On the Road With

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 14 2010 2:20 PM ET

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Here is a table full of directors, designers, writers, and interns and actress Christina Rouner rehearsing the role of Beth Loffreda in Laramie: 10 Years Later. Beth starts us off in the second play with the words, “I’m thinking about the anniversary a lot. Ten years have passed ... That’s a long time.”

She was somewhat haunted by Matthew Shepard when I interviewed her for the second play. She came to teach at the University of Wyoming just a few months before Matthew was killed. In the aftermath of the murder, she was moved to write a remarkable book. Anyone who wants to understand the complexities of this crime and the culture from which it arose must read Losing Matt Shepard.

Chapter 2 of that book opens with, “A town is not a culture, not precisely. Drive ten blocks in any direction in Laramie, and perhaps the most you could say that is definitively shared by the lives you move past is that they happen under the same quixotic weather, surrounded by the same light-struck, wind-cut plain.”

The same might be said of Tectonic Theater Project. We are not a culture. Not precisely. In my previous column I described my disappointment with some in Laramie who have changed the narrative of Matthew’s murder. Some disagreement in the company ensued regarding my analysis of the situation in Laramie and whether it was appropriate for me to make a judgment on the subject. To a degree the concerns are warranted. Our role, after all, has always been to listen to Laramie and report back what we hear.

So just to be clear, the perspectives that I express in this series are mine alone. I don’t speak for our theater company. Just as there can be no simple understanding of what Laramie “believes” — as if a town could believe anything — there can be no simple understanding of what Tectonic “believes.”

The plays we make are born out of collaborative effort, out of our willingness to be influenced by one another, and out of our compromises when we continue to disagree. This divergence of opinions and aesthetics, along with the struggle to forge them all into a cohesive whole in our plays, is what gives rigor to the work. Our individual beliefs and perspectives about the lives we represent and the stories we tell always remain our own. The fact that Moisés Kaufman has created a company where this kind of struggle and creativity can unfold and that I am a part of it is one of the more satisfying situations in my life.

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We are rehearsing part 1 now — the original play, The Laramie Project. This is a photo of the original production by our lighting designer, Betsy Adams. The sets are by Robert Brill, and the costumes are by Moe Schell. It is a gorgeous production thanks to these genius designers, and we are lucky enough to have all three of them back for the tour.

I love everything about this play. It is so simple. A performance space, some chairs and tables, a few pieces of video, a box full of prairie grass, one costume piece for each character we play, and a changing landscape of precise and elegant light. With these few elements eight actors tell the story of a typical Western town dealing with an epic tragedy.

The play is an actor’s dream. We each get to play from five to eight characters, many of whom go through Shakespearean challenges. The play requires emotional range and precise character work. It is full of great jokes and wild characters that require comic skill. These are the kinds of typical challenges that actors love and crave. Beyond that, however, this play and 10 Years Later offer another challenge to the performer.

These are ensemble pieces. The entertainment industry is full of stars (real or imagined), and ensemble work is not for everyone. But ensemble work is what makes or breaks any production of The Laramie Project that I have ever seen. The play is not a prurient reenactment that says, “Look what happened to Matthew Shepard and to Laramie.” It is a company of actors meeting an audience and saying, “We went to Laramie. We saw and heard these things. We met these astounding people. Let us tell you about that experience.”

The performers control the drive of the narrative. The process of play-making and storytelling is never concealed. Everything we do, no matter how funny or dramatic, is ultimately functional and in the service of telling Matt’s and Laramie’s story. Besides lighting and video, there is no offstage support. We move each set piece when it needs to be moved, we do our costume changes and character transformations onstage just at the moment that that character is required, and then, when they have told that piece of story, we return to being ourselves. We usually stay onstage to help each other with costume changes or to simply join the audience in listening to and enjoying another company member’s work.

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Jeremy Bobb listens to Christina Rouner as she rehearses the role of Judy Shepard in part 2, Ten Years Later. It’s a gorgeous portrayal. Judy talking about Matthew is, of course, one of the moments where the play really soars. Christina does impeccable work, and she certainly has the capacity to steal the show here. A lesser actress might be tempted to do that with grand displays of emotion. Yet in Christina’s restrained performance, it is not the actress and her work we see, but a mother remembering the son she loves. Her work as Judy serves the larger story.

This kind of acting is ensemble work at its very best. The plays are quite balanced, and everyone has a number of moments like this one in each of the plays, where their piece of the story becomes the center for a while. A hilarious turn. A moment of depth and subtlety. A complex speech. A dramatic crescendo. When it’s your moment the plays require tremendous craft. Ultimately, though, when you see a good production of The Laramie Project and now Laramie: 10 Years Later, even when they are stunningly performed, you walk away with a sense of the town, of Matthew, and of the story rather than of stunning performances. Clearly, every play has some of this quality, and actors should always ultimately serve the story they tell. But these two plays have the ensemble work built into their very structure, and companies ignore it at their peril.

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We actors can be a “fabulous” lot. And it can be ego-deflating to work so hard to make our performances strong only to have that personal effort blended into a collective effort that creates the audience’s much larger emotional journey. But ultimately, with these two plays, the job is collective, and it is a great joy when a whole company is willing to work in this way. There are no star turns in The Laramie Project, and no individual performance can ever be as staggering as the story we serve.

Above is the ensemble in the rehearsal space. At the center in the gray T-shirt is one of our directors, Leigh Fondakowski. She is restaging part 1 based on Moisés Kaufman’s original production 10 years ago, but she is certainly directing the piece in her own right as well. Because she is head writer of The Laramie Project, her understanding of the characters and the narrative is shockingly penetrating. I myself am one of the writers of the play and have lived with the story for over 10 years; still she continually offers me penetrating new insights into my characters and my piece of the story. Even in the McKinney scene in part 2, a scene I wrote, she uncovers more material for me to mine than I knew was there. That’s scary! Most importantly, she never loses sight of the storytelling and the narrative. She guides each of us in raising the level of our individual performances but never allows us to lose sight of the larger story we are telling. In these two plays it is something much greater than individual opinion or artistic achievement that audiences ultimately come to witness and walk away remembering. They remember Matthew’s story. And they remember the complexities and struggles of an ordinary American town in the aftermath of extraordinary suffering.