Guest Post: "The Laramie Project Cycle" in New York

Editor's Note: This guest post from long-time GLAAD volunteer Andy Buck is part of GLAAD's effort to draw more attention to theater projects with LGBT content.

By Andy Buck

In early 2000, a groundbreaking play called The Laramie Project opened, first in Denver, then in New York. It was forged from interviews that a company called the Tectonic Theater Project had conducted in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard a year and a half earlier. Over the following decade the play won numerous accolades, including a GLAAD Media Award, and was turned into a critically acclaimed film for HBO.

On the ten-year anniversary of Shepard’s murder, Tectonic’s artistic director, Moisés Kaufman, brought many of the original writers and performers together to create a brief epilogue to the piece. But when he and his fellow artists, including Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber, returned to the city of Laramie, they quickly discovered that they had another full play on their hands. The result: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which has been performing since the fall of 2010, and comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, February 12-24, in repertory with the original play.

One of the most striking features of the new work is that Tectonic Theater was, for the first time, granted on-the-record interviews with Shepard’s two convicted murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who are both serving consecutive life terms. Pierotti and Belber, who have gone on to further acclaim as actors and playwrights separate from Tectonic, interviewed the two prisoners, respectively, and are both performing in the BAM production.

How would you distinguish The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later from the first play?

Pierotti: This one’s a little more complex. I guess if I had to sum it up, it’s about how you measure change - at an individual level, a political level - and how does change happen. The first one’s more Shakespearean in the size of its stories. In Shakespeare, people are put up against various situations that they can’t handle and they rise to it. This second one is more like a Shaw play where everyone’s duking it out over their principles. There’s a passion about ideas and the rights that people have to their particular point of view. I’m not comparing us to those playwrights, but that’s the way I think about it.

One of the most poignant facts about Ten Years Later is that it opened right on the cusp of what you might call the “It Gets Better” movement.

Pierotti: Right. In fact, Tyler Clementi killed himself when we were in Boston, the first spot on the tour.

And the play sort of asks the question, “Has it gotten better?”

Pierotti: There’s so much in the play that feels like it’s gotten worse. But what happens in it is, we start looking at the way the cultures change from all these different points of view. You get a very complex picture and actually see that really good, positive changes have come to pass because of Matthew.

None of you in the theater company had much interviewing experience before the first Laramie Project. How did you learn how to do that so well?

Pierotti: We were kind of off the hook on a certain level because we are not journalists. We mostly felt like we were just going out to listen. One thing that we did learn was that a lot of times when people stop talking, it’s not necessarily a good time to help them feel more comfortable by asking them leading questions. I learned to let people not know what to say. Because we weren’t looking for journalistic sound bites, we were looking for really emotional content. A lot of times when somebody doesn’t know how to articulate what they’re trying to say, the next thing is something really rhapsodic and intense and emotional. So it was less about learning how to lead an interview and more about learning how to let the interviewee go where they needed to go.  

Belber: I had the same experience. I had trouble at first learning how to shut up and not try to be loved by my interviewee but to let them find their voice. And to acknowledge that what I thought I was looking for in an interview was not what was going to be the treasure of the interview.

Who were the toughest to talk to?

Pierotti: The Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney interviews were hard on a number of levels. Partly because of the delicacy of the situation and partly because they didn’t let us bring tape recorders in [to the penitentiary]. Each time I spoke to Aaron I ran back to my hotel and just wrote for like three hours as quickly as I could. And later that night, more stuff would come. The more you write the more your memory opens up. The last time I visited him, they did allow me to bring a prisoner’s pen, which is a flexible pen that can’t be used as a weapon. I had a small piece of paper and was able to write down the words. 

Belber: I remember driving home the last couple times I saw Russell. I had my little iPhone and I kept pulling over to try and voice record. I was pulling over like four times on the hour-and-a-half trip back to the airport. 

You were able to tape all the other interviews in the plays?

Belber: Yeah.

What was it like to go back a decade later and revisit this story? How did it compare to the first time?

Pierotti: I found it harder. As storytellers, we look for narrative arcs, through lines, some kind of continuity. And a lot of people had left Laramie, so it was kind of hard to really feel like you were connecting to the community. Because, as we say over and over in the play, ten years have passed. So there was this sense of discontinuity. And then with some people - sometimes for covert, homophobic reasons, sometimes for libertarian reasons, and sometimes just for their personal sanity - they didn’t want to talk about it anymore. There are different motives that you can attribute to that, but I’m very sensitive to them not wanting to.

Belber: I think it helped us to go out and talk to the [wider] community, not just to the ones we had met the first time. That would have been more comfortable, but we had to go out and take the temperature of the town. It’s probably a better play because of that. We were looking at it with a dryer, less sentimental sort of feeling than would have happened had we reunited with everybody we wanted to reunite with. As it is, it’s a more philosophical look at where America is or isn’t ten years later. That was the initial impulse to go out there again, to really look at Laramie as a microcosm of where the debate is.