A week after the Denver opening of The Laramie Project—Tectonic Theater Project’s new piece woven together from 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, Wyoming, following the murder of Matthew Shepard—there was a hearing about hate-crime legislation in Laramie. According to Tectonic director Moisés Kaufman, “The city council was still very homophobic and right-wing. They were against the proposed legislation.” Had Shepard’s quasi crucifixion, the extensive media coverage received by the subsequent trial of Aaron McKinney, and the tornado of nationwide debate over hate crimes had no effect on the 26,000-person hamlet? “But then somebody from the town stood up at the hearing and said, ‘I just saw The Laramie Project, and in this play it says that over the past year, nothing has happened on the political level. The play’s going to New York. Is that how this council wants to be known?’ ” The politicians didn’t pass new legislation that day, but they were convinced to continue negotiations, and a modest hate-crime law was eventually passed. In relating the story, Kaufman seems genuinely surprised at Tectonic’s influence on Laramie. “Theater’s not supposed to do that!”
The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Kaufman is usually the first to inform you that Tectonic Theater Project’s mission is exactly that—to do things that theater is not supposed to do. Why else would Tectonic’s members think “theater piece” two weeks after the murder occurred in October of 1998, before anyone’s tears had dried? Fortunately, the company had no ghoulish polemic in mind. “Certain events in history,” Kaufman explains, “serve as a lightning rod for a lot of the ideas, beliefs, philosophies, and idiosyncrasies floating around a certain culture at a certain moment. When Matthew Shepard was murdered, I thought, my God, this is the first time an antigay murder has happened when the whole nation condemned it. If we could record people talking about it, we would create a very strong document, so that a hundred years from now you could see American people talking about homosexuality, violence, discipline, class, education, religion—all of these things.” Kaufman, a self-described “Jewish fag from Venezuela,” claims to be exhausted from the all-day load-in at the Union Square Theater, and though he’s slumped over a bit, he still speaks with great zeal. He has a soft face and a light, musical accent that changes his i‘s to double e‘s. He’s removed all his jewelry—five silver rings and a watch—and placed them on the table between us, a habit not even he can explain.
For all the abstract concepts Shepard’s murder stirred up for him, Kaufman saw beyond Shepard’s martyrdom to his humanity. “When we got to Laramie,” he continues, “I had never felt an absence so powerfully. I would see students going into the university, and at the same time I saw Matthew not going to school. I hoped that that feeling would lessen, but it didn’t.” Even though the group had decided to conduct interviews in pairs, as company members got interested in different aspects of the town, they spread out across the community. “Someone was interested in finding Matthew’s friends, someone else wanted to talk to Aaron McKinney and [his accomplice] Russell Henderson’s friends, others were interested in the ranchers or University of Wyoming students.” They drew the line at interviewing Shepard’s parents. “We never interviewed Judy or Dennis Shepard, because we wanted to tell a story about the town, not about the murder. But at the same time, we knew them. We were introduced to them early on.”
Since they arrived so soon after the event, with a purpose less defined and more directly involved than the media, TTP found themselves becoming adjunct members of the community. “Talk about life-changing experiences! A year after the murder, we attended McKinney’s trial. By that time, we knew a lot of the people who were testifying. So we were rooting for them to do a good job on the stand. We sat behind Judy Shepard when they brought out the gun [Henderson and McKinney used to pistol-whip Shepard] as evidence. It was incredibly emotional.”
The 10 company members who made the six trips returned to New York to workshop the material. “Everybody had become close to their interviewees, and they wanted these voices to be heard in the play. They knew their characters and could easily bring them into the room. I would introduce the subject, ‘God,’ and the actors would improvise a virtual town meeting with the people of Laramie. They’d get into very heated arguments.” The company then arranged these debates into three nonlinear through-lines: one that describes what happened to Shepard from the time he arrived in Laramie until his death, one that voices the effect Shepard’s murder had on the town, and a third explaining the company’s own experiences. Unlike journalists, company members found getting too close to their subject matter to be an advantage, not only for the group but for the participants as well. “Unbeknownst to us,” Kaufman explains, “we were providing a forum for the community to listen to itself.”
But don’t brand Tectonic as post-Freudian 12-step art therapists. Kaufman insists that catalyzing the healing process is a by-product of exploring theatrical form. “It’s a coincidence that the last two plays I’ve done have been stagings of real texts,” he says. Tectonic’s last outing was the internationally successful Gross Indecency, staged transcripts of the trials of Oscar Wilde. “Everything we’ve done is about theatrical language and pushing the boundaries of what happens on the stage. Ninety-five percent of what we see on the stage is naturalism and realism—19th-century forms that now film and television do so much better!” The content, he stresses, is not as important to him as the idea of using new collaborative models for generating material and creating work, often using found text and interviews, mixing journalism, playwriting, and performance in a manner similar to Anna Deavere Smith or Marc Wolf, but filtered through the influence of the Wooster Group. Tectonic—it means “the science of structure,” Kaufman emphasizes.
Even so, The Laramie Project‘s greatest effect so far has been emotional. Kaufman describes what happened to Laramie resident Jedediah Schultz. “He’s a Baptist, and he’s 19 years old. When we arrived, his views about homosexuality were very conservative. He’d say things like, ‘My parents say it’s wrong, I think it’s a sin, I think it’s bad.’ ” After a year of discussing Matthew Shepard’s murder, however, Schultz began to challenge his parents’ ideas and confront them. He got involved in a production of Angels in America. He became something of an activist. “Before we opened in Denver,” Kaufman remembers, “Jedediah came to one of the rehearsals. As we’re going through the play, we get to some of his text, and I look up to see him sobbing hysterically. So I stopped the rehearsal and went over and asked him, ‘What, Jed, did we do something wrong? What’s the matter?’ And he tells me, ‘I can’t believe I said those things. I was part of the problem, wasn’t I?’ The Greeks believed that the reason to do theater is to achieve catharsis. When I read about it in school, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, catharsis.’ Jedediah’s reaction made me feel like our work was done.”