The Laramie Project, Documentary Theater & Oral History Performance

In this post, writer, historian, and activist Holly Werner-Thomas explores “verbatim theater” as a medium for disseminating oral histories, reflecting on her son’s recent high school’s performance of The Laramie Project .

By Holly Werner-Thomas

Oral historians don’t always think of the theater as an outlet for their work.

This thought occurred to me last winter when my son, who was a freshman in high school, brought home the script for The Laramie Project, a documentary play developed in 1998 after the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The brutality of the murder focused international attention on homophobia, and eventually led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009.

Playwright and theater director Moisés Kaufman has said that the idea for The Laramie Project originated in his desire to understand Matthew Shepard’s murder, why it happened in Laramie, and how Laramie is both different from and similar to anywhere else in America. He asked the members of his theater company, the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, “What can we as theater artists do as a response to this incident? And, more concretely, is theater a medium that can contribute to the national dialogue on current events?”

In order to answer these questions, he and nine other members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie in November 1998, only four weeks after Matthew Shepard’s murder, “to collect interviews that might become material for a play.” The theater group visited the town several times over two years and collected more than 200 interviews. The Laramie Project debuted in 1999 in Denver at the Denver Center Theatre (the closest regional theater to Laramie), moved to the Union Square Theatre in New York, and by November 2000, staged in Laramie. The play was also published that year and produced off-Broadway, with HBO airing a star-studded film of The Laramie Project in 2002. The play has also been produced internationally – in 2016 in Uganda, for example, where same sex relationships are criminalized – and by more than 400 regional, university, and high school theaters, including, most recently, my son’s high school in Washington, D.C., where he played Harry Woods, a gay 52-year-old Wyoming man, alongside four other roles. (Twenty-one high school cast members played about five roles each.)

The performance impelled me to think about verbatim theater (that is, plays that are constructed verbatim from interviews) from an oral historian’s point of view. It confirmed the suspicion I had that oral historians don’t always think of theater as an outlet for their work, or more specifically, of collaborating with theater producers and writers. And that perhaps they should.

There are exceptions of course. Both scholar E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea and the Living Histories Ensemble of Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, which produced Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and other Human Rights Violations are examples.

Johnson conceived his much-lauded book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History (2008) as an oral history collection, before deciding that “the verbal tics and mannerisms” of the narrators would be best performed. Johnson’s work recalls that of Anna Deavere Smith, who is perhaps best known for her pioneering one-person verbatim play, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992). Yet both Johnson and Deavere Smith are performers and scholars who use oral history methods to compile the stories they want to tell, not academic oral historians who turned to the stage.

Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide and other Human Rights Violations, on the other hand, was organized by Concordia as an oral history project from 2007-2012 in order to record and explore the experiences and memories of refugees and other displaced persons who had settled in Montreal. The resulting performances were “by, for, and about [the] communities” involved—in other words, self-referential.

Since the first production of The Laramie Project nearly 20 years ago, verbatim theater has evolved under the umbrella term documentary theater, which is a form of nonfiction theater that incorporates, but is not limited to, re-creation drawing on interviews. For example, in 2000, the Brooklyn theater company The Civilians, introduced the idea of “investigative theater,” which, according to its mission statement, “brings artists into dynamic engagement with the subject of their work. [This] ethos extends into production, [where we invite] audiences to be active participants in the inquiry before, during, and after the performance.” The Life Jacket Theatre Company’s motto is “Creating Theatre from Real Events,” and its mission is clear: “Through field interviews and archival research, we share real stories about diverse human experiences, particularly those living on the margins — the outsiders, outcasts, and outliers.” In sum, the efforts of documentary theater makers are what one writer in American Theatre magazine called, “a multifaceted attempt to unearth bare truth through theatrical storytelling and engage audiences in meaningful conversation.”

What can academic oral historians learn from these theatrical presentations?

Toward this effort, recent topics in American documentary theater have included: how Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism reverberates through American society today (AYN RAND: Trauma Response) from The Builders Association in Brooklyn; a play about sex offenders in Florida (America is Hard to See) from the Life Jacket Theatre Company; and a play titled Tangles & Plaques from the Neo-Futurists of Chicago that explores dementia and memory. Each of these nonfiction plays relies upon documentary source material, especially interviews, but also court transcripts, newspapers, and journal entries.

People who work in theater have propelled oral history performance, rather than oral historians who have turned to the stage; yet oral historians also want to engage audiences in meaningful conversation. As academics, they attempt to unearth the truth, and to interpret and disseminate it via publication or another public means, such as exhibits or podcasts. What, then, can academic oral historians learn from these theatrical presentations?

There are differences, of course, between the disciplines: theater producers and playwrights consider documentary performance, like all performance, from the vantage point of story first, and sometimes fret over the responsibility of telling others’ real-life stories, while oral historians accept this as a given (Not that we don’t fret!). I argue that at least for oral historians focused on current events or the recent past who desire to spark a dialogue, hold a mirror up to society in an effort to reveal truths, or promote social change, performance represents an opportunity to reach new audiences. The immediacy of the spoken word and the opportunity for deep listening are abundant in theater.

The Laramie Project head writer Leigh Fondakowski’s inscription to the author’s son.

There are lessons for oral historians too, in the willingness of theater makers to experiment with form and style, sometimes by making their processes transparent. For example, in one performance, the director had audience members read from the transcripts onstage. Theater producers and writers also allow themselves to eschew professional and temporal distance. The Laramie Project is an example of how to interview people in crisis: The creators met and spent time with people and were open to listening and learning. Leigh Fondakowski, the head writer of The Laramie Project, said that the first question they always asked was, “What do you love about Laramie?” This endeared them to Laramie residents, and they were invited back. She said the townspeople told the New Yorkers, “you seem like good listeners. Maybe you’ll set the record straight.”

Playwrights and theater producers aren’t waiting for oral historians to conduct the interviews for them, however. Like radio producers who have jumped on podcasting to create serial audio stories, theater makers focused on contemporary issues and making social change through art are doing it for themselves.

Holly Werner-Thomas is a student at Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program. A writer, former journalist, and historian, Holly is from Portland, Oregon, but has lived in New York and Washington, D.C. for several years, as well as in Turkey, Brazil, and France. She has worked as an oral historian for The Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project in conjunction with the University of Southern Mississippi, as Research Director for a historical consulting firm, The History Factory, and as an activist for the pressure group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, where she created an oral history project for gun violence victims and their family members. Her current focus is on gun violence, right-wing extremism, and trailing spouses. 

Featured image “_MG_2177” is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic  (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Flickr user Michael Taggart Photography