Archive for October, 2012

The Laramie Project: As True as it Gets

October 24, 2012

Events in the news of late make you wonder what has gone wrong with the human race. There is a production at Evergreen Players/Center Stage right now that attempts to answer that question, and it does so with grace and no small measure of hope. The Laramie Project, directed by Angela Astle and playing through November 11 at Center Stage is a hard-hitting, yet ultimately uplifting portrayal of the events that took place in Laramie, Wyoming on a bitter night in 1998. These events made national and global headlines, and in their wake, a theater project was born.

The play, written by Moises Kaufman in conjunction with the Tectonic Theater Project, presents the buildup to and aftermath of a hate crime against the gay man Matthew Shepard through a gleaming mosaic of human experience. It does this by filtering the story of what happened through the series of interviews that the Tectonic Theater Project conducted in November 1998, just four weeks after the murder occurred. The playwright and company traveled to Laramie at that time, and several times afterward, to meet with dozens of the city’s residents and gather material for a play. The interviews themselves have become the play, and we the audience are witness to the process of coping and reflection, remorse and indignation within the large net of society surrounding this one man in a small, windy university town.

In a mesmerizing metanarration, the real life incident was investigated through interviews, and then, that very process of recording and interviewing has been dramatized into story. This process is so smoothly executed that we are able to lose ourselves in the moments surrounding the incident and forget that it was all shaped by the characters these actors are playing. Amazingly, our disbelief is suspended, and ultimately we come away with a holistic insight into this, and many other tragedies.

Overall, this is a play about humanity, and our own capacity to fear, love, understand and forgive. And in spite of the self-reflective approach, we are not spared the emotional upheaval that was surely felt by the residents of Laramie. In fact, we are gut wrenched right along with them as we are faced with the myriad of points of view. We are exposed not just to our own opinions and feelings about a diminutive, intelligent man being tied to a remote ranch fence for 18 hours after being beaten to a pulp, but also to the powerful beliefs and torment of all those who knew him, and many who didn’t.

The result is transcendent, helping us rise above blame, causality, and reason, higher to a place of pure sadness, compassion, and even hope…when it becomes clear that the tragedy of his death will not be forgotten and will be instead used to carry a message to others that hate be erased, and that more importantly, denial of our own capacity to hate be eliminated so that we may be more able to guide ourselves towards acts of kindness.

The production in Evergreen, Colorado shines without flaw. The staging is stark yet effective, with rows of actors shape shifting into the various characters at rhythmic intervals. There is nothing but humanity on stage, and the fact that the 12 ensemble actors play over 60 parts only adds to our perception that we are all in this together, that, as the character Zubaida Ula tells us, movingly, toward the end of the play, “We need to own this crime. I feel. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this. We ARE like this. WE are LIKE this.”

The Laramie Project might just be one of the most important and profound plays of the 21st century. At its core, this is a story of how one small ranching town copes with an act of cruel bigotry within its borders. But as the university staff, police, bartenders and clergy are all dramatized by the actors, a wise compassion is born from the multitude of perspectives who reflect on what happened. This mosaic effect redefines the idea of shaping true story by shining a light on all of the corners of the case. In the end, no one escapes scrutiny, even Matthew himself.

Especially now, in the wake of the horrible crimes such as the one committed against Jessica Ridgeway this month, it’s time to examine the hate that lies in our hearts and in our society. It is time to face the darkness, in the hopes that we can prevent our own powerlessness against it.
The ensemble performances by Laura Adducci, Hunter Cagle, Tony Catanese, Gregg Dudding Ryan Goold, Devra Keyes, Emma Messenger, Andrea Rabold, Eric Ross, Ellie Schwartz, Max Schwartz, and Marc Stith are all captivating, and utterly convincing. No one actor stands out as more accomplished than any other, as it’s their synergy that makes this work.

This powerful play is only here in our town for three more weekends. It’s a show you won’t want to miss.

The Laramie Project

Evergreen Players/Center Stage

Oct 19 – Nov 11, 2012

Friday at 7:30 pm
Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 2:00 pm

Buy Tickets


How to Achieve Universality in our Writing

October 12, 2012

Whether we are writing fiction, nonfiction, a screenplay or even a poem, the only way to reach people, to create art that matters, is through universality.

Many have claimed that there are only so many stories humanity has to tell, and we just keep telling them over and over again. In his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Polti breaks the entire world of storytelling down to just 36 stories, ranging from “Adultery” (Fatal Attraction) to “Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal” (Ghandi).

We write about a real life experience to get a message across. So first we have to get that message, or theme clear in our minds. Once we’ve done that, how do we create a universal plot and archetypal characters that address that theme?

It’s what civilization has been doing for years. The theme naturally personifies and manifests itself, if we just use our imagination. Our brain naturally makes a story out of a lesson. If we write our story into a three act shape, beginning middle and end, then ask what the moral is, then keep honing and visualizing the story’s shape and sketching out the characters, we can tap into this deep, archetypal, mythic and universal meaning-making capacity. It’s there, in our subconscious, and as long as we can get out of the way, and just allow inspiration and logic to take turns, we can come up with a solid, well written story.

At the same time, we need to immerse ourselves in the genre we are writing, reading and seeing as much as we can of stories that are like ours in some way, so that the patterns become ingrained and our synapses make all the right connections when we put it together on the page.

Joseph Campbell gives us Mythic Structure in The Hero’s Journey, and Robert McKee in Story says “the archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.”

The idea is that we have this ancient meaning-making muscle inside us, a natural inclination and ability to turn life lessons into story, personal growth into parables. But when we are writing about real life, we often get distracted by the minutia of what actually happened. We forget that what actually happened is not the story.

Events, characters and details of what actually happened can be in the story, but these are not the story. The story is the changes and growth, the meaning made, the universal journey on the path of human existence.

That’s the truth that we need to discern, like the wheat from the chaff.