Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Images, Top to Bottom: Cover of script version of The Laramie Project; cast of the Langham Court Theatre production (from Times Colonist website)

1. The Laramie Project is a documentary theatre piece...can you explain briefly what exactly that kind of theatre is?

Documentary theatre is a theatre piece, often created collectively by a company of actors, as in this play, and based on documented materials of some kind…interviews are the key material used in this play, but also makes use of news broadcasts, trial transcripts and journal entries written by the members of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming after the beating death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Documentary theatre is really nonfiction theatre in which we are aware of the truth of what we are seeing, that it is put together and presented in creative and theatrical ways, but that the story being told is factual.

2. This play premiered in 2000...does it hold up after over a decade in time from the murder of Matthew Shepard?

I am sure that director Moises Kaufman and his company could never have imagined how The Laramie Project would take on a long life after their original performances in Denver, Laramie and New York. Since then the play has been performed in dozens of high schools and colleges across North America and around the world. It has become one of the best known plays to tackle the sadly ever-present problem of homophobia and violence against gay people, especially in performances by and for young people, who are in many ways the ideal audience for this story. I saw a production by drama teacher and local actor Alan Penty at Vic High a few years back and found it packed quite an emotional punch when done by teenagers for their own peers. While the timeliness of the events of the play may have faded since 1998, the problem is still with us, and in recent days the bigger problem of violence in America, with the shootings in Tucson, made me see the play through those lenses as well. So I think that there will always be an audience for a play dealing with these real-life issues…particularly, as I said, an audience of young people who can create very intolerant homophobic environments in some schools.

3. How did the Langham Court production do with this challenging topic?

Director Roger Carr is a retired drama educator and directed the play in his former high school in 2005. I admire him for taking on the challenge of programming Laramie Project into the Langham Court season as it is definitely not the typical play seen there. Carr has chosen to populate the play with a very large cast of 33 actors in total, some of whom double-up on roles to present the over 60 interviews and excerpts from other documents included in this nearly 3 hour production. The show is presented on a bare ramped stage, designed by Julius Maslovat, with multiple side entrances that facilitate getting cast members on and off efficiently. And the upstage end of the ramp features the barb-wire fence that Shepard was bound to in his attack by two young men who were angered by his overt homosexuality. There is judicious use of lighting by Karrie Wolfe, and slides and video designed by Nancy Roach, on the scrim at the back of the stage, which mostly work well.

While I felt the production was quite strong overall, with some very good work from a number of company members, my main quibble with the production was the choice to expand the cast number from the original 8 to the 33 we see at Langham. Why is this a problem? For me, the theatricality of watching a small company of actors morph themselves into so many different characters is what keeps the play from being basically a staged version of dozens of talking head style interviews. While Carr has staged the show with his usual high level of capability, there is a sameness to the way the four or five Tectonic Theatre actors introduce someone they interviewed and then stand there with a microphone or pen and notebook while another actor comes out to give that interview. This becomes a bit wearing in such a long show, even though I did find myself moved to tears at times simply due to the empathy almost anyone would feel when hearing the details of this murder.

4. Were there any standout performances in such a large cast?

I was impressed with the work of a number of younger actors in this show, although it also features solid work from more seasoned Langham Court regulars, such as Kevin Stinson, Penelope Harwood, and Eric Holmgren. I really enjoyed seeing all the new faces and work from Sean Baker, Giordana Venturi, Melissa Taylor, Jared Gowan, Joanne James, Gary Garneau and James McDougall. Henry Skey does very well in his role as the bartender who served Matthew Shepard the night of his attack, and Nicole Evans and Gloria Snider do well in one of the very few actual scenes in the play, between the female police officer who was first on the scene when Shepard was found tied to a barb-wired fence outside of Laramie (over 18 tortured hours after being beaten) and the officer’s mother. The whole company is to be commended for the depth of commitment they bring to the play, which is clear and consistent throughout its long running time.

5. Any final thoughts on the play or production?

The Laramie Project offers a serious theatregoer much food for thought. My concern is, quite frankly, that Langham Court regulars will stay away because it is such a challenging play, which would be a shame. If the show had been judiciously trimmed down to a shorter running time that might have helped quite a bit, as the first act is 90 minutes right now. And I also hope that this production attracts an audience who needs to hear this story, to have their own values questioned and shaken, rather than the kind of liberal and progressive crowd who will come only to have their values affirmed.

No comments: