Arts education, at its best, develops empathy and a sense of shared humanity in young performers and young audiences. This fall, I am doubling down on this claim as we undertake our production of The Laramie Project in the Upper School.
There is an old adage in theater that “half of acting is reacting.” Over time, some theater folk have improved upon its wording, so that now we often say: “To truly listen to your scene partner, to be fully present in all you say and do on stage, will in turn engage your audience in deep listening.” When we gather in a theater space, turn off our devices, and darken the lights, what begins is another key feature of theater: catharsis. Catharsis is the shared gathering and release of emotions. It is the shared experience of shedding light on ideas and witnessing them together in real time and space. As many elements of modern life erode these notions of presence, place, and time, live theater is more and more a unique and much needed art form.
Twenty years ago, a group of New York theater artists called the Tectonic Theater Project heard about a hate crime committed against a gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard. Their response is what I consider an act of of radical listening. They traveled across the continent to Laramie, Wyoming, brought notebooks and tape recorders, pulled up chairs, and listened to everyone who would talk to them. They listened to Matthew’s friends. They listened to local residents. They even listened to the friends and loved ones of the men accused of this crime. Their questions were simple: Who was Matthew? How does violence affect survivors? Was Laramie, Wyoming like no place in America, or like every place in America? The play, compiled from their verbatim interviews, shows us a multifaceted look at Laramie at this place and time — not only their pain, anger, and loss, but also their humor and hope. It was a groundbreaking work because it seemed to be saying: Matthew’s story is everyone’s story. Let’s listen together.
Throughout our rehearsal process, I have been moved and impressed by this cast. After a full day of school work, they come ready to think, ready to work, and ready to listen to their peers. Their discussions are charged with curiosity; they have asked important questions about justice, violence, and activism. They have tried to parse not just the unique syntax but the unique psychology of every character they play. They have remarked on the responsibility they feel to, as the character (and real person) Father Roger Schmit says, “Say it correct.”
On Oct. 26, Matthew Shepard was interred at the Washington National Cathedral, a place the New York Times called “a fixture of American politics and religion.” This seems a fitting place to honor his memory; Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, as well as characters in this play, often remark that Matthew knew no strangers. My sincerely held hope is that the work of Dana’s young artists will draw us near and give us a pause in which to remind ourselves of our shared humanity.
Sources: New York Times, Psychology Today, www.matthewshepard.org