BY Bruce Shenitz
September 10 2009 8:00 AM ET
Both plays present the complexity of life behind the seemingly placid exterior of a small town. In Our Town, especially in productions mounted over the past couple of decades, directors have tended to emphasize the darker currents that flow beneath the town’s apparently cheerful surface. The Laramie Project, on the other hand, takes a story we thought we knew -- a place that many outsiders took to be a ground zero of evil -- and presents a much more complicated version of life there. As New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley noted when Laramie opened, “This play is Our Town with a question mark, as in ‘Could this be our town?’ There are repeated variations by the citizens of Laramie on the statement ‘it can’t happen here,’ followed immediately by ‘And yet it has.’ ”
That fundamental questioning is one of the reasons productions of the play often evoke controversy. “More often than I would have ever imagined, the play is banned, or the kids are told that they can’t do it,” Fondakowski says. “So it becomes this kind of thing that they can really rally behind to make a very strong statement about what kind of theater they want to make and what they want to say.”
“Tell the story about the ‘power lesbians,’ ” Pierotti says, which brings on some laughter from the three other writers, all of whom are actors as well. The actors nicknamed a group of young women in a Burbank, Calif., high school “the power lesbians” when their production of Laramie was banned last year -- and they didn’t take no for an answer. They rehearsed on one student’s backyard patio, and some members of Tectonic went to help them with the production. (The theater company has a $150,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to support members in working with high school and college productions of Laramie all over the country.) Eventually, the Colony Theatre in Burbank donated the use of its 276-seat theater, along with costumes, props, programs, and help with sound and lighting.
These stories don’t always end happily. Earlier this year an Oklahoma teacher was fired after showing the film version of Laramie and assigning the text of the play to one of her classes. “It’s not a won battle,” Pierotti says.