Laramie: A Legacy at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, NYC
Ahead of Carly and Rosie's upcoming departure to the US, Carly spoke with Andy Paris, an original member of the Tectonic Theater Project and one of the writers and original cast members of The Laramie Project. Talking about what it was like going to Laramie in 1998 after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard and then what his experience of the play has been like in the 20 years since, this was a very special interview for Theatre Travels as we prepare to debut our production of The Laramie Project this November. In 2 weeks time, members of the original cast and writing team will reunite, alongside other actors including Neil Patrick Harris, Billy Porter and Marie Louise Parker, to perform Laramie: A Legacy - a reading of The Laramie Project to honour the life and legacy of Matthew Shepard, and to mark the 20th anniversary of his passing. We at Theatre Travels cannot wait to attend this performance! To find out more or to purchase your tickets click here. Read Andy and Carly's conversation below:
I wanted to start with a bit about your history with the project and where this journey - now 20 years on - started and has lead you. And then if you can also talk about how your involvement in the Tectonic Theatre Project began and what led to you heading to Laramie, Wyoming.
I was an original member of the Tectonic Theater Project from its inception in the early 90s. So, Moisés [Kaufman – founder of the Tectonic Theater Project and author of The Laramie Project] and I met when we were both studying at the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU and I think that sort of started the journey towards Laramie – right from the beginning. In a way, the beginning of Tectonic was because of our dissatisfaction towards the way that stories were being told in the theatre and what kind of forms they were being told in. There was a frustration, not that those forms weren’t valid, but that there was a lot of untouched opportunity to make theatre in a different way. So Moisés really formed the company around this idea that if we are not seeing the kind of theatre that we want to see and we are not seeing the kind of theatre that is modern enough to contain modern ideas, then lets make it ourselves and lets figure out a methodology that we can use and a technique and a craft that we can hone to make the kind of theatre that we want to see.
That’s a big goal…and a very impressive one!
Yeah! It is – but Moisés is a dreamer. He is a big dreamer and he really has a vision of using theatre to ask ‘how do we continue the conversation in our culture.’ They are really big ideas! So, we started out by working on plays that were already written and then Moisés got involved in a partnership to write something about Oscar Wilde. The partnership didn’t work out and they went their own ways but Moisés really wanted to keep working on this play about Oscar Wilde and so he gathered some of us together to work through this research material that he had. We were combing through all these primary sources – people talking about Oscar Wilde and what happened to him and his friends, his enemies, his family etc – so we were very much gathering these texts together and Moisés was very much fashioning how the texts might sit together and we were experimenting with it. Really, we were doing some very early version of Moment Work which is our technique now. So from this experience we really started to figure out how we wanted to work on things.
Moisés had started the term ‘Moment Work’ even years before that. I remember, I had created this other theatre company as well after I graduated from NYU and I brought Moisés to that theatre company to start teaching his methodology to those artists because I could already see its importance and how work was created.
So we were already finding this way of working that was inter-disciplinary, it was exciting, it was us searching for new forms and searching for new ways of finding narrative. For me, it was a journey of finding a conversation of how to create and also how to talk about the process of creation in a theatrical sense. For me, it was the beginning of a whole artistic journey.
When we finally got to The Laramie Project, we had been asking a lot of questions about process and about where art fits in greater society and what art has to say about a historical event like the trials of Oscar Wilde.
So when Matthew was killed – it was a devastating event in our culture and it was sort of a natural progression to ask, what responsibility do we as artists have in the conversation surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard. So we just started asking questions and we were pretty dissatisfied with the conversation that was starting to happen in the media. It felt very didactic and not particularly useful. So we started to ask questions about it and from that we realised that we really needed to ask questions of the people that were there if we wanted to find out more information. And so, Moisés said, ‘well, we should go to Laramie and we should talk to people who were there and talk to people in the town’ and figure out, not necessarily why this happened here, but to really find out what the strains in our culture are that supported this event and to question, how do we reckon that?
We were never trying to point to Laramie to say ‘well it happened in this place because these people are like this.’
And it’s not written like that at all…it’s very much written like, this could be any town, it just happened to happen here.
Right! And that’s what we found. We just found people. And we found people who just had a lot of really interesting things to say about things that were really interesting and they were speaking in a most passionate way. And I have found, in this project as well as subsequent work, that if something is really important, people start talking in very poetic language, if you can hear it. Their passion translates into language. So it was just what we could hear. It was this constant kind of poetry and language and descriptions that were just really poignant, universal and just very meaningful to us.
There was a journey of then taking all of the techniques that we had been developing through Gross Indecency [Oscar Wilde work] and those works, into a project like The Laramie Project, where there is just tonnes of material and theme and possible design elements…we were there, right, so we had all these visions of the kind of architecture that was there, the kind of environment that it was. So to be able to, as someone who is a theatre artist, to take all of that information into a room meant that the possibilities just exploded! It changed how that room could work and how that creative space could really work.
That’s really exciting for me to hear you say. I am actually going to Laramie prior to producing the show here in Sydney in November and so it’s great to hear you talk about how it informed your creative process and what that information can do to stimulate your creative environment and your art making.
Completely!! And I feel like it also provides an authenticity that you just cannot buy anywhere else. We felt like standing on that stage and telling that story, that we were meant to do that. That we were standing on enough work that we were ready to do that. I feel like when people came to see Laramie – you know, asked how it fit into my progression – I feel like it was a moment, especially when we went to Laramie and performed it for them, it was really a moment of catharsis in theatre that I had never seen before and it opened up a possibility for me for what theatre can do. And that feeling has informed everything that I have ever done since then.
I cannot imagine performing this in Laramie. I can’t imagine what that is like as a performer but not just as a performer, but as a person who has been speaking with them and knowing that they are real. And I don’t mean ‘real’ in the general sense of that’s what Verbatim theatre is but real in the sense that these were people that you had just been to have coffee with not all that long before. I just can’t imagine what that’s like to then be on that stage…
Yeah…and then that same person is there sitting right in front of you with their friends and their neighbours whilst they listen to you reflect back exactly what they said.
That has got to be a nerve racking process!
It was like a crazy room! Because we were listening to them as much as they were listening to us.
And I think that that is something that has informed everything that I have ever done since then. So when you ask me where it led me to…it led me to this sense of really being able to experience a theatrical endeavour that, and I hate to say that it made a difference, but it really felt like we were having a conversation in the community that really mattered because it made people think. And it may not have changed anything but it did affect a community and create an empathy. And I think that that is all that you can expect out of theatre. So to actually have that happen in my, sort of, formative time of late 20s, early 30s, was incredible! And the work that I am doing even now definitely stems from, and reaches for, that kind of community involvement, that wanting to bring a story to a community to unite a community, to bring people together, to ask hard questions that need to be asked, etc.
Since then, has the show been a constant part of your life over the 20 years? What’s your position on the show now and on what you all set out to do when you first went to Laramie in comparison to where the show is at today and it’s current reputation...could you have ever imagined its success coming?
Not in a million years. We never, I never…I never imagined that we would be talking about this 20 years later. Ever. And I will say, even after we did the New York run, we had been spoilt by the success elsewhere…and you know, The Laramie Project ran for a few months and it was basically critically a success but, in a sense, it really didn’t make the splash in New York that Gross Indecency did. So really, after the New York run…we were making the movie so that was something that we knew was going to happen with it and we had talked to a couple of West Coast theatres about possibly doing it…but really I thought that was kind of it. I think that one of the things that really happened was that, when it was released by the Dramatist’s Play Service as a show that anyone could produce, it was very quickly picked up by a lot of High Schools and colleges. Part of that I think was because of the practicality of it – there are so many characters so it worked for larger casts. Because this show works for a cast of 50 or for a cast of 8 and really anything in between.
And more than that, it was saying something about life in a small town and really it could be any town in America. So a lot of people related to that and to a lot of the characters which made it attractive, in all those practical ways.
But I think also, it really hit a vein. I don’t think that we quite understood that until it was reflected back to us. That that was what had happened. So when people just started doing it, and they were so interested in the process of it, it was a big surprise! I never imagined that that would be the case.
And now, it has remained a constant part of my life in a sense because I still have relationships with people – the friends that I made not only in Laramie but, of course. in the Company that created the piece as well. The play itself kind of goes in and out a little bit, of my life – when anniversaries come around it kind of rises to prominence. And it is still always surprising! When the 10th anniversary came around and we did the other play, I thought then, okay, that will now be done. And then for the 15th year anniversary we did a revival of both plays. And now for the 20th anniversary we will perform again. And it’s just been kind of like that, where it seems to everyone like it is always worth it to return to the play and I guess that is a tribute to those other Company members who worked so diligently on it to make it relatable and to make it powerful.
You know, whenever you create something you always can look back and go ‘oh I wish we had done something differently’ or ‘oh I wish we could change that part.’ So there is also kind of a feeling with this piece too of never being done.
I think that that feeling of never being done is very much a reflection too of where we are at in political issues too today – that it is still equally relevant to talk about twenty years later. It is still poignant and still has something important to say which is testament to the way you wrote it – that it was relevant then but feels equally right saying it now.
I think that there must be something that we hit on that is really universal that keeps it carrying on.
Yeah I guess so! And whatever that entails…and the complications of that. I learnt a lot about that, about the complications of perception too. That you want to put somebody in a box sometimes but they don’t quite fit. That is something that is a really strong thing to say about people everywhere – how individual they are and how we define that individuality and that there are no boxes.
I think that this play says something about that – at least I hope so. I hope that that is what people hear.
So I am going to go back 20 years here and ask, what was it like first going into Laramie? What were the emotions behind it and what was your experience like?
I had spent some time in that part of the country – I had gone to school there, I had travelled a bit there. So I had been to that part of the country quite a bit to enjoy the wildlife, etc, and so, it wasn’t foreign territory for me. But in many ways that informed my trepidation in going in there – I kind of knew that there would be a lot of people that, for whatever reason, wouldn’t appreciate us being there. And so I was nervous about it, even though I felt comfortable in the surroundings. I was also a bit shy at the time and so it took a while for me to make that first phone call.
And sure enough, the first phone call that I made was to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and to the Sheriff himself. So I call the office, and I got right through to the Sheriff, like, I expected someone to answer the phone and say ‘oh well he’s not available but I can talk to you.’ But instead, I called and I asked to speak to the Sheriff and then there is a voice back through the phone saying, ‘hello, I’m the Sheriff, how can I help you?’ So I kind of lost my breath there and I kind of stumbled through an explanation as to why I was there.
And his words were, and I am paraphrasing a bit, ‘you need to leave. You need to get out of town. You need to not be here, doing this.’
That was something that we would find here and there throughout of course, but that was the first time I called anybody!
That’s a rough beginning!
Yeah – a little – but it set the tone for me too. Like, it was a very valid question and it made me ask myself, ‘what are we doing there? Should we be doing this?’ You know, there were investigations happening and someone had just lost their child and, there were just a lot of serious things happening to other people and we were there asking questions about them from the perspectives of a New York theatre company that wasn’t going through those things.
So that experience really informed how I approached the entire creation of The Laramie Project, personally.
So moving forward again, or I guess over the last 20 years, The Laramie Project has been part of a big movement and even bigger conversation about gay rights and hate crime legislation. And I know that Judy has really been spearheading that in many ways.
So, what in your opinion has changed over the 20 years and what are you surprised hasn’t? And further to that, is there something that has changed that you are particularly proud to have perhaps been a part of calling that change to action?
Both Judy and Dennis, and Rob Debree, as well as several other people, worked diligently for a decade to bring about Hate Crimes Legislation on a National Level. And they did that, I didn’t do that, they did that. Whatever our telling of the story did to carry on the legacy of that, and of Matthew and what happened to him, and also to encourage people to continue the conversation and to question our culture, that is great.
But doing that ground work – walking into offices where you knew you were not welcome and all the other things that they did – we did not do that, that was all them. And they did it tirelessly for years. So they created that change – they did that.
Someone else will have to say whether The Laramie Project played a part in that – I hope it did. I would be very happy if it did. But really that work is grass roots work – it’s getting on the phone and talking to whoever you can and getting into parties that you are not supposed to be in and talking to people. It is a lot of that.
So, I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of change The Laramie Project brought about. Like I said, in the room when it is performed, there is a lot of empathy. That, I think, is one of the accomplishments of the play.
So clearly, for some time, Laramie stayed a part of your life and the lives of other company members as many of you went back 10 years later for the anniversary. How different was your experience as a creative practitioner going back the second time - did your methods of collecting information change or was it relatively the same? And for you, what was it like going back?
For 10 Years Later - I think that, as the play kind of illuminates, I was quite surprised by a lot of the things that I was hearing. We had all assumed a lot because we had lived with the story and we had sat through the trial and looked at all of the evidence, etc. So we kind of thought that we knew what the story was – at least according to the evidence and the officers. So when we went back and we heard all of these other ‘truths’ being told it was quite shocking. So that was one thing.
And I think that the other thing was – I talked with Jon Peacock over the phone because he was no longer living in Laramie, for one of the first interviews I did for that project, before we even really knew that we were going back. And I told him that we wanted to find out how Laramie had changed and I asked him if he had heard anything, etc.
And the first thing that he said to me was ‘I don’t know how you are going to measure that change?’ And it was actually something that I only really considered after I heard it from Jon. How do you measure it? Is it legislative? Is it how people talk on the streets? You know, how do you do that?
That was a really powerful question for me to confront. And it is something that resonates through the play – how do we talk about change in our culture? So that was something that was surprising – perhaps to our fault that we didn’t see that coming. But in the lead up I really did think, ‘oh, I wonder how it has changed, let’s go find out.’ I just didn’t think about how I was supposed to figure that out.
I think that going back was kind of cathartic but also similar because we went in with the same curiosities that we had the first time but contextualised into different questions. So we asked those questions.
Why do you think 10 Years Later is so important?
That’s a good question. I think that it is important because of the question of how do we write our own history? And how do we measure change too? And all those questions that I talked about.
But its this idea that something can happen in our culture and we create our own narrative about it. And that happens a lot in societies a lot – they create their own stories and their own narratives, and it is not always the truth.
So it is interesting and important to question ‘why do we do that?’ and ‘what is behind our own history?’ And in the context of this event that was such a microcosm of many earthquake like events that were happening all over the place, how, in that context, where it is so public and so bold…and so gruesome, how is it that we can still find a way to quibble and bend and scratch away at it to the point where it is almost indecipherable? I think that that is something that we really need to talk about.
I feel like that is essentially what is important about that play.
What do you feel audiences will still get out of seeing this play 20 years after the event?
It is really hard to say. Mainly because I never know what audiences are going to say or do, so that is a really hard question. You know, again, I think that the accomplishment of that play is that it creates a sense of empathy. So I hope that that continues to be what is conveyed in the room and then people, as a group, can watch and talk about it with each other and talk about their reactions to it.
If you were going back to Laramie this October to mark the 20th anniversary, what would you expect to see AND, likely differently, what would you want to see or hear?
I don’t know – I have never had the sense of wanting to control it in like, what I want to have happen and what I don’t want to have happen. I guess I am not quite sure what I would expect because whenever I have returned to Laramie…you know, people who talk about the play talk about this difficult place with these difficult characters…and they are, that is what makes the play so relatable. But the place itself, it just operates like a small town in Wyoming. And people have jobs and they make things and they make their lives and they fall in love and they fall out of love and they do things with and to each other – it just, it is what it is. It’s just a town. And it’s a town just like any other town…so I expect that that is what it is like.
I suppose though, obviously there was a huge shift in what people saw as the truth and what the evidence suggested over the 10 year gap. So I guess I’m questioning whether, with this extra time now, have these stories continued to develop and morph into more variations of the truth, or would you hope it has come back to the evidence? Or would you just be interested to see if they are still talking about it at all?
Yeah…I don’t know…it’s a tough one
I guess you’d have to go back and find out
Exactly – I’ll have to go back and find out. Because something that I learnt throughout this whole adventure and subsequent adventures is that you can sit down with people and you can talk to them and you can expect certain answers but their answers are always bound to be different. And you just kind of have to wait and see!
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Of anything ever?! Oh my god! Well, you know what, the first thing that springs to mind is...last spring the Pina Bausch Dance Company brought ‘Rite of Spring’ to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and it was absolutely extraordinary. Just so powerful and yeah, just extraordinary.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Bali. I know that is like your back yard but for me it’s not so Bali!
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
What’s next for you after this show? I know of course that you will be heading back to New York for the 20th Anniversary Production that we are coming over to see but what else?
Well, I have just been invited to take up a full time faculty position in North Carolina at the school of the Arts which I am very excited about. My latest endeavor…well my wife, who is also Australian, we wrote a play together called ‘Uncommon Sense’ and we have done some productions but we are looking now to find the next step for that play. It is pretty much done but I think that the productions keep getting fuller so we are ready to do it again!
It’s a play about living on the autism spectrum and it is somewhat experiential and definitely sensorial in nature and so it really began as a way to give the audience, who is not on the spectrum, an experience to gain insight a bit into what it is like on the spectrum. And then for people who are on the spectrum, we hope that they can see their reflection on the stage – which they never do because authentic performances of people on the spectrum are pretty rare! So it weaves 4 stories of 4 different people who are on very different parts of the Autism spectrum and have very different skills and challenges and how they navigate this other world – being the non-Autistic world.
So I feel like that is very much still a part of my present day in terms of what I am working on. Again it raises a lot of universal questions about how we define ourselves.
I look forward to seeing it!
Well I hope you do!!
Laramie: A Legacy is a one night only benefit event performed in New York City. Learn more here
Proceeds from LARAMIE: A LEGACY will benefit both the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Tectonic Theater Project, and their concurrent missions to educate and erase hate across the country through theater and activism. Company initiatives include Tectonic Theater Project’s Moment Work Institute, which trains over 1,000 students and emerging artists each year in Tectonic’s unique and powerful theater-making technique and The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s continuing programs to foster a more caring and just world, including hate crime trainings for hundreds of police annually.
Andy Paris. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Photos from The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM in 2013. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes
Photos from The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM in 2013. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes
Photos from The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM in 2013. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes
Photos from The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM in 2013. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes