The Soul of Laramie

Laramie Project

What The Laramie Project aspires to is remarkable. An enacted investigation into the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, the play and its performers achieve what Juilliard President Joseph Polisi once called “the artist as citizen”, the use of art to advocate for a better society. Just five weeks after Shepard was brutally beaten on October 6, 1998, the Tectonic Theater Project, led by director Moisés Kaufman, went to Laramie, Wyoming to ask questions and collect information, forging a work of art that has arguably become the most comprehensive study of Shepard’s murder. On stage now at BAM and performed in repertory with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, the full work offers nearly five hours of first-person accounts, performed by Tectonic company members, that shed light on the local community, the perception of gays, and the redefining of hate crimes.

TheLaramie Project is so widely acclaimed and its subject matter is so inherently heartrending, that I was surprised by how lackluster the production was. There are many powerful revelations in the work – about the trial, the transition of Mrs. Shepard from private mother to fearless advocate, and the way the media tried to downplay homosexuality as a primary cause of the crime. But each one was presented as a direct address to the audience, as though reading quotations from an article. The breadth of interviews was impressive. But where was the play? It somehow got lost in the documentary.

Blending research with provocative storytelling is an incredible challenge. The best recent example I’ve seen is How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the AIDS crisis and the pursuit of effective treatment among activist groups. Director David France presents an overwhelming amount of historical data and documentary footage, but he finds a soul within the film as well. It felt disappointing both nights at BAM that a work so well-assembled, based on events so heartbreaking, would come across as dryly as it did.

Christopher Shinn, the Pulitzer Prize finalist, pinpoints desire as the missing element in The Laramie Project. For a study so in-depth about a gay man, the play doesn’t discuss desire in the gay community – attraction, relationships, sex both intimate and casual. That absence propelled Shinn to write a new play as “a response to all [The Laramie Project] avoids”, he told me. The new play, Teddy Ferrara, is currently onstage through March 3rd at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The play, which confronts gay college students who come to terms with the suicide of a withdrawn gay freshman, seems to be linked to the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi in 2010. But Shinn’s ambitions are more expansive. He explores gay sexuality in all of its complexities, from the dynamics of committed relationships to the expectation that gay men will cheat. “It asks the audience to enter on the level of desire,” Shinn says.

Of course, the narrative of Teddy Ferrara is vastly different from The Laramie Project. But talking to Shinn about how The Laramie Project inspired him to write a new play affirmed what I felt was missing, despite the Tectonic Theater Project’s many talents. The people we meet in Laramieare certainly impassioned; it’s just the storytelling that isn’t.