Voices from Laramie

  • A month after the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998, the orgy of media coverage and national soul searching over this horrific hate crime was beginning to die down. But just then the beleaguered town of 27,000 got another influx of visitors. They were actors from New York City who had cast themselves in new roles--as reporters. With tape recorders in hand (and working in pairs at first, in case there was any trouble), they fanned out across the community to interview people affected by the crime: the bartender who saw Matt Shepard leave with the two men later convicted of his murder, the emergency-room doctor who treated Shepard at the hospital, friends of the killers, police officers, religious leaders, college officials, ranchers.

    The actors talked to nearly 200 people and amassed some 400 hours of interviews over the next year. Verbatim excerpts from those interviews make up the text for The Laramie Project, an unusual amalgam of play and documentary that is about to open in New York City after an acclaimed run in Denver. There, with many Laramie residents who are portrayed in the work sitting in the audience, the show drew standing ovations. "It brought a whole new focus on events," says Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune reporter Tiffany Edwards, who choked back tears on opening night in Denver. "That's the difference between theater and journalism."

    That difference is what Moises Kaufman is exploring. The Venezuelan-born playwright and director used a similar technique in his last play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, drawing dialogue primarily from historical writings and transcripts. In the Shepard case, he saw a "watershed" contemporary event and enlisted members of his Tectonic Theater Project to help develop a stage work from it. The actors found the townspeople bruised by the media yet surprisingly willing to talk. "What helped was that we were clearly not experts and were groping our way," says cast member Greg Pierotti. The interlopers won the community's trust: Kaufman even helped a woman move furniture when she was evicted from her low-income home.

    Having just started previews for a May 18 off-Broadway opening, Kaufman and company are still trying to pare down the play's bulky three-hour length. But the work's passion and power are clearly in evidence. On a stage populated mainly by wooden chairs and tables, eight actors talk directly to the audience, describing the interviews they did and re-creating them at the same time. There are choice, often harrowing details: the bartender recalling that the two killers paid for their pitcher of beer entirely in dimes and quarters; a deputy sheriff noting that the only place on Shepard's face not caked with blood was where there had been tears; an antigay Baptist minister expressing regret for the crime along with hope that in his last moments Matthew "had time to reflect on his lifestyle." (Shepard is not a character.) All this is enhanced by the shrewdly minimal staging: snatches of haunting music, a patch of prairie grass, the simple movement of actors about the stage--now talking, now listening, always participating in the collective act of trying to understand.

    Like Anna Deavere Smith, Kaufman is pioneering a new genre of theatrical reportage. But where Smith's one-woman shows (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) showcase the performer as much as the journalism, Kaufman is aiming for a more radical redefinition of what theater is capable of. The project, he says, "taught me something about theater that I had never really felt. And that is the origin of theater is a community talking to itself. It was a striking experience to think that perhaps in Greek times, when this started happening, it was about 'us,' or an idea of 'us.' It was a shock, really, to think, 'Oh, my God, so this is what theater is supposed to do!'"

    The Laramie Project has provided catharsis for a wounded town, but will it be a fulfilling experience for audiences far removed from the events? Kaufman thinks so. "The play," he says, "tells the story of a New York theater company traveling to the heartland to listen to American voices." It was, for both actors and audience, worth the trip.