Review: The Laramie Project & The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Nov 28 – Dec 8, 2018
Playwrights: Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project
Directors: Carly Fisher, Rosie Niven
Cast: John Michael Burdon, Laura Djanegara, Andrew Hofman, Francisco Lopez, Linda Nicholls-Gidley, Matthew Pritchard, Dominique Purdue, Emily Richardson, Charlotte Tilelli
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
The brutal murder of 21 year-old gay man Matthew Shepard in 1998, endures in our collective memory, partly because of Tectonic Theater Project’s seminal work The Laramie Project. Utilising techniques of verbatim theatre, the group’s exhaustive research and interview processes have resulted in an exceptionally powerful work that confronts homophobia, in a manner that is much more far reaching than its very localised context might suggest. Along with its follow-up The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, both pieces combine to offer a truthful and complex study of hate in communities, examining the way it operates, and reflecting on its disheartening tenacity.

Directed in tandem by Carly Fisher and Rosie Niven, it is a dynamic and stirring staging of the pair of plays, with innovative use of space ensuring optimum poignancy for every pertinent message in this Laramie cycle. Lighting design by Martin Kinnane is particularly effective in regulating dramatic intensity, and proves invaluable in the smooth execution of countless scene transitions.

Performing a very extensive range of roles, is a remarkably cohesive ensemble, including John Michael Burdon and Charlotte Tilelli who leave strong impressions with their varied and often flamboyant approaches to their respective catalogues of personalities. Also memorable are Andrew Hofman and Dominique Purdue who dial up the emotions, in several affecting sequences delivered with complete and unequivocal vulnerability.

It is now twenty years since Matthew Shepard was killed on that fence, in Small Town USA. The imagery is vivid, a sacrificial lamb hanging off a divide, with residents on either side, split by opinion and perspective. In many ways, we have since advanced as peoples, especially in relation to the legislation of LGBTQI protections and marriage equality, but it is clear that our current climate of disunity in the Twitter and Trump era, is quite unprecedented.

In this digital age, we seem to have lost the capacity to think outside of zeros and ones; everything is torn asunder into left and right, love and hate, good and bad. We make enemies much more quickly than ever before, each of us moving around in hunting mode, with voracious appetites, judging people into categories that do nothing other than to amplify our disdain for a perceived adversary. We need to find ways instead, to embrace the other side, if that is what it takes to take us to the realisation, that the other side does not exist at all.

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5 Questions with Laura Djanegara and Francisco Lopez

Laura Djanegara

Francisco Lopez: What do you love most about theatre in Sydney?
Laura Djanegara: I love the incredible array of talented and driven people that there are in the arts in Sydney. There are so many incredible and hardworking people in theatre in all its areas, cast and crew alike, that there is a lot to be inspired by. I also like that there is still a great sense of community in theatre. Back in Perth where I grew up, the theatre world was quite small but they cultivated a strong sense of community in theatre. Even though the industry here is much bigger, in my experience you still often have mutual friends with other theatre makers and that I really like.

What have you found most challenging about working on The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later?
It is a challenge making sure that each of your characters is distinct, especially when they are some that have fewer lines than others. Having clear and differing personalities for so 10+ characters can be tricky. Also, the narrator lines!

What has been your most memorable experience within the LGBTIQ+ community?
I think it would have to be when a dear friend of mine did a performance outlining why he wanted to be able to marry his partner one day. It was before the marriage equality vote and it was such a well written and performed piece that I felt truly positioned to see his point of view. That his love wasn’t wrong and wasn’t there to offend anyone. It was just love. I’d always been for marriage equality because it just makes sense to me but this performance was the first moment it really hit me in the heart. His love for his partner was so beautiful, it really moved me.

What do you wish most for the next generation of LGBTIQ+ Australians?
I wish very much for the next generation of LGBTIQ+ Australians to have acceptance, love and understanding. I was with a friend the other day and someone rolled down their car window to yell obscenities at them because they perceived them to be gay. It made me really angry. I think people have the right to make their own decisions about how they live and love. I wish this next generation doesn’t find it hard to be who they are. I wish for them a sense of belonging.

What can audiences expect to walk away with after seeing The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later?
I think a great sense of compassion and empathy. What I really like about this play is the way it doesn’t shy away from the humanity in it all. You hear from all differing views on what happened and from that you draw a clear view of how divided people can be within themselves. This murder forced people to look on their own views towards homosexuality and acceptance. I don’t think it’s enough to tolerate something – that just means putting up with something you are opposed to. This play focuses on the ‘why’ of the opposition. If it can have that effect on an audience it would be a very important experience

Francisco Lopez

Laura Djanegara: What drew you to this production and why should Sydney audiences see it?
Francisco Lopez: I had never read The Laramie Project. I knew it existed and I had a vague knowledge of Matthew Shepard’s horrific death by a fence. Maybe it sounded too horrific for me to accept; and too recent of an event. After having to fight for marriage equality last year, right here in Australia, I want to keep talking about what is holding us back from true acceptance of the LGBTIQ+ community. The Laramie Project goes beyond branding individuals as homophobes, and studies a whole town’s make up in relation to this tragedy. I invite audiences to see our two plays to remember what any equal rights movement is up against. It’s easy to believe we have made a lot of progress when we examine the horrors of the past, or the atrocities in distant parts of the world. The Laramie Project reminds us of the forces constantly present in our own communities today.

In a show of this nature where you play multiple characters, what has been the biggest challenge for you as an actor?
I play more than ten characters across the two plays, some of them appearing in both plays. There are many challenges that come with stepping into characters of different ages, professions, and belief structures. I think my biggest challenge was understanding that ultimately, these people cannot be too far away from who I am. I don’t have to wear wigs, fake noses or outrageous costumes. I may very well have said the things these people said in different circumstances. And I’m reminded that this play shows audiences just that – that Laramie is not that different from their own communities.

Which character in either play would you most like to act as and why?
I don’t know if it’s just because of the actor playing her (wink, wink, Laura!) – but Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew Shepard, seems like such a bad-ass in the best of ways! She wanted to be a rock star and instead became an activist who inspired so much social change across the USA. She even takes on Fred Phelps in one of the plays!

The shows are set in 1998 and 2008 respectively, what was your life like in 1998 and 2008?
Oof… in 1998 I was in Year 11 at a Catholic school in one of two Victorian electorates that voted No to marriage equality. It was my last year of studying drama, as I went on to study maths and sciences in the pursuit of academic glory. I was good at performing in life – so I had a great time in high school with some beautiful friends. I went on to be school captain and school dux – even if I wasn’t being 100% honest with myself about who I wanted to be. In 2008 I was improving workflows in an emergency department by day, and producing a community television show about Hispanic and Latin American culture by night. I was a very busy young man – and very curious about the world beyond my upbringing. That year I travelled to Dubai, London, Israel and the West Bank.

Describe The Laramie Project in 5 words.
Tragic. Hopeful. Brave. Compassionate. Love.

Laura Djanegara and Francisco Lopez can be seen in The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Dates: 28 Nov – 8 Dec, 2018
Venue: Seymour Centre