In the months following the fall 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, WY, director Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled to the city (population 26,687) to see if there was material in the event for a play. They didn't exactly know what the nature of the piece would be, but using profits from Kaufman's earlier Off-Broadway and regional smash, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, company members (writers, directors, dramaturgs, actors) visited Laramie several times and collected hundreds of hours of interviews. In New York City, the material was sifted though and, in rehearsals and workshops, actors performed some of "characters" they had interviewed -- quirky, humane Laramie locals who were examining themselves through the lens of what was arguably one of the crimes of the century. In the process, a Tectonic writers' group splintered off to create the script, research continued, workshops were mounted and the piece took form. It was decided early that the play, The Laramie Project, would not be about Shepard, but about the town's response to the crime -- and about Tectonic's response to the varied people of Laramie. Collage? Docudrama? Brechtian? The play, opening at the Union Square Theatre May 18 after a tryout in Denver, is all of that. And it's likely to be talked about with the same passion as the crime was. Kaufman spoke with Playbill On-Line about the project and its development.
Playbill On-Line: When The Laramie Project was playing in Denver, it was billed as a "cultural pulse-taking."
Moises Kaufman: The way I think about it is that there are certain events in history that serve as [turning points]. There are a lot of ideas and idealogies and thoughts -- beliefs -- running around in certain cultures at certain times, then something happens that really concentrates all of these thoughts and ideas into a checkpoint, in a way. The trials of Oscar Wilde was an event like that: Full of emotion and passion and pathos, but at the same time if you read the transcripts of the trials you can see where Victorians were in terms of sexuality, gender and class. In the transcripts you hear Victorians speak in their own words and tell you how they're thinking.
PBOL: And you saw the murder of Matthew Shepard as a turning point event?
MK: These kinds of gigantic events really push people to speak.
PBOL: Do you remember where you were when you first heard the news of the murder of Shepard?
MK: Yes. I remember very vividly. I opened the door to my apartment and I picked up The New York Times and there it was. And immediately the image of the fence, for me, was very, very strong. [Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence in the freezing prairie.] That's one of reasons it resonated, because the nature of the crime.
PBOL: The crucifixion image?
MK: A.) the crucifixion or b.) being tied to a fence. To me, that even reverberated to the concentration camps. It's an image that's ripe with metaphors. PBOL: Did your friends in your native Venezuela know about this crime? Was it known internationally?
MK: It was international. They knew about it. The person we interviewed at the hospital said they got three million e-mails from around the world.
PBOL: The facts and tensions of the real story are shocking. For example, the fact that Shepard and his assailant were being treated in the same emergency room at the same time.
MK: I think the most incredible fiction is reality.
PBOL: The piece made me rethink the definition of journalism, of what a reporter is.
MK: In what way?
PBOL: I expect artists to be manipulators. And in this you seem very even-handed. There's a true sense of docudrama and documentary.
MK: It's funny that you say that because it's the exact opposite of what we're trying to do. What we're trying to do is not so much say this is what is, or this is documented or this is journalism. This is a story of a trip. This is what we saw and what we heard. The difference between what we're doing and journalism, or a documentary, is that by placing the company at the center of the piece what you're seeing is our impressions -- it's much more inner impressions than theatre that pretends to create a document.
PBOL: It's made clear at the top of the show that this is about a journey made by theatre people, not journalists, but it feels very objective. The people you interviewed asked you to get the story "right" and "correct."
MK: I felt a great responsibility. We weren't writing a play about people who have been dead a hundred years, we were writing about people who were alive and who were going to come to the show. It was a very clear decision on my part to open in Denver, [at the invitation of the Denver Center Theatre Company] which is two hours from Laramie. People in the play saw themselves.
PBOL: Were the people you interviewed wary of you, as they might be with reporters, or more open because you were artists?
MK: I think the latter if only because, remember, when we got there we didn't know what we were doing. Because we don't do this as a job, there was a certain naivete and a certain willingness to listen. It was very shocking to me that you could walk into a bar and sit next to somebody, take out a tape recorder and say, "I'm writing a play, can you talk to me?" And then I'm having conversations with 80-year-old cowboys! We all live in this crystal bubble of New York Theatre. And as much as we like to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan and have the ability to explore and understand other cultures, we live in a very, very small world.
PBOL: Were relationships forged and friendships made that will last?
MK: I think so. You heard in the play, "I love ya, honey" [from one of the Laramie residents/characters]. That's why I keep saying this is the story of the journey of this company of actors.
PBOL: You didn't have a third act until the trial of the second killer in 1999. When Matthew Shepard's father addresses the killer in the courtroom, it's like poetry.
MK: Isn't it something? It's Greek: A father forgiving his son's murderer. You read it in Greek drama and Shakespeare. It's just awe-inspiring. It feels like a new era is beginning when we come to this.
PBOL: Yet we don't know for sure that this is a turning point for how gays and lesbians are viewed...
MK: We haven't had time to see what happens next. What we can say is that it was a moment where the nation came together and said, "This is wrong." It is a point where for the time that it lasted, people talked a lot about it. It is my belief that that is the major change: That the dialogue surfaced in a way that we hadn't talked about it. It wasn't only a dialogue about homosexuality, it was a dialogue about education, violence, about why kids are doing this to kids, about class, about special rights, about this profound belief we have in American society that we all have the same rights. How is that idea panning out in reality? In that sense, it was a cultural event, a national event. A moment where we as a nation, said, "Wait a minute."
-- By Kenneth Jones