“Say It Right, Say It Correct”: Documenting the American West in The Laramie Project
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“Say It Right, Say It Correct”
Documenting the American West in The Laramie Project

Throughout Moisés Kaufman’s documentary play The Laramie Project, the citizens of Laramie express their concern about being “documented” and represented by others.1 Already the focus of intense media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, many of the townspeople depicted in Kaufman’s play are conscious and wary of being portrayed and defined elsewhere. One character—the over-the-top limousine driver Doc O’Connor—admits that “when Hard Copy came and taped me, I taped them at the exact same time … so if they ever do anything funny they better watch their fuckin’ ass” (Kaufman, Laramie 48). Here, Doc reveals an anxiety about being depicted by the outside news media specifically, but he mirrors sentiments that are expressed by other characters about the idea of the play itself. One University of Wyoming student, for instance, finds it “unreal … that a group from New York would be writing a play about Laramie. … You’re gonna be onstage in New York and you’re gonna be acting like you’re us. That’s so weird” (26). Further, when another character is asked how she and others in Laramie will feel about being depicted on stage, she responds, “To show it’s not the hellhole of the earth would be nice, but that is up to how you portray us” (100). Most poignantly, Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic priest who heads the University of Wyoming’s Newman Center and is a central figure in the vigils for Shepard following the attack, implores the Tectonic group, “if you write a play of this … say it right, say it correct. … Just deal with what is true” (66).

Such questions of authenticity and accuracy regarding the depiction of Laramie are ultimately central to the play. To craft The [End Page 199] Laramie Project Kaufman and nine other members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with Laramie locals following Shepard’s death, recording more than two hundred interviews with locals and amassing more than four hundred hours of tape (Baglia 129). The finished play is presented as a verbatim account of these inside conversations, offering a kind of living snapshot of the town and its people through the remarks of more than sixty individuals, as well as the processes and reactions of the Tectonic members themselves. Rather than producing a play “based on” or “inspired by” the events of Matthew Shepard’s death, Kaufman consistently approaches the subject through a documentary technique, where both interviewer and interviewee appear onstage, presenting only the material that was recorded. The actors in the original production play themselves, as well as the individuals with whom they had spoken. Using their journals and recorded exchanges, the actors intermix their own responses to Laramie and its citizens with the words of the townspeople affected by the crime, as well as with those of the media members and activists suddenly in their midst.2

Presented in this documentary fashion, The Laramie Project depicts Kaufman and his company members as deeply concerned with the factual representation of the elements surrounding Matthew Shepard’s murder, and this self-consciousness within the play lends the project credibility as an accurate, au courant portrait of how real people responded to Shepard’s murder and to the heated discussions of homosexuality and homophobic violence that ensued. In the closing moments of the piece, Kaufman even echoes Father Schmit’s injunction to “say it right” again as a kind of coda; it both reminds the departing playwrights within the play of their responsibility to tell a true story, and implies to the audience watching that they have now done just that (100).3

From the work’s premiere at the Denver Center Theater in February 2000, and again in May 2000 at the Union Square Theater in New York City, The Laramie Project’s apparent commitment to accuracy has contributed to the power and popularity of the play and has made it the primary cultural artifact of an event that has become...