“At the start of the interview, he was sitting down behind his desk.” Broad–shouldered senior Nick Carrano projects his tenor voice at the empty red-upholstered seats in Maloney Hall’s Black Box Theater on the campus of Central Connecticut State University. Four bare light bulbs hang over the corners of the performance space. Members of the ensemble sit onstage, scattered between clothes racks and sparse props. Bearded senior Kyle Riedinger pushes a trunk upright in front of one of the many chairs sitting center stage. Director Thomas Delventhal observes from the front row, knees up against his chest, a pair of glasses pushed over his white hair, and his hand over his chin.
Carrano is playing the role of Tectonic Theater Project company member, Greg Pierotti. Carrano’s Greg talks about his meeting with Laramie, Wyoming Detective Sergeant Hing. He holds a long brown coat taken down from one of the clothes racks on stage.
Carrano pauses and looks at the upright trunk and the chair behind it. He looks again at the coat then back out to the audience. “Sitting something like this.” He slings on the coat, sits down with a slouch behind his “desk,” and becomes deep-voiced Detective Sergeant Hing of the Laramie Police Department. Hing, whose family has lived in Laramie for four generations, defines the town as a good place with good people. He nods his head.
The student actors are beginning to grasp the idea of playing a multi-faceted organism living in an attic set. Now that the focus of the rehearsal turns to the story, Delventhal and the student actors dive into identity and community in their production of The Laramie Project.
On October 7th 1998, gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, covered in dry blood from a beating. He died from his injuries five days later. Over the next year, the citizens of Laramie struggled with the loss of their tranquil way of life. While locals repeated the motto “live and let live,” gay local Jonas Slonaker felt the phrase “was such crap.” A motel sign in town read, HATE IS NOT A LARAMIE VALUE. Muslim UW student Zubaida Ula trumpeted, “Everyone needs to own this. We are like this.” With many eyes on southeast Wyoming, a dialogue about LGBT discrimination spread throughout the country. One of the many curious onlookers was Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project.
Kaufman and ten other company members traveled to Laramie six times interviewing residents about the crime and the effect it had on the community. The two hundred interviews were edited into their play The Laramie Project, where eight people play almost seventy characters. The excerpts are tied together to tell the story of Shepard’s beating and the subsequent national news coverage and trial of the local men accused. Rather than scenes, the play is presented in “moments,” seamless units of time that, according to Kaufman, help the viewer analyze the story from a “tectonic” point of view. Since its premiere in Denver in 2000, the play has been seen by over 300 million people and has been made into an HBO movie.
They have to find Matthew in their own hearts.
Delventhal stops the rehearsal of the first moment titled “A Definition.” The ensemble looks over to him.
“Nick, I know I’ve told you to think about your characters. Have you done that?”
“Okay, great. So, what do you think Hing thinks about Greg?”
“He doesn’t trust him,” Carrano says.
Delventhal prods Carrano for more, balancing his role as teacher as well as director. They conclude that Sergeant Hing is resistant to Greg’s questions not only because he’s trying to show the good parts of Laramie, but also because he believes that this “sissy boy” doesn’t get Laramie at all.
“[We] live by necessity out here. Make sure he knows that,” Delventhal tells Carrano, reflecting Sergeant Hing’s sternness in a tone opposite of his gentler, friendlier manner of speaking.
“What I saw that was most important about the story,” Delventhal explains in his bright blue office across from the theater, “is that the two communities–one, an artistic community, and one, a community in Wyoming that had survived an awful event that affected everybody in the community–they were both extremely suspicious of each other and extremely judgmental of each other at the beginning of the play. They learn to hear each other and create a relationship.” He looks down, motioning with his hands, he says “And that, for me, was always the most attractive thing about the text.”
Delventhal selected the play for one of the three productions the department produces each season—a cutting edge piece, a period piece, and an American classic. When he suggested Laramie as an American classic, others in the department were initially skeptical, claiming the play was both too recent and too dated. Delventhal continued to push for the play not only for its theatrical importance, but also for its timeliness due to the recent presidential election and its backlash.
“The notion of two communities learning to listen to each other is more important than ever because—” Delventhal stammers for a few seconds, holds his head in his hands and urgently pushes out his thoughts. “I have no idea how we’re going to move forward as a country, how we could listen to each other when we’re so divided.”
As Carrano’s detective finishes establishing his definition of Laramie, he is followed by beanie–capped senior Simone Brown as rancher Eileen Engen. Eileen’s definition of Laramie is “to take care of your land and do everything that you can to improve it.” A simple statement, but Delventhal helps Brown realize that it’s more aggressive. Taking on the spirit of Eileen, Delventhal, cutting the air with a firm finger, says, “We’re biblical. We’re about stewardship.”
Though only one Tectonic member has been portrayed so far, the distance between the theater company and the residents of Laramie is palpable. However, the actors themselves are very connected within the production’s framework. The actors perform with a confidence and energy that moves from one to the other. This is especially important for CCSU’s Theater program, as well as Delventhal’s vision for the seventy-character play.
“I decided that for us to work on it and to have the beauty that is in this show that I needed it to be more of an ensemble piece because that is what our program is about,” Delventhal explains. “It’s about building ensemble.” He begins to speak with his hands again, fingers curled as if he’s physically holding the idea he’s about to share.
“So, I had this idea that really expresses the important themes of the play, and that is that everyone in this ensemble is a single organism [where] divisions from person to person are an illusion.” Delventhal moves his hands as if he’s bringing the world together, “that we are actually, all of us, all people, all humans on earth, are part of a larger organism.”
Emotion plays a key role in portraying this “organism” and its reenactment of the Shepard story. Each member grows attached to their characters as the story develops. Even so, they face darker moments. Along with the pain of Shepard’s death and its small ripples coursing through Laramie, the ensemble faces who they are, as individuals, and as part of the “organism.”
Carrano, as Sergeant Hing, continues working to promote the good in Laramie—until he has no choice but to bring up Matthew Shepard. Sergeant Hing remembers showing the beautiful field where Matthew was found to a reporter played by curly-haired sophomore Kendra Garnett. The reporter, almost irritated by nature, asks impatiently who found Matthew. Hing thinks she’s missing the point of the nature around her by only caring about Shepard’s story.
This definitive moment ends with University of Wyoming student, Jedadiah Schultz, played by Kyle Riedinger. Riedinger’s Jedadiah defines Laramie before and after Matthew Shepard: a town where “everyone knows everyone” has become a town “defined by an accident, a crime.”
“We’ve become Waco. We’ve become Jasper,” he bemoans, looking to the empty seats to share the suffering Laramie is going through.
It is with this pain and doubt that Delventhal is building the show’s core.
“[It] seems to me that for the actors to do full justice to the show, that they have to find Matthew in their own hearts,” Delventhal says, hand against heart. “So it’s not just research about Matthew, but it’s searching themselves about their own experiences being—what’s the word I want? —being hated, being treated with misunderstanding and brutality. What their own experiences with fear [are] because even before [Matthew] was brutalized, he was living in great fear.”
Delventhal’s voice tightens.
“It took him some time to come out. And even though it’s less problematic nowadays than it was in Tennessee Williams’s day, for example, to be gay, to be out—it’s still very difficult for a lot of people. There’s still all kinds of stigma and prejudice. But we all also experience that kind of stigma and prejudice, and so, again, to try to find that in ourselves, to just remember times that we’ve been misjudged, or hated, or hurt. And to use that to tap in in a more immediate and powerful way: to find Matthew in our hearts.”
The cast takes a ten-minute break before they move to the next moment. The ensemble jokes with each other during the break, and continue laughing into Laramie’s next moments, without any visible division, just like the organism they show onstage. This, according to Delventhal, is “the most important thing that theater has to offer, that the people who work on a show together become in many ways closer than family. And then they share that show with a live audience, so that the show is never the same twice.”
“Back!” the stage manager yells.
“Thank you, Back!” the actors respond in unison. The actors huddle together into the corner of the performance space like a football team. They break back into character. Back into Laramie, Wyoming. At Delventhal’s behest, Riedinger recites his short monologue one more time before the entire ensemble moves on to the next moment.