Wednesday, March 26, 2014

And all that we can be, not what we are

In which our Diva assembles another inspiration playlist

If you've been around me or my blog long enough, you know I usually put together a playlist for my theatre or film projects, of music that, for whatever reason, strikes the right emotional resonances for my character's journey. With The Laramie Project's ensemble nature -- eight actors playing 60+ people -- I had to approach things a little differently, and came up with a mix that speaks to me of the play as a whole.

Since there have been a number of songs directly inspired by and/or dedicated to Matthew Shepard (at least 61, as collected by JD Doyle at Queer Music Heritage, whom I thank profusely for sharing the fruits of his research online), I could have made multiple CD-length mixes of those alone. Paring them down to the handful that made the cut -- alongside other music that resonates with the play for me -- was a highly subjective process, and I encourage you to check out the whole collection on the QMH page.

In the end, this is what I came up with (click on the title to buy the track and support the artist!):

Randi Driscoll, "What Matters" - Written in 1998 in response to Matthew's death and released as a single to benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Not only is it lovely and haunting in its own right, it spared me the agony of choosing what version of "Amazing Grace" to include.

Meredith Brooks, "Bitch" - Both on her website and in her book The Whole World Was Watching (which would be an amazing read even if I weren't in the midst of interpreting on stage several people in her life), Romaine Patterson describes this as Matt's favorite song and recalls him singing alternative lyrics they made up.

Peggy Lee, "Run For The Roundhouse Nellie" - The closest thing my research could turn up to Marge's "Run  for the roundhouse, Minnie." Either she knew another version of the song (more than possible), or she just substituted her mom's name and it stuck that way in her head.

W.G. Snuffy Walden, "One Will Fall By the Way" - It might seem weird to include a selection from the soundtrack to The Stand, but Matthew's murder coincided with a period when the Sci-Fi Channel seemed to be running the miniseries every two or three months, so it's part of my emotional wallpaper from that time. This track is the fullest realization of a melody that crops up again and again, always underscoring the inextricable tangle of sacrifice and hope. As Tom Cullen might say (and as I can't help thinking of every time I hear Doc O'Connor's "H-O-P-E" speech in The Laramie Project), "M-O-O-N. That spells hope."

Tara MacLean, "Evidence" - I discovered MacLean's album Silence at a record-store listening station (remember those?) in Bozeman, Montana while on a theatre tour in 1997, and the CD was still in heavy rotation in my listening habits when Matthew's murder dominated the news in late 1998. This particular song has always resonated with the event for me.

Melissa Etheridge, "Silent Legacy" - Etheridge actually wrote a song dedicated to Matthew (one of several titled "Scarecrow" in reference to Aaron Kreifels at first mistaking the unconscious Matthew for a scarecrow when he found him), but this raw, heartrending classic was the one that cried out to be included.

Andrew Spice, "Matthew" - One of the songs I discovered through the Queer Music Heritage page that particularly spoke to me.

Colleen Sexton, "Scarecrow" - Another gem from the QMH page. I decided I should really only have one song with this title, and with all respect to the great Melissa, the choice was a pretty easy one.

Elton John, "American Triangle" - I figured I probably shouldn't cross off all the big stars who wrote songs for Matthew. Sir Elton won the toss.

John Denver, "The Eagle and the Hawk" - I grew up on John Denver, and this song in particular feels like home, like my mountains. It was one of the first songs I chose to include, as a representation of the particular Western sense of the land that crops up several times in The Laramie Project. When I read on Romaine Patterson's FAQ that Matthew liked folk music, "John Denver and shit like that," it instantly became the centerpiece of the playlist.

Dashboard Prophets, "Ballad For Dead Friends" - At the time of Matthew's murder, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was already a surprise hit but not yet a game-changing cultural phenomenon. Its soundtrack is a handy source to mine for a bit of the indie-rock sound of the late 90s, and if it seems incongruous with TLP, remember that it's a modern parable of how ordinary people, particularly young people, can work together to save the world.

Indigo Girls, "Galileo" - I don't really have an explanation. It just feels right.

Sarah McLachlan, "Angel" - In honor of Angel Action, and a nod to Matthew's struggles with depression.

Jessica Weiser, "After the Rain" - I think this is my favorite among the many beautiful songs I discovered through the QMH page.

Magdalen Hsu-Li, "Laramie" - Much like The Laramie Project, though in a different way, this one is about the murder rebounding on the town, at least as much as it is about Matthew.

Jewel, "Hands" - "In the end, only kindness matters."

Orchestra of St. Lukes, "After Laramie" - From the HBO film version of TLP.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, "Make Them Hear You" - As much as I love Ragtime (read: a lot), this one wouldn't have occurred to me on my own, but it seemed obvious when I ran across this video about the Ford's Theatre production of TLP and heard it sung at the vigil they held on the 15th anniversary of Matthew's death.

Sarah McLachlan, "Prayer of St Francis" - May we all be instruments of peace.




Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The lights of Laramie

In which our Diva returns to GreenMan Theatre in rather a change of pace

This is probably the latest I've ever blogged about an upcoming show, but that's partly because we have a bit of a compressed rehearsal process before our April 4 opening..

With a play like The Laramie Project, that's a lot of emotion packed into about six weeks.

In the fall of 1998, when Matthew Shepard's horrific murder captured the world's attention, I caught the news coverage in between rehearsals for the production of Macbeth I was directing in Columbus, Ohio. In New York, playwright Mois├ęs Kaufman and company members of his Tectonic Theater Project prepared to travel to Laramie and, ultimately, create a very different narrative from the one constructed by the 24-hour news cycle.

The play is assembled from over 200 interviews with the people of the town, as well as public-record texts and journal entries by company members. That last category of insight, as woven into the show's opening moments, reveals the chroniclers' own prejudices and apprehensions about what kind of people live under the wide high-plains sky. About what kind of welcome they might find.

I can't help chuckling a bit at those passages, but I can't blame them either. They were city-bred strangers, some of them gay, venturing into the relatively small town where a young gay man had just been beaten to death. More than that, they had been inundated with the same media narrative as the rest of the country, the one that turned the romantic literature and folklore of the American West inside-out and hung it up as ironic backdrop to darker truths.

It's a narrative I know all too well, and one that sets my teeth on edge every time it finds its way back onto my TV. Every time the worse angels of human nature manifest themselves somewhere in the vast portion of this continent so often dismissed as "flyover," the old romantic notions are trotted out and tied to the pillory for the mocking, as if no one has ever challenged them before.

Those people over there, far away from us in our enlightened sophistication. There is the stagnant pool where society's diseases fester, the ignorance and hate that infect our world. Those rednecks, hicks, zealots, bigots, so foolish as to be surprised when these terrible things happen there.

As I watched the news from Laramie unfold, my shock and grief at what had been done to Matthew Shepard sat alongside distaste and growing resentment for the way the story was being told.

Yes, I said "resentment," and I chose that very personal word deliberately. From sixth grade until I moved out of my parents' home, I lived in Bennett, Colorado, some two hours south and east of Laramie, with less than a tenth its population. Wikipedia will tell you it was home to "Colorado Spam King" Edward Davison and to the late Tim Samaras of Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers.

It will also tell you, in a single dry paragraph, about Bennett's fifteen minutes of national attention a few years ago, when the elementary school music teacher faced firing for showing her first graders a 30-year-old episode of the PBS series Who's Afraid of Opera? It won't tell you about the most ignorant possible quotes plastered all over the news reports, from people (not all of them even parents) hand-wringing over  the subject matter of Faust as if the kids had seen the entire opera instead of a sanitized excerpt.

It won't tell you how sad I was to read those news reports and be reminded forcefully of a similar kerfuffle the summer before my junior year of high school, when plans to implement a "global education" curriculum were scuttled by the outrage of parents, largely stoked by John Birch Society activists from out of town who turned a public forum about the issue into a circus. Not enough of one to catch national attention, but a Denver news team did drive out to grab a few sound bites. School hadn't started yet, so I think they were just looking for B-roll of the building when the cheerleaders came out of practice and gave them some (as I recall, from my 16-year-old perspective) pretty succinct and cogent comments about the misinformation going around.

When the segment aired that evening, though, the one and only resident who appeared was a woman saying "Well, I think it has a Communistic or a Satanistic background," and the tone of the entire piece was "Look at this backward, benighted town." So when "Operagate" came around years later, and all my arts friends were looking at the coverage and shaking their heads, I didn't much relish the awkwardness of simultaneously standing up for my former hometown and being sad that such reactionary elements can still disrupt everyone's lives there.

Bennett is lucky: It's had its embarrassing media moments, but not because anyone died. The humiliation of Laramie on the world media scene, the painting of an entire community as backward and destructive and rotten, the implication that everyone was as culpable as the actual murderers, shook me on a level I still can't adequately express.

Fear makes monsters, and fear is learned. We learn from our community. There's no disputing that, and no disputing that the vein of fear and hate that made monsters of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson was mined from their families, their community. Their world.

But the "let's all shake our heads at the benighted hicks" narrative places their world somewhere outside our own. It encourages us to believe we're different, to sit back in our self-righteous blue-state complacency and ignore the tar pit of unexamined assumptions and privilege bubbling under the foundations of our own homes.

Kaufman and his colleagues did a brave thing in turning away from that narrative and seeking the truth. The people of Laramie did a brave thing in agreeing to share their truth, with all its awkward pointy angles, with yet another set of strangers with tape recorders. Between them, they created something that isn't easy or tidy, that sometimes presents more questions than it does answers. They created a way to tell the story as it was, and as it continues to be.

In The Laramie Project, Father Roger Schmit, the priest who hosted the first vigil for Matthew Shepard as he lay in intensive care, urges the company members interviewing him to "deal with what is true... You need to do your best to say it correct."

I'm humbled and honored to be part of telling that story.

The Laramie Project runs April 4-13, 2014, at GreenMan Theatre in Elmhurst. Details and ticket information can be found at their website.