thing we didn't expect was that theatres would use the opportunity to break barriers between theatre and civic life, between professional theatres and university programs, and between performers and civilians. Stephen Seifert, executive director of the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver, says, "We set out not only to make a performance for the community, but a performance by the community. We put together a cast of actors that included campus and community members, Colorado governor Bill Ritter, the university provost and members of the media, alongside professional actors from Denver Center Theatre Company and other local theatres. They all performed the play with us."

Ralph Bryan, chair of the board of California's La Jolla Playhouse, recalls, "In addition to some major actors—Richard Dreyfuss, Mare Winningham, Robert Foxworth—we had Pulitzer-winning playwright Doug Wright, local theatre critics (it was fun to turn the tables), and San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders. Emotions peaked when the mayor, who was formerly opposed to gay marriage and now supports it, performed his role while facing his daughter, who came out last year. Coincidentally, in the play, Sanders portrayed the role of a Wyoming Republican state representative who defends his own daughter's sexual orientation. That moment was incredibly moving to witness."

In Laramie, the play was performed at the University of Wyoming, which Matthew was attending at the time of his murder. Students and teachers from that college's theatre department performed the play, and a post-play panel was made up of the city's retired chief of police, the lead investigator for Shepard's killing; a Wyoming senator; the current chief of police; and other community members portrayed in the play.

This kind of hybrid casting very much determined the demographics of the audiences that attended the play. In Albuquerque, N.M., Nan Elsasser of Working Classroom staged a full production of the play. "There was a group of gay Navajo kids who drove 170 miles to come see the play," she reports. "We had community leaders who've never seen a play here show up. We had people who just don't go to the theatre come for this. It was the most varied audience we've seen in a long time."

What's next? In the immediate future, we plan to do a short national tour, for the first time performing both The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later in repertory. The tour is scheduled to begin in October, and it will give us a chance to see how both parts work together and make the necessary edits to create a coherent whole. We are now in conversations with several theatres in New York about staging both parts in 2011.

But in the aftermath of this experiment, several questions remain: Is this a valid model that can be repeated or used in other situations? Or is it only possible because the original play was as well known? Could we develop an entirely new play in this fashion?

If so, what would that entail? When we present the work in this manner on a national scale, are we able to affect the impact that theatre can have on a national dialogue? If in fact we created a national audience that was "together" even though they were geographically separated, how do we maintain and foster this kind of collectivity? When the Federal Theatre Project dreamt of creating a national dialogue and infusing our democracy with the civilizing and enlightening influence of the arts, were they giving us the keys to ignite our own propositions? Do we now finally have the means to propel that early dream forward?

Moisés Kaufman is a playwright and director, and the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project.

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