So there I was, sat in the local caf enjoying a toasted sandwich and a chat with the wonderfully insightful, Holly Race Roughan, director of one of this year’s MA Shows: The Laramie Project. I was keen to know how this twenty year old American play about the brutal murder of gay man, Matthew Shepard can still bear relevance for us today.
T: Hi Holly. So, The Laramie Project is renowned for its many characters. As you get into the full-swing of rehearsals, what will your process be towards getting the actors to embody such a huge range of characters?
H: The answer at the moment is – I don’t know! But most likely it will be through physicality. The overall framing of the show is very much about Tectonic theatre company rein-acting the Laramie residents, so there doesn’t need to be sense of naturalism like a straight verbatim play would have. Because of that, we haven’t worried about being age or gender specific. Some of the actors are doing a variety of accents, but that’s a personal choice, as they feel like it brings something out of their character. For example, Marc Zayat who is playing the University President of Wyoming is doing an accent from his heritage as he feels that the character reminds him of someone he knows.
T: The Laramie Project is celebrating its 20 Year anniversary, what can this play say to a contemporary audience? Why does it still bear relevance?
H: I think the Laramie Project is about community accountability. It’s a story about two young men who commit an act of hate violence and we watch as the community unravel, respond and come to terms with it. What I’m realising at the moment is that we have to move away from the ‘witch hunt’ model when trying to solve issues in our society. We have to take collective responsibility for our complicity in hate culture. In a very direct way, when I read the play, the ‘Me Too’ campaign came to mind – we are at that point in our society where we go: If we lock up Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark and others, we will have resolved sexism and sexual violence in the theatrical community. But what I’m realising is that we have to answer that question as a collective and realise that we are all complicit in rape culture. The Laramie Project asks the question: What if the real perpetrators of this horrendous crime are not Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, but us as a Culture. I think it’s a metaphor for the turmoil that we’re going through at the moment, whether that’s Islamophobia or gendered violence. The sad truth of it is, twenty years later we’re still seeing homophobic hate acts at that level. Change takes a long time, and this play is depressingly relevant – it asks us to examine us as a wider culture.
T: What research and discussions took place in preparation for this play?
H: This is a really political, discussion-heavy play, so to begin with – partly to shake up my own process, I decided to go down the route of movement, devising and playfulness to try and crack this verbatim piece. However, by the end of the week I hit a brick wall and realised it wasn’t working. As a director, I tend to work from the inside out rather than the outside in, so realised I actually needed to come at it from a discussion point of view. The discussions that have come out of this have been really controversial, and I’m at the age where I have a lot of strong opinions, and that can be a challenge in an ensemble piece as you work out to what extent are you a director, and what extent are you a facilitator. On top of this, I have watched the documentaries, looked at my own life experience and brought in my own work in feminism and activism rather than the specific knowledge of Wyoming in 1998. This piece has to be about the cast, the wider world right now and the audience, so in a way, I don’t want to get too bogged down in research, but have enough to spark inspiration in the rehearsal room.
T: What are you enjoying most about working with our MA students?
H: I think they’re eager and they’re not cynical, and that’s joyful. When you do a one year MA course, you want to make the most of it – squeeze out everything you can get from it. There’s no complacency when doing a one year course. I’ve been knocked out by their enthusiasm – it’s something you don’t always see in professional rehearsal rooms. Another thing I have noticed is that they’re all so different – the thing about MA students is that they still hold onto their individuality and they bring their life experience into their work.
T: What are the main challenges you have faced so far?
H: Verbatim resists anything you put on it, and it works when you keep it simple and really pure – and that can be dull from a director’s perspective. However The Laramie Project does allow a way out because of the way Tectonic Theatre Company places themselves into the narrative. The challenge is – how do you make this theatrical? Another challenge is how to make the political engaging and nuanced rather than binary and simplistic. It’s also very challenging staging a play with seventeen bodies in the space!
Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of The Laramie Project from 4-7 July and BOOK TICKETS HERE.