Sawyer and Company Banish the Fourth Wall in LAGLC’s Laramie Sequel

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Ann Noble, Elizabeth Herron, Paul Haitkin and Christine Sloane in "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later." Photo by  WIN WIN IMAGING.
Ann Noble, Elizabeth Herron, Paul Haitkin and Christine Sloane in “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” Photo by WIN WIN IMAGING.

The Laramie Project — Ten Years Later is about to receive its first full staging in Los Angeles, produced by the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, opening tonight.

This 2009 docudrama and its predecessor, The Laramie Project (2000) explore ramifications of the savage 1998 murder of gay 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming, at the hands of the two young men convicted of the crime. Created by Moisés Kaufman and members of his New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, the plays explore the heinous crime and its effects on the citizens of Laramie, based on intensive interviews with the townspeople conducted by Kaufman’s ensemble.

The first Laramie play has never been produced at LAGLC. But it has been seen in several Southern California renditions, including the Colony Theatre in Burbank and La Jolla Playhouse. The Chance Theater in Anaheim recently offered an ambitious repertory bill of both Laramie plays.

Jon Imparato and Ken Sawyer
Jon Imparato and Ken Sawyer

However, Jon Imparato — producer of the current LAGLC production and director of cultural arts for the organization — notes that LAGLC was one among more than 150 theater companies across the nation and abroad that produced simultaneous staged readings of the second play when it was publicly unveiled on October 12, 2009.  This was coordinated with a webcam prelude hosted by actress Glenn Close at Lincoln Center in New York , and a post-show webcam Q&A. Imparato notes that Close’s speech was so emotional that the local actors in the wings were crying.

He adds, “I think almost every state in the union was doing a reading. The event was cast very wide, for the actual 10th anniversary date of Matthew’s death. We all had the same script and we were under lock and key not to stray from that as written — no improvising.” He says about 400 people attended his local reading and LAGLC assembled “a wonderful cast — none are in this production, oddly enough, as they are all doing something else.”

The cast for this current staging of Ten Years Later, directed by Ken Sawyer, includes Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten.

Fresh approach

Imparato remarks that this play is generally done very simply, with actors cast as multiple characters seated on eight chairs, rising to speak when their segments come up.  He says the LAGLC production will give the piece “a whole new life that people have not seen.”

Sawyer, who helmed a hit production of Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap at LAGLC last year, says, “When I read it, I was coming off Deathtrap, which was not allowed to reopen for an extended run because it was deemed inappropriate [by managers of Levin’s estate, who objected to the addition of gay content and nudity].

Sawyer says that he read discussions on the surrounding controversy in blogs, and felt it was “really kind of sad” that the show was closing down when it was making money, including funds earmarked for homeless youths. This raised a question in his mind: “Why should there be a divide between what’s onstage and how it affects the community?”

Che Landon and Paul Haitkin
Che Landon and Paul Haitkin

Consequently, when Imparato sent the Laramie script for Sawyer to consider, Sawyer thought it might be very interesting “if there was no real line, that the audience was with the actors and much of the show becomes about how it’s being viewed by an audience. How can we break down that wall?” So Sawyer’s production will obliterate the fourth wall by placing the actors and audience seated all together in the round. He adds, “Everyone is a part of one unit. The actors are in the audience.”

Imparato recalls, “I wanted a new perspective with Laramie, and Ken came up with this vision, which makes it happen. I didn’t want it to be ‘I get up from a chair and I am so and so, and talk and then sit down’. I think what we came up with is going to rock people’s world. It’s very powerful.”

Why part 2 vs. part 1?

Did Imparato consider doing Laramie’s part 1, considering that his company has never produced it? “Not for a second. This is the one to do. And the idea of taking on both or doing them in rep, also no, because you can’t do both the way we are doing this production. This gives a whole new trajectory to the piece.” He also believes “we know that story. We’ve lived through it.  This play is about how a town needs to re-invent an experience for their own survival. It’s almost like folklore.”

Do viewers need to be familiar with the first play to follow the second one? No, says Witten: “This is such a wonderfully specific and well-fleshed out script that I think you can actually have very little knowledge about it and still be very involved and engaged and hopefully moved and provoked.”

Sawyer adds that the script is different from what viewers might expect.  He notes that some might anticipate that doing this piece at the LAGLC could be preaching to the choir. But he predicts that audiences will leave feeling emotions they didn’t expect to feel. Imparato agrees — he’s confident that one of those expected feelings will be “hope. I want to stress that this is not a downer. It’s actually a very beautiful piece about humanity.”

What are the fundamental differences between part 1 and part 2? Sawyer says that Part 1 is very emotional, while part 2 makes you angry. “Yet great strides have been made. We’ve contacted Tectonic and asked, ‘Can we add this [or that] to the play, and they said yes, so it’s constantly sort of living.”

Ann Noble
Ann Noble

Martin concurs. “Judy [Shepard, Matthew’s mother] has said, ‘There’s a weight on our shoulder about making things happen faster.’  And yet here it is — [the progress made in same-sex rights] this year alone.” He observes that part 1 of Laramie is indeed “more emotional because it really dissects the entire four days from the event to the end at the hospital. But part 2 is more provocative because it really is about bigger issues.”

According to Imparato: “The anger that Ken mentions is a beautiful thing.  I want people to be angry, In Julia, Lillian Hellman is being interviewed by Julia and she asks are you angry, and Hellman says ‘I’m angrier’. So Julia says ‘I love your anger. It makes you a better writer.’ It’s true. I think when people come out of this play they should feel angry about what’s happening in the world. And do something, you know.”

Noble sees the anger that might be evoked as a beacon toward possibility — that when people ask why there isn’t more change occurring, they realize maybe they should do something. She elaborates, “It makes me feel I should pay a little more attention, which is hopeful. If I didn’t have hope, I wouldn’t really think about it at all. Go get a gun and end it all. But instead, I really should write a letter.”

The company is finding great satisfaction with the ensemble aspects of this project. According to Sawyer, there are 57 characters in part 2, 15 of whom also appear in part 1. “Regardless of how many actors are in the cast,” Witten remarks, “what roles there are and how many characters each is playing, it’s a beautiful experience. You don’t even think about who plays what. It’s so fluid, and Ken has done such a great job of maneuvering these actors in this tiny little space. It feels like you’re at this really exciting town hall meeting.”

“This is different for me than any other play I’ve ever done,” Sawyer says. “At this point in rehearsal, the audiences are so much a part of what is happening. We learn things by watching people watch the show. It’s like the show is bigger than the box it’s contained in.”

Martin performed in the first Laramie play, at the Colony. He remarks, “I’m gay and I’ve changed my mind about the play like seven times over the course of rehearsals because there’s a lot of new info that is not reliant on the first story.” Yet he believes there are “enough injected dates and facts” from the prior play, that this one can be experienced as a “whole piece by itself.”  He further feels that this is also the case for viewers who might not even know who Shepard was.

Members of the company concur that one would be “surprised” to realize how many people are unfamiliar with the Shepard tragedy. Imparato says, “I want to get as many students here as possible. I was interviewed by two graduate students at UCLA who are doing a thesis on how you do queer theater as social change, and they didn’t know who Matthew Shepard was. And they are 21 years old.”

Carl J. Johnson, Ed F. Martin and Paul Haitkin
Carl J. Johnson, Ed F. Martin and Paul Haitkin

Witten believes it’s more than a generational matter: “I talk to people in their 50s and people who were certainly around when it happened and need a real refresher. So the kind of somewhat collective amnesia is also part of what this play addresses, which is so interesting for all of us who are part of that storytelling.”

Tackling difficult subject matter

The group reflects on the emotional challenges of working with this strong material. Martin remarks, “The more you flesh it out, the more words you hear from all perspectives. I think you find yourself not just crying because Matthew was murdered. There are a lot of things that have to do with bigger themes than the murder of a young boy.”

Noble says that the play is “not sentimental.”

Imparato observes that at the end, he finds himself “crying tears of happiness. It makes me feel…ok, we’re making progress. And also it makes me cry about humanity, It’s about how we as human beings survive the good, the bad and the ugly and the message of tolerance and compassion.”

Noble finds “responsible layers of bearing witness in this — that’s what gets me. It’s like we — as the actors — are bearing witness to a play, the audience is bearing witness to us, and within the play the Tectonic members were bearing witness to Matthew.” She perceives “layer upon layer of just telling a story. That’s where I think the hope comes in. A young man has been murdered, and his legacy goes on. But it only goes on when people talk.”

She recalls watching documentaries about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and observes, “There was this big thing about when survivors start to talk, they knew it was OK to start talking, and that’s when the compassion really started to come in, and the healing. For me this play is all about one person talking to another, sharing a story, and then I turn around and retell it.”

Sawyer recalls reading about a student who had been in the original Tectonic company and had interviewed a Laramie citizen. “He was worried, because he felt ‘how do we know we are going to get the characters right?’ I love what the resident from Laramie said: ‘It’s as much what you are bringing to this, it’s not about imitation’. Because we are doing this production in an environmental way, everybody’s watching everybody else.”  He says when he looks around viewing “wonderful actors” who have committed themselves to the story, “that’s as moving as the story they’re telling.”

Paul Witten and Paul Haitkin
Paul Witten and Paul Haitkin

The actors agree that they feel a responsibility to be true to the piece and they express a goal to get to know the people in it, but not necessarily to imitate them. Noble says, “I can’t be Beth Loffreda. You know it’s Ann putting on glasses. But that’s part of the story. It’s Ann as if I was a college professor, or if I was gay and had witnessed this murder, and now it’s 10 years later. So it’s a different style of acting then I am used to.”

Martin mentions a challenge that the Colony faced when doing the first play in 2001. He says the company did research, which he found more challenging in the early years of YouTube. Yet he concurs with Witten’s view that the current company has done “enough research” — Witten is “not trying to sound like Father Roger [the campus priest at the University of Wyoming at the time of the murder].” Martin asserts that “we are a theater company, not a newspaper. Archives of the original members that we have now are a beautiful gift. But it’s not the most important part of the process. At least it wasn’t for me.”

Noble comments: “When you do a really good imitation, our response is that’s excellent. but if I am telling the story as me, then you go this way.”

Imparato observes: “I don’t think one person in this cast has come to the table not thinking this is more than a play. They feel a responsibility to the language, the word, the history and the retelling. But they all come to it with a sense of purpose — heterosexual actors as well as LGBT actors.

Expected audience

Imparato hopes to attract a diverse crowd to the production. He says, “I don’t care if you are LGBT or not. You can’t experience this play and not be touched or moved by it. It’s going to tap into who you are as a human being. It’s going to make you think a little bit about what it means to be compassionate.”

He believes that compassion also means not judging anybody, including people who do horrific things: “Really good people do really bad things. The other thing is this couldn’t be more timely — relating to things happening in New York City, Maui, Long Beach, Russia. And now with the advances in gay marriage, as with all civil rights gains that have occurred throughout history, there is a backlash.”

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, Davidson/Valentini Theatre, the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood 90038. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through November 16. Tickets: $20-25. www.lagaycenter.org. 323-860-7300.

**All The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later production photos by WIN WIN IMAGING.

Les Spindle

Les Spindle

Les, a freelance arts journalist, served as full-time theater critic/writer at Back Stage for 16 years. Among other outlets he has contributed to are the original print edition of LA STAGE, Frontiers Magazine, IN LA Magazine, Theatermania, and EDGE. He's a BFA graduate in theater arts from the University of New Mexico.