On Sept. 25, the Department of Theatre and Dance brought Andy Paris, founding member of the Tectonic Theatre Project and cast member in the original production of “The Laramie Project,” to Missouri State to facilitate a conversation about the production and its history.
“When I found out Laramie was part of the season, I contacted him immediately to see if he would be willing to come,” Sarah Wiggin, associate professor of theatre and dance, says. According to Wiggin, Paris was a great speaker to bring into the community to promote the public affairs mission.
The history behind “The Laramie Project” is what brought Paris to campus. In October 1988 in Laramie, Wyo., Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, became a victim of assault because of his sexual orientation according to “The Laramie Project” Director Stacy Joyce. He was beaten and tied to a fence in a field and wasn’t found until the next day. Shepard died in the hospital a few days later. Paris is a member of the group, the Tectonic Theatre Project, who conducted more than 200 interviews of people in the town. They discovered the breadth of people’s reactions to what happened to Matthew Shepard, which inspired them to write the play.
Open to students and the public, Paris’s conversation was based on these events and his experiences with the crime. He made it clear that his appearance would not be a lecture, but instead an active question and answer forum where he asked the audience questions too.
Paris also facilitated talk-back discussions after each performance of “The Laramie Project” during opening weekend. These talk-backs were similar to the conversation Paris hosted but the talk-backs also involved the cast of the show. Questions posed by audience members were more about the production of the play rather than its history. Approximately one-third of the house audience stayed for each talk-back according to Wiggin.
Part of Paris’s visit included conducting a 15-hour workshop for students about creating moments in theatre. He based his workshop around how the Tectonic Theatre Project builds theatre, by using moments. The three day workshop began with breaking down theatre into its basic elements so they can be isolated and drawn upon. By isolating the different elements, specific responses are born that can create a moment for the audience.
“He inspired a number of students,” Wiggin adds. “He was very honest and blunt about being an actor and the students respected his honesty.”
The cast for Missouri State’s production of “The Laramie Project” was selected last spring, but actors were not assigned specific roles until this fall, according to Joyce. For the 70 total characters in the play, there are only 14 actors to portray all of the roles. The actors spent the summer becoming experts on Laramie, Wyo., researching the history of the play, the town, what the weather was like, the trial and other aspects of the play. Only after completing the research were the roles finally assigned.
“We didn’t want to put on this really serious hat. We wanted to tell the story so everyone is the hero in their story,” Joyce said. “(The actors) are just responsible for telling the character’s story and letting the story speak for itself.”
Paris’s visit was made possible by a public affairs grant through the Office of Public Affairs as well as by the support from the College of Arts and Letters.
“The public affairs grants look to find guests who will serve above and beyond the department,” Wiggin said. “(Paris) could speak to the community at large and showed how theatre could create a dialogue with the community. He fits into the ethical leadership part of the public affairs mission.”