To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Preparing for ‘The Laramie Project,’ a Zoom department show

In anticipation of its virtual production of “The Laramie Project,” the Department of Theater Arts held a panel on Nov. 8 featuring Laramie’s playwright and director Moisés Kaufman and Brandeis alum Scott Barrow (MFA ‘00), who performed in the first tour of the play in 2000. The Laramie Project is a work of documentary theater produced by the Tectonic Theater Project, a theater company that Kaufman founded in 1991 and still directs. The play explores the town of Laramie, Wyoming, where 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard was killed in an LGBTQ hate crime in 1998. 

In the writing process (which took place over 20 years ago now), Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie six times over the course of a year and a half, interviewing over 200 of the town’s residents in an attempt to uncover how this horrific act of violence could have happened.

Although media portrayals at the time portrayed Laramie as a conservative town full of hicks and rednecks, Kaufman thinks it is important not to fall prey to these preconceived notions of the Midwest. After all, Kaufman noted, Laramie was one of the most liberal towns in Wyoming at the time; it’s a town that has a university. 

Despite the commonly-cited explanations of religiously influenced conservatism and homophobia, Kaufman believed that there might be deeper cultural forces at play. In fact, there were deeply-rooted divisions in Laramie that Kaufman believed would speak to divisions in American society as a whole. 

“The great thing about Laramie,” Kaufman said, “is not that it is unique. It’s that it is so much like so many other places.” Thus, understanding Shepard’s murder in Laramie might help to understand larger patterns of homophobic violence in America.

This drive to understand the messy roots of political division is still relevant today. As Kaufman said, “So Biden won the presidency, right? And yet 70 million people voted for Trump. We’re in a very divided country. And the play speaks to that division.”

Some consider the play a “docu-drama,” since the work is an amalgamation of news reports, interviews, theatrical technique and reflections from the theater makers themselves. But Kaufman resists the label. Although the producers rigorously interviewed the town’s residents and worked to be faithful to the subjects’ stories, the play is an interpretation of reality, influenced by the perspectives and biases of the many theater makers and subjects involved. Rather than being a journalistic representation of the facts, then, the play is “a narrative constructed by somebody.” 

As Kaufman said, “We have our own prejudices. We have our own system of beliefs, right? So, what you were going to see was not the facts. In fact, what you were going to see was the meeting of two cultures.”

What makes the play so engaging, Barrow said, was that the interview form was well suited to the content: “It’s the real people, the real voices, the real interviews. If you fictionalize that, then there would be some sort of a distance between the audience and what’s going on on stage.” 

This conversation between form and content is one of Tectonic’s primary concerns, as they are always searching for the best form through which to deliver their content. Now more than ever, this question weighs on all artists’ minds: How can we make compelling, relevant art during a pandemic? With so many artistic restrictions now, what remaining formats are suitable for our content? 

While The Laramie Project is one of the most frequently-performed plays in America, Brandeis is breaking new ground with this production. The Virtual Design Collective (ViDCo), a collection of designers creating live performances through virtual platforms, has been collaborating with Brandeis Theater Arts to create the video for one of the first fully-virtual productions of the play. 

The digital production includes several sound and media designers as well, including Boston University alumni Anaís Azul and Sajada Domino. With such digital innovations, these theater makers are delivering the same content in a radically different form, traversing the boundaries of theater and cinema. This performance is nothing less than an exploration of what theater can, and should, be.

Tickets for The Laramie Project will be available until showtime via streaming partner ShowTix4U.com, and the show’s program is available here. The Theater Arts department is hosting several Laramie-related events this week as well. The work will be streaming this Thursday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Nov.14  2 p.m. and will be available on demand all day on Nov. 15. Tickets are free for students, and pay what you can for all other attendees.

Sunday’s panel was hosted by Brandeis Theater Professor Isaiah M. Wooden and was co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Department of Romance Studies and the Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST) Program.

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