The Drama of Hate
Western Stage opens its 2008 season with The Laramie Project.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
On the morning of Oct. 7, 1998, on the open prairie outside of Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old Aaron Kreifels crashed his bike. When he picked himself up, he noticed what he first thought was a scarecrow draped across a cattle fence. But as he got closer, he realized that he was looking at a human being, bloody, tied up and unconscious.
Kreifels had found the body of fellow University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The night before, two young men had beaten him, pistol-whipped him to unconsciousness, then robbed, tied and left him. Shepard never woke up again.
Shepard was tortured and killed because he was gay. When news got out, a media storm erupted, drawing news cameras, reporters, commentators, activists and politicians to the town of Laramie, population 30,000. The town, its people and the state were examined and re-examined; questions and discussion filled the airwaves for months.
Playwright Moises Kaufman also arrived in Laramie, along with members of his Tectonic Theater Company. They interviewed people close to the story, from Kreifels to Shepard’s father, as well as those peripheral to the story, like town resident Sherry Johnson and local religious leaders. They interviewed 200 people in all. Then Kaufman constructed a play, entirely transposed from those interviews, and named it The Laramie Project. Salinas’ Western Stage Company will open its 2008 season with the work.
“It’s an interesting piece of theater, it’s not linear at all,” says Western Stage Artistic Director Jon Selover. “I’m always looking for a show that can involve as much of the community as possible– Hartnell in particular. That’s the pragmatic reason. Politically, philosophically, [the play] is important.”
On a political front, Shepard’s death pushed forward hate-crime legislation and galvanized gay-rights activists. On an artistic plane, its powerful symbolism created a wave of reflection in songs, books, artworks, documentaries, websites and memorials.
The Laramie Project, however, remains one of the most durable and ambitious artistic works inspired by the event. It’s been described by critics as an examination of not only the particular town of Laramie, but, in its wide cross-section of people portrayed (62 real-life characters), also as a compass on the country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its attitude about minorities.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful play,” says Dawn Flood, a Western Stage publicist and actor who plays two of its characters onstage. “Western Stage is about community and you’ll find that the play has a sense of a community in crisis.”
The five-dozen-plus characters are based on real people; the dialogues and monologues are the real words of those people. Even its playwright, Kaufman, and the members of his Tectonic Theater Company are portrayed on stage conducting interviews. Its partnership of reality and performance, the political and the theatrical, activist and chronicler, defies category the way Erroll Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood– both also centered around homicides– did for film and books, respectively. And so, The Laramie Project is often referred to as a docudrama.
Selover has invited the cast to submit evocative music to accompany certain scenes. He says those songs may include “Calling All Angels” by k.d. lang and “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne.
These songs will accompany a brave first step for the Western Stage’s 2008 season– and a bold and vital step forward in local theater.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT runs 8pm Fridays and Saturdays; 2pm Sundays, through June 29, at Studio Theater, Hartnell College Performing Arts Building, 411 Central Ave., Salinas. $20/adults; $17/kids, seniors, military. 755-6987, www.westernstage.com.