Theater group finds Wyoming town rewriting script

November 11, 2010

Back to Laramie: Theater group finds Wyoming town rewriting script of gay murder

By Howard Shapiro

Inquirer Theater Critic

November 11, 2010

Things are not always better the second time around. That's what members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project found when, after 10 years, they returned as a reporting team to Laramie, Wyo.

A decade ago, their play, The Laramie Project, premiered in Denver and had a healthy life playing across the country, including in Philadelphia. It was seen as a groundbreaker: a documentary for the stage, not for film or TV, in which the actors played both themselves and people in Laramie.

The Laramie Project is a product of group reporting, group playwriting, and finally performance - in this case a look at the heart and soul of Laramie after Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was tortured and murdered there in 1998.

A decade later they went back. What they discovered - people who were revising the story, turning it from a hate crime into something more like a robbery - is part of their follow-up docudrama, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, now touring seven U.S. cities. Tectonic is performing both plays as part of that tour; they'll be presented here by Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Zellerbach Theater, beginning Thursday.

The troupe for both plays (known collectively as The Laramie Residency) includes several members of the original cast - Tectonic founder, director, and writer Moiss Kaufman among them. On Thursday they'll perform The Laramie Project and on Friday, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. On Saturday, they'll present the original play in the afternoon, the full-length epilogue in the evening.

"The big surprise for all of us was how much the narrative had been reconstructed by a lot of the community," said Greg Pierotti, among the researchers and writers on both plays, and an actor in the original and in the update. "It really was being told as a drug deal gone bad or a robbery, rather than as a hate crime."

This was more of an unexpected development for the other interviewers than for Pierotti, who has kept in touch with some of the people he first interviewed for, then wrote into, the play.

"I've been quite in touch," he said, "so I knew some of the things that we were going to encounter. Still, though, the impact hit me once we started talking with people for the project. I was pretty shocked."

And so the Tectonic staff, wondering at the outset how they would define and capture change in a community after 10 years, didn't have to look too deep. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later premiered, in a sense, in October 2009, in simultaneous reading at theaters in the United States and Canada, Spain and Britain, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Israel. The reading in Laramie produced "passionate response," Pierotti said, as the original play did on its premiere.

The original play is, among other things, an exploration of homophobia. Matthew Shepard was 21 when he was attacked after he met two men in a lounge. They offered him a ride in their car, then beat him and tied him to a fence to die.

His murder drew international attention, spurring hate-crime legislation in the United States. The attackers were sentenced to life terms - but not charged with a hate crime, although several witnesses in court called it that, because Wyoming did not have a hate-crime category on the books at the time.

Pierotti, 45, is typical of members of Tectonic, founded in 1991. He joined a few years later, and works with the troupe on some projects, by himself on others, or at times with other members. At Tectonic, plays are built while they are in rehearsal and do not start, generally, from a working script. Two Philadelphia theater companies, Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories, also use that model for most of their work.

"We don't have scenes, we call them moments," Pierotti explained. "The skeleton of the moments is reflected in the text, but the moments grow simultaneously."

For the epilogue, the writers produced a script that was more than a simple skeleton, he said. "But it definitely did not come out looking the way it looked when we came into rehearsals."

He said that during the last 10 years, the Tectonic staff had not planned all along to write an epilogue. "I would put that down entirely to Moiss' creative way of thinking. One of the great things about him is that he always goes a little bit further and a little bit bigger - he said we should write an epilogue. And that was our first intention, to add on 10 or 15 minutes to the first Laramie.

"We gathered a vast amount of material. The picture was so complex. It was pretty obvious as soon as we had the material that we couldn't just turn it into a simple epilogue," Pierotti said. It took on its own form, with its own narrative and conflicts - and evolution as a complete work.

"It's a very fluid thing," Pierotti summed up, "being a member of Tectonic."