Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Laramie Project: 10 years later

I finally went to my first play in Oregon. Can you believe it took me over a month to figure out where on campus the theatre even is? However, this is not my typical review, but third in my weekly journal series. It is theatre looked at through the lens of student affairs.

Last week I went to "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" produced in the main stage theatre on the OSU campus as a staged reading. This was the follow up to the play The Laramie Project. Both the original Laramie Project and the new epilogue are a very unique theatrical experience. The Laramie Project was produced as a reaction to the tragic death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. He was brutally beaten by two young men and left tied to a fence half dead for four days before he was found, and his death attracted massive national attention to hate crimes, and to the town of Laramie, Wyoming.

OSU was one of over 100 theatres to produce a staged reading of this new play, on October 12, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. The Laramie Project is the intersection of my two passions: theatre and student affairs. Much of the discussion of the Laramie Project is around Matthew Shepard as student at the University of Wyoming. The play raises a lot of questions. How does a university respond to such an enormous tragedy? What does a horrific hate crime do to the perception of a small town and the university housed in it? How do students and professors and community move on? The Laramie Project posed some of these questions. In the days of the media coverage surrounding Matthew Shepard's death, a theatre company went to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews with the people of the town, the local sheriff, professors and students at the university and Matthew Sheppard's friends and family. The play is taken from these interviews, literally from the words of these people. Because of that, it is a very special theatre experience.

"The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" is just what it says. The same theatre company members went back to Laramie and re-interviewed all the people they'd talked to 10 years earlier. Many real life people recur as characters in both plays. The police officer who found Matthew Shepard shares that experience the first time around and in the follow up discusses how dramatically her life was changed by it. A university professor shares her thoughts on the changes in the school itself in the intervening years. In this way, these people feel familiar. We as the audience get to see their journey.

While I've been setting up the context, I think the thing I want to discuss here is how this play impacts college campuses and what the effect of having it preformed on ours might be. A lot of the epilogue discuses the idea that the town of Laramie wants to move on. One of the ways they are doing this is claiming that Matthew Shepard's death was not related to him being gay, but was a truly a robbery. Yet the play shows a variety of view points. It truly does its best to show every person as just that, a real person. In this follow up, the company members were able to interview both of the men serving time for Matthew Shepard's murder. And one of the strengths here, is that neither of these plays are trying to prove anything, no agenda to push other that honest and through investigation of the reaction to a nation tragedy. And the two murderers are not painted as two dimensional criminals, but as troubled young men with a lot of life factors leading them up to one truly terrible act. Nor does the play attempt to exonerate either of them from their actions.

Yet in the interest of moving on from this that has me interested. The play does not go in depth into the university's grieving process, and importantly to my lens here, student affairs role in it. One man interviewed states that he is openly gay, and almost left Laramie because of Matthew Shepard's death. But he met the man who is still his partner at Mathew Shepard's memorial service and the two of them still live in Laramie. He works in a non specified department of student affairs at the university. He called student affairs a safe cocoon and indicated that the rest of the town and the university itself is still not as accepting. This is the root of the discussion, this idea that nothing has changed.

In "10 years later" they discuss the 10 year coverage of the incident in the town's newspaper. An editorial in the paper stated that "Laramie is a town, not a project" and this attitude is reflected through out. Yet how do they move on from something that put them on the map in the worst way possible? What does a new college freshman do, when starting at a new college in a new town, when the only thing people ever know of their home town is this tragedy? The town is ready to move on, but have they healed?

So this brings me back to OSU. An article in the Barometer a few weeks ago stated that we were the only university in the state of Oregon doing this staged reading. While nothing I read indicated any kind of selection process for which theatres could take part in the staged readings, the article expressed disappointment that no other universities in Oregon took part. I'm inclined to think there was some kind of process. Surely more than 100 theatres all over the world, would want to take part in this event. Strictly as a play, the Laramie Project has a lot of prestige. The interview structure is interesting and the play itself is moving. So why are no more theatres involved? A part of me thinks that my alma mater, Puget Sound would have had a huge support for this play if they'd taken part. They didn't, for whatever reason.

The main stage theatre that this happened in at OSU holds 360 people. It was 95 percent full; I was disappointed that there were not more students or faculty or staff or community members interested. Maybe it wasn't well publicized. But maybe people don't remember what happened. Without the play, I wouldn't know. I was 12 years old 11 years ago; I had no idea when it happened. If I hadn't had a chance to see the Laramie Project when I was in college I might have had no interested in seeing this follow up to it. Most of the students at OSU may not have any idea who Matthew Shepard was or what the importance of the Laramie Project is. But is this good and natural, or is it cause for concern?

Maybe it's just that we as a nation are ready to move on. I'm just worried that we are moving on because we don't want to dwell on tragedy, or that we don't remember. I wish that we were moving on because we have recovered, and healed. Laramie just happens to be the place this happened, and this university could be any university. This is why I am concerned that this event didn't get more attention. How can we move on from a tragedy we haven't recognized? Laramie could be any town and that is part of the tragedy of it.

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