Laramie, Wyoming. The very name of the place conjures up the western heartland of wide-open sky, cowboys and Indians, rodeos and gunslingers -- the legacy of the Wild West and the men who ran it. One doesn't really picture feminists, gays, lesbians and black folk inhabiting much friendly space under the big Laramie sky.
In 1998 the brutal slaying of a gay man named Matthew Shepard awoke the conscience of the world to the fact that the old days (and ways) die hard in Laramie -- in fact, they don't die at all.
It took the courage of Venezuelan born director, Moisés Kaufman to undertake the journey from New York City to Laramie, Wyoming, (accompanied by his actors) in order to make a piece of theatre out of this tragedy. In doing so he reinvigorated a form of docudrama that has a special place in the history of the American theatre by way of the Federal Theatre Project plays produced in the 1930s (until its termination by the U.S. Congress in 1939) and seen by hundreds of thousands of theatergoers. This form of social realism called "living newspapers" presented relevant social and economic facts along with first person testimonies while not pretending to flesh out deep character portrayals. Nonetheless, the impact of these plays and the style in which they were presented were both instructive and emotionally stirring given the wide range of subject matter they encompassed.
The Toronto premiere of The Laramie Project marks the debut of a new theatre ensemble named Studio 180 comprised in the main by alumni from the University of Waterloo Department of Drama who are now working professionally. This inaugural production is directed by Joel Greenberg who also heads up the theatre program at U of W (readers of Aisle Say will also know him as my critic-colleague in this space). The confidence of the cast and the general ease of this well mounted production probably speak to the fact that much of the groundwork for building the talented ensemble was done under Greenberg's tutelage during their undergraduate experience.
The Laramie Project has played in numerous regional theatres across the U.S. since its premiere three years ago and has now entered the repertoire of university and high school drama departments. The fact that it has taken so long to come to Toronto only speaks to the generally conservative nature of the theatre community in this city. But let's not look a gift horse in the mouth. With minimal resources at their disposal, Studio 180 shows itself to be an important addition to the scene and good for Professor Greenberg for suggesting such a powerful piece as their first imprint on the local theatrical landscape.
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