‘I’m grateful to young people everywhere who still believe in the power of theatre to change hearts and minds’
Here is Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s complete interview with ‘The Laramie Project’ Head Writer and Assistant Director Leigh Fondakowski marking the 20th anniversary of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of the play that opened on February 26, 2000. Fondakowski is a company member with New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project and a Resident Guest Artist at Naropa University in Boulder. Find John Moore’s full retrospective on the 20th anniversary of “The Laramie Project” at the DCPA NewsCenter:
John Moore: What shape was the script in when rehearsals for the Denver premiere began in January 2000?
Leigh Fondakowski: When we arrived in Denver, the play was not yet finished. It had only two acts then. (Director) Moisés Kaufman wasn’t sure the audience could sit through a three-act play with such challenging subject matter. It was through the rehearsal process that we discovered that the third act should revolve around the trials of the two perpetrators, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Once the third act was written, the play was very long, so cuts had to be made. Moments were shifting, and the order of scenes kept changing all through previews. On opening night, the play was still new, even to the performers. I don’t remember the play ever being “locked” in Denver, even after opening.
John Moore: But you had eight actors playing 60 characters. How did they chart the changes?
Leigh Fondakowski: Stage Management at the Denver Center made these very large poster boards with the present order of the show on them and posted them in the wings. The actors would be running off-stage doing their costume quick-changes and looking at the poster boards to know which scene came next. It was harrowing, but also exciting in its own way. The play was truly a work-in-progress that was constructed collaboratively. We were all weighing in on the content, but the final editor or auditor was the audience. The audience in Denver became our final collaborator: How they responded to the play directly impacted how we ultimately finished it.
“I was forever changed as an artist because of Donovan Marley’s commitment to us.” – Leigh Fondakowski
John Moore: What are your thoughts on how this very hastily arranged partnership with the Denver Center worked out?
Leigh Fondakowski: One of the things that is essential to talk about on this anniversary is (then-Denver Center Artistic Director) Donovan Marley’s artistic and ethical clarity to invite us to premiere the play in Denver before it was even finished! He had read an early draft and said: “We must premiere this because we have an obligation to do so given that we are the closest regional theater to where this happened. He displayed a quality of leadership that was quite remarkable. He didn’t think about the commercial viability of the play or the size of the cast or the risk in an untried work – or maybe he did, and did it anyway. I was forever changed as an artist because of his commitment to us. He said to us: “I trust you to tell this story, even though you haven’t proven it yet all the way.” It was a remarkable show of trust in us. That was an empowering moment that compelled us to make our highest and best work. Every artist wants their work to matter in the world. Donovan said: “It already does matter.” Artists need institutions to believe in them and support them to make the big social plays that matter.
John Moore: Did you know then that you were onto something that was going to change the face of the American theatre?
Leigh Fondakowski: We had no idea the play would have a life beyond the original company who made it. In fact, the run in New York that followed our time in Denver was not commercially successful. We thought only the actors who did the interviews would ever perform the play. Amateur productions started popping up, but it was a slow burn. Then more and more colleges did the play, then high schools. There was a groundswell. This play was needed. This play became a way for theatre companies and students everywhere to talk about homophobia in the places that they lived. The play gave young people an opportunity to be brave and to put art in the world that went against the status quo, to stand up to the status quo and say, “This is wrong.”
Video bonus: Scenes from the 2000 world-premiere staging in Denver
John Moore: How did those first Denver audiences respond to the play?
Leigh Fondakowski: They responded respectfully and positively. There wasn’t a backlash for making an empathic play about a queer young person. Remember, this was not the world we live in now in terms of gay representation on stage and in the media and in the world as a whole. We weren’t sure the audiences in the West wouldn’t be homophobic and reject the play on the basis of their morality or religion. The audiences responded with the kind of dignity that elevated the story and uplifted the narrative to an almost iconic status: This was the story of an American town. Denver audiences were, in some ways, like the town of Laramie, so their response was important to us. I remember feeling relieved and very moved that they listened, that they cared, that they were engaged. Matthew’s story was legitimized.
John Moore: What did you learn from those Denver audiences moving forward?
Leigh Fondakowski: We had workshopped the show before Denver, but Denver was the first audience that applauded Romaine Patterson, whose “angel” activism at Matthew’s funeral shielded the families from the Fred Phelps protesters. She was portrayed by Kelli Simpkins, who got applause for saying, “This 21-year-old little lesbian is ready to walk the line with him!” Having worked pretty rigorously to convince Moises and the team that Romaine was an important voice in the play, this was particularly thrilling for me.
John Moore: The Laramie Project did not invent interview-based theatre, but it certainly kick-started a new generation of it. How does it feel knowing you all have had such a profound influence on the next generation of theatremakers?
Leigh Fondakowski: We were all very inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Joint Stock, but we knew we were not inventing a form. But we also knew that we were expanding upon it in a way by having the actor who interviewed the person in real life play the characters they had personally met. So that the audience was just one degree of separation from the actual person, and the connective tissue was the empathy of the actor. As theater artists, we are compelled to grow the form, to push at the boundaries of what can happen on stage, so that the theater remains vital and exciting. My body of work after The Laramie Project has been large, ensemble pieces based on interviews. I hope I have continued to expand and grow the form with those works. My projects have all been about tragedies and I think the theater is uniquely positioned to bring beauty into the mix, so that an alchemy of healing can be found between the audience and the actors and the real life people and events upon which the work is based. You can’t undo the tragedy, but you can bring the audience into a positive engagement with the underlying issues that led to it. The Civilians have done amazing work in this area also, and Jessica Blank and Eric Jenson and KJ Sanchez, among others. Marc Wolf’s “Asking and Telling” came out around the same time as The Laramie Project. We were all a part of a growing genre of work. But while we were interested in socially engaged theater, we were not its founders.
John Moore: What was your response when you heard Matthew Shepard’s ashes would be interred in the sacred space of the Washington National Cathedral, such a far cry from the bloody fence he was left to die on?
Leigh Fondakowski: I was working in Colorado at that time, so I couldn’t attend the internment. I watched a live stream of it. I marveled at Rev. Gene Robinson’s eulogy. I felt that, I along with my colleagues had played a small part in history. Matthew’s story remained in the popular imagination for a long time because of The Laramie Project. A lot of incredible healing work has come through our work with The Shepard Foundation, and their tireless advocacy for gay people everywhere. I felt humbled and simultaneously proud. It’s the highest position an artist can find themselves in: Having made a positive impact in the world with their craft, their life force, their creativity. The National Cathedral is where Matthew’s story ends, and yet it is a beginning, too. Matthew’s murder, and the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, were two dark and very low points in our history as a nation. We have come a long way since then. We can measure our progress in very tangible ways, and we can see how far we still have to go in equally tangible ways.
John Moore: What are your memories of Opening Night in Denver on February 26, 2000?
Leigh Fondakowski: My strongest recollection is one of nervous excitement.
John Moore: To me, one remarkable accomplishment of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later was your company member Greg Pierotti getting Aaron McKinney to say: “The night I did it, I did have hatred for homosexuals” and on that night, “Matt Shepard needed killing.” What did it mean to you that from that point on, no one could ever again credibly argue that this was not a hate crime?
Leigh Fondakowski: Greg Pierotti is the bravest man I have ever met. We conducted all of our interviews together in Laramie. The McKinney interview was one that Greg needed to do alone. The conversation he had with McKinney was remarkable on so many levels. I’m not sure that people won’t still argue that this was not a hate crime, especially in this era of “alternative facts.” I do think however, that for generations to come, we have the document, this record, based on Greg’s commitment to the truth, and his courage to sit face-to-face with a murderer and try to better understand him. Why do this? So that humanity as a whole can heal and art can provide the space for that growth and reflection.
John Moore: The murder has been rightfully called a turning point for gay rights in the United States. But what does the statistical reality that hate crimes are on the rise tell you about how far we still have to go?
Leigh Fondakowski: It’s been incredibly moving to see how vital the play has been in the life of so many communities. The downside of this of course, is that the play remains vital, when in fact it should feel historical or outdated by now. The fact that it’s not, and that this could still happen anywhere, at any time – and does, just without the same media attention – is a call for us to not grow complacent. Yes, there have been big, monumental social changes. And yet, in the day-to-day lives of gay, queer, trans and non-binary people, there are still so many ways that we have no legal protection, still remain vulnerable in our own towns and cities, and are still the tip of the spear of the moral judgments of religionists. Visibility in the media is a wonderful advancement, but it can also lead to a false sense that our rights and protections are in place. Women have the same issues. Trans women and Trans women of color have prejudice coming at them from every angle. I’m studying the women’s movement right now for another project, and I read a quote from a woman in the 1970s who said she thought that once sex discrimination was named and then legislated, it would only take a few years to disappear. Then, she changed it to 10 years, then 20, then conceded that it wouldn’t be in her lifetime. I feel similarly with gay rights and the true equality of LGBTQ and non-binary communities. We have language to name the discrimination, and we have some legislation and some protection in place. But it may not be in my lifetime that we are free of violence and discrimination.
John Moore: What, to you, is the ultimate legacy of The Laramie Project?
Leigh Fondakowski: The ultimate legacy of the play is represented in the young people who continue to perform the play each year. They do so with respect for the people who lived the story, with respect for Matthew, and with an idea that they can use this art form as a means of expressing themselves and making changes in their communities. The fact that people still believe in the power of art to solve problems is an amazing thing. The legacy of The Laramie Project is the fundamental belief that art matters in the health and vitality and humanity of society. I was at a production in Washington, D.C., once where a boy came out as gay during the talkback. The audience applauded him, and his life changed forever from that moment. This play created a space for that, Another boy, who couldn’t have even been 15, and who was not gay, played Harry Woods in the most convincing way I had ever seen him played. He stood up and said, “I’m 52 years old, and I’m gay.” Now, there is no other art form that can allow for a 15-year-old boy to convincingly say those words. I’m grateful to the theater as a form that has so much potential, and for the young people everywhere who still believe in the power of theater to change hearts and minds. Theatre does have an important role to play in the important conversations of our time!
John Moore: Final thoughts?
Leigh Fondakowski: Our dear collaborator, John McAdams, played Dennis Shepard. His performance in one of our final rehearsals convinced us all that Dennis had to be a part of the play. We weren’t sure because the play was long and asked a lot of the audience emotionally. Dennis says in his remarks to the court that ended up in the play: “Good is coming out of evil. People have said enough is enough.” John’s performance made it abundantly clear that Dennis’ words needed to be in this play. John died last year of a sudden heart attack. Another Tectonic company member, Barbara Pitts McAdams, lost her husband, and we all lost a dear friend and colleague. Matthew reminds us – and John reminds us, too – that life is precious. We don’t know what difference we will make in the lives of others, or in the life of the theater, or in the life of the society. My prayer is that Dennis’ words turn out to be true in 2020.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. outside of New York by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Leigh Fondakowski was the Head Writer and Assistant Director of The Laramie Project and has been a member of Tectonic Theater Project since 1995. She is an Emmy Award-nominated co-screenwriter for the adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO, and a co-writer of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Other original plays include: The People’s Temple, based on interviews with the survivors of 1978 Jonestown tragedy, which premiered under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theater and received the Will Glickman Award for Best New Play in 2005; I Think I Like Girls, which premiered at Encore Theater in San Francisco and was voted one of the Top 10 plays of 2002 by The Advocate; SPILL, a play and art installation (co-created with visual artist Reeva Wortel) based on interviews with the people of southern Louisiana in the wake of the BP oil disaster; and Casa Cushman, a play about the hidden love between women in the 19th century. She is a Guest Artist at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.