Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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The Laramie Project

October 13, 2009

Why bother to write anyway? Why bother to spend hours, days, weeks, months, years, writing and revising and honing a piece to make it say what you want to say? Why struggle to spin stories from raw material that doesn't want to be spun, and that may lacerate your skin as it passes through your fingers? Why send manuscripts out to editors who don't bother to even acknowledge their receipt?

Some days the best answer I can come up with is "What else am I going to do? and how else can I make sense of the world and my place in it?" Some days that isn't enough to keep me going. The last two nights have reminded me of the power of words -- spoken words, written words, words played out on a stage. Sunday evening I went to a staged reading of the original Laramie Project at the Vineyard Playhouse. It served as a prologue to last night's debut of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Last night wasn't just a world premiere, it was a worldwide premiere. An estimated 150 theaters, in all 50 states and 14 other countries, staged the new play at the same time. The introduction and the post-play discussion were webcast from Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The Playhouse was packed, and so was Alice Tully Hall.

A month after the brutal beating and death of Matthew Shepard, members of the Tectonic Theater Project, led by TTP director Moisés Kaufman, went to Laramie, Wyoming, to learn what they could about Laramie, the events surrounding Shepard's death, and how his death had affected the town. Over several months they conducted more than 400 interviews with over 100 residents. The Laramie Project script was developed from those interviews and from journals kept by members of the company. Onstage, actors speak the words, a multifaceted image of the town emerges, and almost immediately a shadow begins to coalesce within it: Shepard, who was 21, is approached by two young men in a local bar; he leaves with them; a day and a half later a biker finds his body outside of town, tied to a cattle fence. At first the biker can't believe that what he's seeing is a human body. Shepard was still alive, but he never regained consciousness. He died six days later in a hospital.

With 17 actors on the small Vineyard Playhouse stage, each speaking in the voices of several "characters" -- Laramie residents, law enforcement officials, Matthew's friends and classmates at the University of Wyoming, Tectonic Theater Project members, Judy and Dennis Shepard -- the overlap and contradictions of community are created. People struggle to make sense of what happened and of its aftermath, as the case becomes a cause célèbre across the country and, eventually, one of the killers pleads guilty and the other is convicted of kidnapping and murder. Both are sentenced to life in prison.

When the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie in 2008, much had changed. The Laramie Project had become one of the most produced plays of the decade; the death of Matthew Shepard had become iconic. The TTP members were no longer exotic visitors from far-off New York: their earlier work had shaped the national and international image of Laramie, Wyoming, and not surprisingly many Laramie residents had strong feelings about it. Again the actors onstage create a multifaceted image, but this time the shadow that emerges and coalesces within the image is made up of revisions and reinterpretations of Matthew Shepard's death. In the original play, the national press is alluded to, but it doesn't play an active role. In the "epilogue" an episode of 20-20 aired in 2004 looms very large. It concluded that Matthew Shepard's beating and death was drug-related and robbery-motivated; his homosexuality had little or nothing to do with it. This contradicts the written record, including the transcript of Aaron McKinney's trial, and what the writer-producers of the show were told by interviewees who were involved in the case. One person after another says that "he heard" it was a drug deal gone bad, that McKinney and Russell Henderson wanted to rob Shepard but that was all, that Shepard was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that version has become "truth" for many people, even though the facts refute it point by point.

This is what fascinates me. Everyone's the hero of their own story, as I'm always saying, and the process of revision and reinterpretation is how we maintain the right relationship between ourselves and our stories. If facts threaten to disrupt the relationship, we'll revise the facts, or reinterpret them, or erase them, or bury them under plausibilities that could be facts but aren't. And that goes for communities as well as individuals. I cannot tell you how often during the first play I mentally substituted "Martha's Vineyard" for "Laramie," especially when the speaker was saying what a wonderful place Laramie was, that its ethos was "live and let live." The real heroes of this particular story are the ones who were broadsided by unexpected events and managed to keep their eyes and hearts and minds open. Most of them wound up less comfortable and less complacent than they were before -- which goes a long way toward explaining the revisionism.

I've lived long enough on Martha's Vineyard to watch revision and reinterpretation change the way events are remembered, or not remembered. During the long fight over the proposed Bradley Square project in Oak Bluffs, some of its proponents argued that the existing neighborhood was a seedy, rundown place before the upscale "Arts District" started to grow along Dukes County Avenue. For evidence they pointed to the stabbing death of Gary Moreis in July 1998, the first murder on Martha's Vineyard in 20 years. The death was indeed drug-related, but to extrapolate from that the picture of a drug-infested neighborhood in urgent need of rehab was unfair and it enraged longtime residents of the neighborhood, not a few of whom were members of, related to, or friends of the Moreis family.

It was exciting to be part of this theatrical first, with some 150 theaters linked to the flagship production at Alice Tully Hall, but at the end of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, I wanted to discuss how the issues raised relate to Martha's Vineyard. The questions asked by the New York audience were not my questions. True, audience members at the participating theaters could submit questions via Twitter, but if you divide a hypothetical number of questions by the minutes available, you can't help realizing that this was strictly pro forma. Martha's Vineyard, and I bet just about every community that hosted a production of LP: Ten Years Later last night, want to be the heroes of their own stories. So this morning we're busily fuzz-and-fading the details, persuading ourselves that this is just about Laramie, or at least Somewhere Else, and that if we invite gay people to dinner, we haven't got a problem.

Different communities have different fault lines, but I doubt the community exists that doesn't have some.


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