Sunday, August 1, 2010

Day 115: In cold blood

Matthew Shephard was a gay, 21 year-old student at the University of Wyoming who, in October of 1998, was abused and then murdered, left tied to a fence in a remote area of Wyoming, near Laramie. He was discovered eighteen hours later by Aaron Kreifels who “intially mistook him for a scarecrow”. Matthew Shephard had been robbed, pistol-whipped and torured and was in a coma when found. He died a few days later.

Matthew Shephard’s murder was considered to be a hate crime motiovated by homophobia, witnesses at the trial stating that the young student was targeted by his killers because he was an homosexual.

‘The Laramie Project‘ is a play by Moisés Kauffman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project who went from New York to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews with the town’s inhabitants, from which they created this moving piece of verbatim theatre in which eight actors play more than sixty parts.

Verbatim theatre, as it’s name suggests, aims to create and construct plays from the words spoken by people about a particular event, often those who were there or played some part in the unfolding of a particular tale. It’s an understatement to say that it’s a very powerful form of theatre.

I saw a production of 'The Laramie Project' at Sydney’s Belvoir Street theatre in 2001, directed by Kate Gaul. The play aimed to piece together the events that took place, using the actual words of the community, now spoken by Australian actors, some considerable distance away from the plains of Wyoming. At the end of the performance, the audience was invited to come down from the raked seating, to step onto the stage and take the time to look in close-up at the backdrop, a mosaic made up of photographs and press clippings from the true-live events of Matthew Shephard’s life and death.

In 2002, a film of The Laramie Project was released, again written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Company members who had conducted those interviews back in the late nineties. The film featured, amongst others, Christina Ricci, Peter Fonda, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo and Amy Madigan; I saw the film at the Sydney Festival eiether that year or the next. Widely praised and received, the film never touched me in the way that the theatre production did.

Maybe it was because the play did only what theatre can so so eloquently and genrously, which is to invite me to use my imagination to conjour up that corner of north-western USA; not too hard for me as I’ve driven across Wyoming and spent time there, first in the idyllic location of Moose, near Jackson Hole in the Grand Teton National Park and then in the more prosaic capital of Cheyenne, not a stone’s throw from Laramie. The film - which I should revisit - was naturally, more naturalistic and did maybe too much of the 'showing' (rather than 'telling') for me.

The Tectonic Theatre Company revisited Laramie in 2008 to “explore how the town had changed in the ten years since Matthew Shephard’s murder”. Apparently, what they found, defied their expectations, the result of which is in a new play that premiered last year; I’ve yet to see the play or read it, but it’s high on my list of things that I must make time for.

Day #115 Tip: A consideration before adaptation
To more prosaic matters of my own, in regards to adaptations, which have been on my mind quite a bit lately: I’ve documented here how I’m pursuing the rights to a famous piece of contemporary material as we speak, I have written four drafts of an adaptation for the screen of a novel, I’ve adapted someone else’s original screenplay and today I’m working on a commissioned response for someone who’s interested in possibly beginning the journey of adapting a true-life incident for the cinema screen (or hiring someone to do that).

Robert McKee said this at one of his seminars I attended, on screen vs stage vs the novel and the vicissitudes of adaptation: “Film is primarily a visual medium; sure we hear music and words but we mainly watch things. Stage is first and foremost the medium of the ear, we are listening to the words and thoughts of the writer; even though there are actors and scenery to look at. And the novel is the province of the mind and thought.”

That rough rule-of-thumb has stood me in great stead when thinking about whether something will resist adaptation or lend itself to the process. I would suggest that’s why I found the stage production of 'The Laramie Project' much more powerful than the film; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and there was nothing to look at to distract me, nowhere to run from my feelings.

I’ve had a stinker of a week, but spending some time today, reflecting on the terribly short life of Matthew Shephard and the noble work of Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Company, I am, very gratefully and humbly inspired.

They too are “hungry”.

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