At the Heart of a Modern Tragedy

Barbara Isenberg, author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," is a regular contributor to Calendar

Moises Kaufman could not turn off the television. He could not put down the newspaper. Like much of America, he was mesmerized by the news of the horrific beating, robbery and eventual death in 1998 of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student attacked and left for dead by two young men near Laramie, Wyo.

"For the five days until he died, you couldn't turn on a television or a radio and not hear about it," says the 37-year-old playwright and director. "Matthew Shepard put a face on hate crimes. He was young, beautiful, starting his life. The nation as a whole said, 'Oh, my God. What's going on?' "

It was exactly the sort of question that Kaufman and his colleagues at the Tectonic Theater Project here try to ask, if not answer, onstage. So unlike much of America, Kaufman did not simply move on to the next news tragedy. The man who created the widely produced "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" had found his next theater project.

Over the next year, Tectonic company members made six trips to Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews there. Transcribed, shaped and performed, about 60 of those interviews form the core of "The Laramie Project," opening Aug. 5 at the La Jolla Playhouse and with a film version expected on HBO next year.

"I wanted to do what only theater can do," Kaufman says. "The question that 'Gross Indecency' tried to pose was, how can theater relate to history? The question 'The Laramie Project' tries to pose is, how can theater relate to current events?"

In "The Laramie Project," 10 actors play themselves, Kaufman, shopkeepers, police officers, bartenders, clergy and others in a town of 27,000 where many people knew Shepard, his killers or someone who knew them. As actors assume the personas of Laramie townspeople, re-create conversations and address the audience, the minimal set accommodates hospital updates and church services, jury selection and trials. A killer's courtroom statement and a father's forgiveness bring alive an ordinary town and townspeople brought to prominence by a tragedy beyond their control.

Shepard, a slight, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was discovered barely alive on Oct. 7, 1998, bound to a wooden fence outside Laramie. Beaten and robbed--of $20, his credit card and his patent leather shoes--by two local roofers around his age, Shepard had been left to die and probably would have if he hadn't been found by a bicyclist out for a late afternoon ride. Hospitalized, Shepard lived long enough to galvanize a nation praying for his recovery.

Shepard is not a character in the play, nor is his beating re-created onstage, yet a strong sense of him inhabits "The Laramie Project." "When I got to Laramie on my first trip--and it permeated every trip after that--one of the strongest feelings was the sense of Matthew's absence," Kaufman says. "You'd see people going to school, and Matthew wasn't going to school. You'd be in a restaurant, and Matthew wasn't in the restaurant. His absence was very present. I wanted to create a piece about absence."

Within days of the murder, Tectonic members gathered in Kaufman's living room, watching tapes of news broadcasts. More soon joined at Tectonic's Upper West Side offices, discussing the idea further. The group was looking for a project to follow "Gross Indecency." "I felt if we could record what people were saying in Laramie," Kaufman says, "we could also document what the nation was thinking and saying about not only homosexuality, but about gender, sexual politics, education, class, violence--all the fault lines of our society."

Never mind the strange logic that a bunch of New York actors could somehow make sense of a murder thousands of miles away in a small Western town. Nor did they have any indication of how people in Laramie would respond to the actors, many of them gay, descending on a community already picked to death by the media.

Kaufman recalls some hesitation and reluctance, but enough Tectonic members were interested to launch the project. "He wasn't saying let's go write a play," says Leigh Fondakowski, the show's associate director and Kaufman's closest collaborator on the writing. "He was really asking, 'Do we as a theater company have anything to contribute to the social dialogue going on?' "

"Gross Indecency" was a financial as well as critical success, and, Kaufman says, "the company had money in the bank. We used some of those funds to buy tape recorders and plane tickets, and it seems there is some kind of poetic justice in Oscar Wilde financing our being able to tell the story of another gay person whose life was destroyed."

They set out in mid-November, a month after Shepard died. "Laramie itself was a revelation," Kaufman says. "It looks like a zillion other small towns in America. It's endless--because it's the plains. The biggest sky I've ever seen. I remember thinking, 'I've never seen so much space in my life.' The media portrayed Laramie as a town of rednecks and hillbillies and cowboys, and I think the first shocker was how much it wasn't that."

Kaufman knows what it's like to be an outsider. "A lot of people saw the image of Matthew Shepard tied to the fence as a crucifixion," he says. "For me, because I'm the child of concentration camp survivors, the image that came to my mind was a concentration camp fence."

Born into an Orthodox Jewish home in Caracas, Venezuela, Kaufman attended a yeshiva. "I remember on Saturdays going to shul with my dad in the blazing hot Venezuelan sun, and we'd be walking down the streets in our yarmulkes and suits, and we were looked at a lot," he says. "But there was so much pride in my parents for being Jewish, I learned very early on that being a minority was something to be proud of.

"When I was 9 or 10, I realized I was gay, and that was very traumatic. In an Orthodox Jewish community, it's a horrendous thing to have happen. And in a Catholic, macho country, it's the worst thing you can be," he adds. "But the Jewish community had taught me that being different was not something to be looked down upon and had already given me the tools to deal with it."

On the plane to Laramie for the first time, Kaufman had "a major panic attack about the folly of the undertaking. Here I was taking my theater company to a place I knew nothing about, where a young boy had just been murdered because he was gay. There were three or four of us who were gay. Only three of us had ever conducted interviews before. It seemed like a very crazy thing."

He got everybody cell phones and said nobody was to work alone, a direction that didn't last long, although they would try to touch base daily. Yet Fondakowski and the actors indicate that most of their fears were task-oriented, talking about their initial discomfort in what several describe as prying or invading the privacy of Shepard, his friends and neighbors. "I had mixed ethical feelings," she says. "Do I have the right to be doing this?"

News camera crews had only recently left town when the Tectonic group arrived. "Everybody had had cameras in their faces at all times," Kaufman says. "The physicality of it was very brutalizing, and when they saw the way they were portrayed, they were very unhappy."

To ease the way, Kaufman contacted Rebecca Hilliker, head of the University of Wyoming's department of theater and dance, for help. "When he first called me, things here were pretty traumatic," Hilliker says now. "A number of my students knew Matthew and were in classes with him."

But when she made the connection that Kaufman was the author of "Gross Indecency," a play she admired, Hilliker was interested.

At her house, Kaufman and his actors met with faculty members and others from the community to explain his project.

Then he met with Hilliker's students, who had been assigned to read "Gross Indecency," and listened to their feelings about Shepard's killing and its effect.

Hilliker says she dropped out of the process once Kaufman was able to make connections on his own, and the actors say they were generally well-received. "Weweren't looking for sound bites," Kaufman says. "We didn't know enough. So we would spend two hours listening to people speak. Unbeknownst to us, we started providing them the space to articulate and talk about all these experiences they had been having."

Des McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, says part of the show's power is the actors' empathy for those they portray, and that compassion is clear in talking with them. Each time he went to Laramie, actor and associate writer Greg Pierotti would revisit the fence where Shepard was left to die. It became an important reminder to him of why he was there. "[Given the] worldly concerns of getting a serious piece of theater mounted anywhere," Pierotti says, "it was a really great way for me to reconnect with why I was involved in the first place."

Pierotti's first trip to the fence--and his crying afterward--is also captured onstage, as the actors play themselves as well as people they interviewed. "We felt it was responsible to remind the audience that they were [seeing] Laramie as encountered by this company," actor and dramaturge Amanda Gronich says. "We got this material through conversations. And as we overcome stereotypes, preconceived ideas and prejudices, I think the audience does too."

The Poudre Valley Hospital Web site, which got about 100 hits a day before Shepard's beating, got a million hits while updates of Shepard's condition were posted. That national interest fueled Kaufman's theatrical mission. "If there are 20 anti-gay homicides reported every year," he says, "and probably three times as many that aren't reported, why did this one resonate the way it did?"

It was, for Kaufman, "a watershed historical moment--when an event occurs in a certain culture at a certain time and operates as a lightning rod. If you listen in moments like that, all the ideas and ideologies of a culture will come to the surface. You can hear what are the philosophies by which people are leading their lives."

For him, the turn-of-the-century trials of playwright and essayist Oscar Wilde constituted an event of that nature. Victorian England's harsh punishment of Wilde's "gross indecency" with another man was, for Kaufman, "really about the destruction of an artist whose ideas were too subversive. Victorians were forced to talk about class, sex, education, the monarchy, religion. And for all those reasons, Oscar had to be silenced.

"I read everything Wilde ever wrote, every biography about him, and I started finding contradictions. Oscar Wilde would say, 'This is what happened.' Somebody else would say, 'No, this is what happened.' There were all these versions of the story, and I thought that when I finished doing my research, I would know who was telling the truth and who was not. Of course, the more research I did, the more difficult it became." Influenced by everything from Shakespeare to Thorton Wilder's "Our Town," he sought the larger story.

Here too he sought the larger story. "We did not interview the 'perps,' " he says. "It was not about them. We met and talked to Matthew's parents, but we didn't interview them for the same reason. It was always clear to me that 'The Laramie Project' was not the story of Matthew Shepard. It was the story of the town of Laramie."

A courtroom statement by Shepard's father, Dennis, asking that his son's killer not be put to death is included in the play, re-creating a father's sorrow that is heartbreaking to watch. For Kaufman, that speech is akin to Greek tragedy: "A father forgiving his son's murderer. A father saying not to proceed with the death penalty. It is Greek in scope. And the chorus is the town."

Kaufman's degree from Caracas' Universidad Metropolitana is in business, but he was a member of the school's theater company for five years. Oil-rich Venezuela had attracted many important international theater troupes while he was growing up, introducing Kaufman to such European masters as Pina Bausch and Peter Brook. In college, he performed plays by such writers as Ionesco, Moliere and Strindberg.

When, at 22, he realized he was more interested in "constructing stage events than single characters," he moved to New York, studied theater at NYU and, in 1992, founded Tectonic. Defining "tectonic" as "the study of structure and form," he adds that his goal was to create work that explored theatrical language and form. "Most of the plays that are done in this country are naturalism or realism, which are really 19th century forms and are things that film and television can do so much better. So what is the thing that theater can do that only theater can do?

"Before we did 'Gross Indecency,' I was directing plays whose writers were themselves exploring formal questions, like Samuel Beckett, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Sophie Treadwell, the late plays of Tennessee Williams. At a certain moment in our development, it became clear to me that if we were serious about questioning form, it wasn't enough to take preexisting text."

Kaufman was also not interested in what he calls "the tag team" form of play creation. "The model in which theater is most commonly created is that a writer goes into a room, he or she writes a play, comes out with a play and gives it to the director," he says. "The director runs with it to the rehearsal room, where they spend four or six weeks, then put up the play."

Not Tectonic. With nearly everyone in the cast credited as either associate writer or dramaturge, this is truly writing by collective. Nearly all of the interviews were not just conducted but transcribed by company members and transcribed to very specific requirements from Kaufman. "I told them to listen to the poetry of the vernacular--what words people used and how they used words," he says. "I wanted every 'um,' every pause, everything, and it was very important not to correct people's mistakes. We found that in people's faux pas and malapropisms lie an incredible amount of truth."

He had similar requirements as their tapes took shape as drama. "After weeks of transcribing, it became clear that no one person knew all the interviews, so the material was presented in a series of workshops," he explains. "An actor would come in and present some of what he or she had gathered. What I tried to avoid was people opening a book and reading the whole interview to us, so they had to choose. What were the things that moved them, touched them, inspired them, bothered them, troubled them, made them think? They became editors.

"It wasn't about presenting to the rest of the company the text they had gathered. It was about presenting to the rest of the company the experience they had had. And what started happening is that we became more and more in love with the material and realized we had something very profound."

Each time they'd return from Laramie, the actors would put on a workshop and presentation of their material. Proceeds from "Gross Indecency" covered two-thirds of the $250,000 cost to develop the play, Kaufman says, after which they received help from the Sundance Theatre Laboratory--Sundance's screenwriters' lab helped on the film version, he adds--as well as the New York Theatre Workshop, which each sponsored a workshop of the developing production. A Rockefeller grant essentially allowed them to finish the play.

Because Tectonic doesn't produce plays, Kaufman says, the company next sought a regional theater partner. Denver Center Theatre Company was presenting "Gross Indecency"--for the second time that year--"and they were doing a beautiful job. I developed a relationship with [artistic director] Donovan Marley, and he offered early on a place to do it. And they're a great place to develop work."

What wound up onstage is a production just under three hours, culled from more than 400 hours of tape. The show has changed slightly with each mounting, the actors say, and since the Denver opening in March 2000, "Laramie" has played off-Broadway, in Australia and Japan. Kaufman, who is now organizing a European tour, estimates there are about 20 productions going on right now at universities and elsewhere.

University of Wyoming acting student Jedadiah Schultz, a character in the play, is portraying himself in a Salt Lake City production of "Laramie" that opened earlier this month. "The Laramie Project" chronicles his growing compassion for homosexuals over the course of the play's development, and says Schultz, "who I am now versus who I was then is drastically different. I feel an obligation to capture things in the past I didn't like about myself. In this case, it's not a degree removed."

The show's original cast members will perform in La Jolla as they did earlier in Denver, New York, Berkeley and, in November, in Laramie itself. Hilliker led a drive to bring the play back to Laramie, an endeavor she says cost $30,000, which although not large by most producers' standards, required donations from about 100 organizations and individuals. "Every program in the university gave us money--geology, music, agriculture, education, nursing, student organizations," Hilliker says. "Churches raised money. It was a total community effort."

When the audience came for the first performance, Kaufman recalls, "there was this electricity in the air and fear that was tangible. People were afraid of how they would be portrayed, and the actors were terrified about how they would be received. The people of Laramie opened their minds and their hearts to us for a year and now we were there to say this is what we saw and heard. It was trial by fire."

There were five performances in the 450-seat theater on campus, and Hilliker says it could have sold out for a month. The actors participated in post-performance discussions. Says Hilliker, "it wasn't important just for the community but for the cast to be able to share their experience, feel they were validated in what they had done, and that they told a truthful story. It is the most moving theatrical experience of my life, and many people said, when it was over, they will never have an experience in the theater equal to that again. Ever."

Rulon Stacey, the Poudre Valley Hospital chief executive officer who had to both report to the world on Shepard's progress and convey to the media the emotional statements of Shepard's parents, says that seeing the play "brought back a life-changing event very, very vividly and very, very accurately. I was having a hard time watching it."

Hilliker, Stacey and others portrayed onstage will next be characters in the $4.5-million film Kaufman is now editing for an HBO showing next spring. This time, the director went back to Laramie with trucks and camera crews, not tape recorders, and Kaufman says not everyone was welcoming. "The first day we were there, this guy walked by and said, ' "The Laramie Project" sucks. Haven't we had enough?' And a gay camera assistant said, 'Yes, we have had enough.' "

Written and directed by Kaufman, the film expands the story and adds a stellar cast to assume many of the more than 60 roles that his 10 actors assume onstage. Among them are Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Irwin, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Christina Ricci and Frances Sternhagen--a lineup that drew autograph-seekers to their hotel and people portrayed in the film to the set.

Ross Katz, vice president of production at Good Machine, which is producing the film, was amazed at actor interest in the film. "Here we were in the middle of pre-strike fervor, and everybody was booked until the day of the strike. You couldn't get anybody to pay attention to anything. But a lot of actors in New York had seen the show, and we started getting calls saying they wanted to be involved. We also offered them an option to donate some or all of their salary to human rights organizations related to the Matthew Shepard murder, and many of the actors took that option."

Hilliker also appears in the film, as do many of her students, and she credits Kaufman with taking an active role in their career development.

And, she adds, Kaufman helped many other people in the community get through the healing process. "We felt maybe history would be more accurately told with him here, and that is exactly what turned out to be the case. He really manages to find truths in the play that go beyond the story of Matthew Shepard. That's a gift that Moises gave to our community."

*

"The Laramie Project," the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. Opens Aug. 5. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 2. $19-$42. (858) 550-1010.

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