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Stateside with Rosalea: The Laramie Project

The Laramie Project

By Rosalea Barker In San Francisco

There is no way into this story but to call it what it is. You may have read about 'The Laramie Project' - TIME magazine described it as "a pioneering work... a powerful stage event" and the New York Times called it "Extraordinary." Its West Coast premiere season has just been extended by a fortnight here at Berkeley Rep, and last Monday night I went to see a discussion between a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism and three of the play's cast, as part of Rep's 'From Page to Stage' series.

I haven't seen the play. The first I heard of it was at 'Articles of Faith', the play I'd seen in Vancouver about same sex unions. The writer of a hate webpage quoted verbatim in 'Articles' sincerely hoped that Matthew Shepard - the student who was found savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 - would suffer for eternity in the fires of hell for being a homosexual. In discussion afterwards, several people in the audience referred to the way 'The Laramie Project' had been an effective counterpoint to that attitude.

'Articles of Faith', like 'The Laramie Project', had been created from interviews with people who'd been at the heart of the event it sought to explore. Much larger in its scope, 'The Laramie Project' was the result of workshopping material gleaned from 800 hours of interviews members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted with the residents of Laramie, a town of 27,000 people. In June's 'Performing Arts Magazine', cast member Amanda Gronich explained that after the second set of interviews it was obvious the play would centre on the town, saying: "Where we could really make a piece of impact and importance was in sort of chronicling our impressions of the town of Laramie over the year that we followed them."

Amanda was one of the cast participating in the discussion on Monday night, along with John McAdams and Kelli Simpkins. The moderator was the former editor in chief of 'Mother Jones' magazine, Douglas Foster, who kicked things off by alluding to the title of the discussion - Surviving the Media - and pointing out that you can take any reported calamity in any place, go in the next day and find that everyone agrees on one thing - the media got it wrong. Lamenting the "backdrop of suspicion" that journalists work under, he also lamented that "a decision some journalist makes under pressure of deadline becomes the frame everyone following works under."

In the case of Laramie, Wyoming, the frame was homophobia. Two of Matthew's friends had done a blitz on news services within days of his death and all the major US media organisations descended on the town, some with a vengeance. One of the people represented in the play is Tiffany, the 22-year-old journalist on the Mormon-owned 'Laramie Boomerang' who found herself acting as stringer to primetime news shows whose anchors she admired immensely. Before.

The project team went in to Laramie one month after Matthew's death and returned a year later to find that many of the people they had interviewed the first time had gone through life-changing processes trying to come to terms with the exposure their town had had. According to one of the cast members, Tiffany started asking herself a lot of personal and ethical questions about what it is to be a journalist, particularly in a small town, and began questioning if she wanted to be one at all. Which prompted Douglas Foster to ask: "What should journalists learn from what happened in Laramie?"

In reply, John McAdams gave the example of how a TV crew found the town drunk slumped out on the road somewhere and asked him what he thought of Matthew's murder, to which the drunk replied: "If he was gay he deserved it." That sound bite was played over and over again, completely misrepresenting and angering the townsfolk. It was an equally life-changing experience for members of the Project to find out just how diverse the attitudes were of the people they were interviewing, having themselves been so badly served by journalists anxious to make the "first rough draft of history" as sensational as possible.

Amanda was blunt in her assessment of the role journalists played in making 'The Laramie Project' possible: "The press was the carcass that I fed upon. I prefaced everything with 'I am not the press.' " Relieved that they weren't going to be snapshotted and soundbitten, and given the time and space and sympathetic ear to say whatever they wanted and needed to say, the people being interviewed were open and honest and earned the respect of the people interviewing them, even if their opinions were diametrically opposite.

Amanda's advice to journalists? "Just get out of the way." She felt they should have the humility to think "I know absolutely nothing" instead of "I have an idea what I'm going to find." Later, in response to an audience plea for her "not to bash the media even if Murdoch HAS stuffed up US journalism", she acknowledged the time constraints journalists have to work under but asked why we can't "all agree just to get the story five days later".

Having heard what an overwhelmingly wonderful experience it had been for the cast to perform TLP for the people of Laramie, one audience member asked Foster how journalists can get the same kind of satisfaction. Having the opportunity to revisit stories is good, he said, but that opportunity doesn't come to those who work on daily newspapers or daily TV and radio bulletins, where most news, of course, is broken to the public. During his time as a daily news reporter, the satisfaction came from "getting it as right as you could as fast as you could; getting to as many right people as fast as possible."

Despite the disservice that was done the town of Laramie by the media branding it as homophobic, the cast agreed that it was "the appropriate quick response". If the media had not portrayed Matthew's death as a hate crime they would have done a far worse thing than just misrepresenting a town. But it took more than a year of hard work by ten or more people to restore the balance, without in any way diminishing the inexcusability of what took place.

For those not able to see TLP on stage, it has been filmed for television by HBO. And for an authentic review of the production, look no further than the woman sitting in the same row as me at the discussion. She asked if I'd seen the play and when I replied that I hadn't, she said: "I have. It's very moving."
Lea Barker

Saturday, 30 June 2001

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