The Laramie Project ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Laramie Project

The Laramie Project, written by Moises Kaufman and members of The Tectonic Theatre Project, directed by Chris Baldock, scenic design by Janine Marshall. With David Gardette, Ron Kofler, Catherine Kohlen, Olivia Hogan, Paula McDonald, Vicki Smith, Dan Walls and Brett Whittingham. Act-O-Matic 3000 at Chapel off Chapel, Prahran, until March 30.

Ok, I'll out my own bigotry first: documentary theatre isn't my bag, baby. I usually end up wondering why somebody didn't write a play.

The proper retort is, of course, that a documentary play is still a play, as much an imaginatively-made artefact as any five act tragedy. But in less than scrupulous hands, the knowledge that the story enacted before you actually happened to real people can obscure this simple fact, in the worst circumstances demeaning both theatre and the event it records. In the case of The Laramie Project, which centres on a vicious homophobic murder, this could be an especially difficult problem.

On October 7, 1998 a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was discovered bound to a fence in the hills outside Laramie, Wyoming. He had been savagely beaten by two local men, and left to die. The crime became an international cause célèbre, a symbol of shocking intolerance and hatred. The impact on the tiny rural town of Laramie was profound, and it is this impact that the play documents.

For the first ten minutes or so, as the actors earnestly outlined the process of traveling to Laramie and setting up the interviews, I wondered if someone wasn't making a terrible mistake. There's a certain piety in some kinds of American soul searching that I find difficult to swallow. Even by the end, when I was genuinely moved, I still wasn't quite convinced that as a play The Laramie Project was wholly successful. But even given my reservations, which are too complicated to elaborate here, I can't argue with the quality of the work: this is powerful theatre, and beautifully realised by Act-O-Matic 3000.

New York troupe The Tectonic Theatre Project created The Laramie Project after visiting Laramie six times over two years. They recorded more than 200 interviews, which were then shaped into a play by Moises Kaufman and the company. Perhaps I'll be forgiven some investigation into the formal properties of this work, as they are such an important part of its effect.

In his approach to the writing, Moises Kaufman consulted the master. He derived the play's form from Bertolt Brecht's essay The Street Scene, in which Brecht suggests "an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place" as a model for epic theatre. "The epic theatre," says Brecht, " return to the very simplest 'natural' theatre, a social enterprise whose origins, means and ends are practical and earthly." A pragmatically human enterprise, then, refusing transcendence in favour of an activist social purpose.

The Laramie Project also places itself squarely in a strong American tradition of artistic critique - for example, it has close affinities to Truman Capote's non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about the reasonless murder of a wheat farmer and his family in rural Kansas; and its belief in theatre as an arena for moral drama is exemplified in playwrights like Arthur Miller.

Kaufman decided to frame the company's exploration of what happened in Laramie in its own terms: the mechanisms of creating the project are exposed as part of the action, and the actors relate the circumstances of interviews before enacting them. This has a signal advantage: it permits a degree of honesty which it would be otherwise difficult to attain. The company's judgments and responses are as exposed as the people they interview.

At the same time, the form of the play does something interesting. The audience is never allowed to believe that the play is transparently telling a story; the "willing suspension of disbelief" which permits an audience to believe in "characters" is continually disrupted by a deliberate distancing. As an audience we are asked the same question that Father Roger Schimdt asks of the theatre company: are they telling it "correct"?

An important part of this aesthetic is the stripping away of theatrical illusion. One of the effects is, according to Brecht, to shift the focus of an audience's moral judgment: character is revealed by a person's actions and not, as in more traditional ideas of writing, the other way around.

Another effect is to foreground the complexities of conflicting perceptions of an event. In the case of The Laramie Project, it is a stunningly successful convention: preconceptions are blown away, and reveal instead something much more complex - and perhaps in some ways more troubling - than the media-driven picture of a redneck small town. Laramie, like most human communities, is imperfect and contradictory; but I think what comes over most strongly is a vindication of George Orwell's faith in the basic decency of ordinary people.

It does not end - cannot end - on a note of triumphal redemption; the human desire to find meaning in the terrible death of Matthew Shepard is balanced by the homophobic hate-speech of bigots like the Rev Fred Phelps, or the bitterness of the statement that, despite everything, nothing is substantially different, that no legislative changes have been made to enshrine anti-discrimination laws in Wyoming. Given the growing power of fundamentalist right wing forces in the US, that bitterness seems justified. But the play's concomitant focus on the power of ordinary resistances - on human decency - is a reminder of genuine hope.

A question Brecht asks in his essay is: "What about the epic theatre's value as art?" The elegantly stripped-down aesthetic of The Laramie Project, present in both the script and the production, is here its own answer. Its artistic value is not in question.

Director Chris Baldock intelligently eschews props or costumes, exploiting instead the full resources of his excellent ensemble cast. The very beautiful set, evocatively lit by John Cooper, is simply eight chairs placed on a bare stage which has a painted backdrop of a skyscape. Baldock imaginatively works the mise en scene to enact things as various as diary entries, a meeting by the fence where Shepard was found or a busy court room, the actors shifting between different roles as the script demands. Like the conceit of the play itself, these are deceptively simple means which work with brilliant efficacy.

Act-O-Matic 3000 is certainly a company to watch. I last saw them producing some short plays in the back room of a pub in Richmond. Then, I was impressed by their focus, passion and intelligence. It's exciting to see what this committed company can do with some resources. This is political theatre at its best: theatre that offers its questions with a clarity that never compromises their complexity, and that asks its audience, first of all, to think.

Picture: Act-O-Matic 3000 performing The Laramie Project

Act-O-Matic 3000
The Guardian: Extreme Prejudice

No comments: