Walker’s Laramie Project shows the triumph of community

Clinton Walker, the director brought up from Toronto for The Laramie Project, has made me chili. Little triangles of toasted bread sit next to the bowl.

Walker is staying at the Almost Home Bed and Breakfast, a cute B&B in Valleyview. He’s been here for six weeks now. In some ways, Whitehorse has become another home to him.

He’s learned the bus routes, got a gym pass at the Canada Games Centre, and has been exploring the community, including, just last night, “The 98”.

When he’s in a place for six weeks, it’s important for him to fit in.

“To find a place in the community,” Walker says, “you have to be an open book.

“It’s nice to get away from Toronto. You have to have a shield there. It’s a bombardment of stimuli, info, people — you have to shut down a bit.

“But here, I’m opening myself up, experiencing the community.”

“The other rule of ‘fitting in’,” he tells me, “is that you have to listen.”

Listening is pretty much how the Tectonic Theatre created The Laramie Project. They came to Laramie, Wyoming to listen to the community.

“Essentially,” Walker says, “this play is more the story of a community than a crime.”

The crime is the infamous murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. He was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie.

The play is “documentary theatre”, using the actual words of the interviews themselves, to understand how the community copes with the murder, and with the sudden invasion of media attention.

“This play,” Walker says of the co-production of the Guild Society and the Yukon’s Gay And Lesbian Alliance, “is really not the story of Shepard’s murder. It’s about the community’s reaction.

“The media descended on this town. No stone was left unturned. People were judged, invaded. The media portrayed the town as if it was a pit of intolerance. They had to defend themselves, even as they were trying to figure out where they stood on the crime, even on the issues. Although this play takes a viewer to some dark places, it’s ultimately a story of triumph. It’s about the human spirit repairing itself.”

Walker’s take on the play is very different from past productions in the States: “They always use the buck fence as a prop. I don’t really want to use the iconic images. I want something more fluid, using different, interesting pictures on stage.

“I want to give a sense of continuous movement and connection with this group. I want to try and capture the movement of a community.”

While the play has 80 characters in it, Walker hopes the audience doesn’t sit there trying to keep track of every character.

“We, as theatergoers, we sit down and strive to understand a narrative. If we get confused, we unplug.

“Eight actors are going to play 70 to 80 people. I don’t think anyone should work hard to figure out who is who.

“I’m hoping that everyone just lets the chorus wash over them — some you’ll absorb, some you won’t. Think of it as a community of voices that you’re hearing instead of a series of monologues.”

That’s been a challenge for him as a director, too — to make these monologues just sound natural. He’s had to remind himself, and this talented group of actors, that they can’t be big and dramatic with these monologues.

“They weren’t crafted and rewritten by a clever playwright. People were answering questions, some being interviewed for the first time. It was surreal for them — they were thinking it out — and we talk the way we think.”

Faithful with the recordings of interviews Tectonic Theatre made in Laramie, the script is really a transcript.

“This is what I love about this play,” Walker beams. “Everyone is right in the play. All of them tell the truth. They are very noble — even if what they say wasn’t the popular opinion. I even love the homophobes because they tell the truth.”

Whitehorse, though, seems a very different audience than, say, Laramie or other rural towns in the States. Gays and lesbians have more freedom here. But still, Walker recites a recent hate crime in Toronto: a 28-year-old man beaten up, thrown in the road and run over.

Freedom doesn’t equal respect, or even safety.

In some ways, Whitehorse and Laramie are eerily similar.

Laramie population: 26,687 vs. Whitehorse population: 25,636.

Both rural, both western part of the country, both with a mixture of liberal and conservative beliefs. Both with pockets of intolerance.

“You end up asking yourself, How would our community fare if this happened to us?”

The Laramie Project, and an acompanying exhibit, To Love and Be Loved, shows at the Guild Hall until Feb. 28. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors.

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